It may not be huge in the West, but the Yakuza series may be the only proof that Sega, a company whose recent successes are mostly from publishing other people's games, can still create something worthwhile. Yakuza 3 once again brings a gangster storyline and classic beat 'em up action together with open-world and RPG elements. The result is a uniquely Japanese videogame with a lot to offer.
You may not have heard of him, but Kazuma Kiryu is one of the toughest dudes in videogames today. Whether it's a personal beef, a power struggle between gangs, or an international conspiracy, odds are he can put things right with his fists. Despite being affiliated with a criminal organization, Kazuma is definitely one of the good guys.
Players new to the series may be surprised to find him running an orphanage from the very start of the game. But you soon find out that this guy deals out life lessons and savage beatings in more or less equal measure, maybe leaning just a little more toward the beatings. Other main characters help add depth and some moral grey area to the story, like the psychotically violent but ultimately likable Majima.
The plot goes for a bit of everything, with scenes that range from heartwarming to melodramatic to hard-edged. It's a bit of a weird mix, but the longer you're immersed in its world, the more engaging it gets. You'll occasionally have to digest an encyclopedia's worth of exposition at once, but you also get the chance to get to know the large cast of characters, which ultimately makes it worth your while to see the game through to the end.
The Yakuza series is sometimes referred to as the Japanese Grand Theft Auto. While Yakuza 3 is a lot closer to an action-RPG in terms of gameplay, and a lot of the similarities are superficial, one key comparison stands out. Like GTA, this game's greatest draw isn't living out an interactive crime story, but the freedom to explore and simply mess around in an open city-space that feels genuinely real.
Actually, it's two cities, with a fictionalized chunk of Tokyo and a smaller, more laid back setting in Okinawa. Following the game's story will take you between both locales, but you'll find a lot more action if you go looking for it. Side-missions, mini-games, and other chances to interact with the world make it easy and enjoyable to slip into the role of virtual tourist. Not every activity is actually worth doing, but it's great to have so many options.
If you check the actual numbers, the sheer number of things to do is almost ridiculous. A normal player won't get anywhere close to 100 percent completion, but that's okay. The sheer bulk of content creates a rich setting, and realizing that there's more out there than you'll be able to do can actually be a relief to anyone who isn't a hardcore completionist. If you're able to completely ignore the side content, you might clear the game in around 20 hours, but expect an average playthrough to run closer to 30.
In densely populated urban centers, it just doesn't make much sense to drive a car. The advantage of hoofing it everywhere you go is that you'll naturally come across interesting people, events, or maybe even a collectible coin locker key as you're making your way from point A to point B. The downside is that something about the main character sets off every street punk and gang member he comes across.
It's essentially the action equivalent of random encounters. Despite being the hardest looking man on the street, you're constantly accosted by irate individuals who think they can take you down. They're vastly overestimating their chances--the reforming power of Kiryu's fists of justice is such that humbled foes will profusely apologize and even give him gifts to make up for their transgressions against justice.
You'll beat lessons into these hapless goons with combo attacks, following up a chain of weak hits with a few power hits with different results. The fighting isn't especially deep and technical, but it is fun. Various weapons, throws, and dodges manage to keep things interesting, but it's the brutal special attacks that keep the constant fights from getting boring.
Kazuma's special attacks make sure that enemies go down and stay down. You learn these techniques by leveling up your various attributes, reading books, or even through revelations after capturing bizarre events on your cell phone. A glowing meter indicates your fighting spirit, and when you start to glow, you can slam on the triangle button to trade in that power to inflict some serious pain.
It's always tempting to cash in your spirit, but fighting with a full heat meter makes you more effective and much harder to knock down, so deciding when to hold it and when to go all out with a finishing attack becomes an interesting and important decision, particularly when you're going toe to toe with boss characters that actually pose a threat.
Of course, you won't make much progress in the game without exploring your environment and talking to people. Initiating a conversation will often lead to more fighting, but at certain points in the game, you'll find yourself running around like a message boy in order to get the plot moving. Things drag from time to time, but if you suffer through the talking heads and copious orphan drama, you'll always be rewarded with a more interesting development.
The naturalistic style of the game's characters and the thousands of different visual elements that make the virtual cities actually feel like cities--including huge crowds of people--make the most of technology that honestly feels pretty far from the cutting edge. The Japanese voice acting and subtitles feel authentic and seem to convey the intended tone. Environmental sounds do their part to bring the city to life, appropriate mood music accompanies cinematic moments, and guitar rock provides a bridge into action scenes. Yakuza 3 isn't much of a show-off, but it does succeed in maintaining its integrity.
The game's depiction of violence deserves a special mention. Walking the fine line between horrifyingly realistic and comically over the top, witnessing a fight in Yakuza 3 will get some sort of reaction out of you.
Yakuza 3 brings together enough different gameplay styles that it's more or less pointless to assign it to one particular genre. It's the way it combines these individual parts and invests you in its world that really matters. Brutal fighting carried out by a character that constantly grows more powerful, a solid story that succeeds in involving you despite sentimentality and silliness, and exceptionally well-realized environments make Yakuza 3 a powerful experience that simply could not exist outside of videogames.
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3.