Known in their native Japan as Ryu ga Gotoku (like a dragon), the Yakuza games have been filling a void for many since their inception back in 2005 on the PlayStation 2. For a multitude of fans they are the next best thing to actually getting that ever elusive final part of the Shenmue trilogy. It takes many of the fundamental gameplay staples of the aforementioned title – action RPG fare such as wandering around, beating up thugs, solving people’s problems and learning new fighting moves etc, but the developers that created the title, Amusement Vision (the in-house Sega of Japan team formerly known as AM4), made an important sidestep and one that would distinguish the series from its more famed older sibling whilst also offering the potential to gain new fans.
The concept turned away from the wholesome tale of a young man seeking answers whilst on the trail of his father’s killer, and instead looked to the world of organized crime for their subject material. With the original’s story penned by famed Japanese yakuza novelist Hase Seishu (writing duties have since been handed over to Masayoshi Yokoyama), the first instalment in the now quadrilogy of games quickly gained attention for its no nonsense approach to story telling. It combined the mini games and upgradeable abilities of the action RPG genre with a dialogue that made scenes text heavy but in a fittingly hard-boiled manner. This strange mixture helped it attain a cult following that allowed for several sequels and one spin off set in feudal Japan. Now, a little over four years after the release of the original Yakuza game, the continuation of the central story makes its full-blooded leap onto the PlayStation 3, with development duties having been handed over to Team CS1 (another of the subsidiary bodies made from the fractured remains of AM4).
The protagonist Kazuma Kiryu has so far trodden a wearying path of honour and betrayal, at the end of which he found himself retiring from the world of criminality and running an orphanage, which is where we meet him at the beginning of this latest instalment. Don’t worry if you’ve no previous experience of the Yakuza series’ story though, as a helpful recap is accessible from the title screen that edits together the cut-scenes from the first two titles into a mini narrative that’s easy to follow.
The best news for fans of the Yakuza games is that Sega have decided to stick with the original Japanese voice acting and merely subtitle it for Western audiences. The thrill of playing the first game on the PlayStation 2 was marred for many thanks to the decision to employ American actors. It may have been an all star cast, but it broke the whole aura of Eastern noir once a central character speaks with the voice of Lex Luther from Smallville: The Early Years, and even Michael Madsen and Mark Hamill couldn’t save it from being roundly (and justifiably) criticised by fans who were eager to play the game with its native language in place.
The push onto the newer generation of consoles has been a little of a mixed affair for Yakuza 3. As is often the norm, the cut-scenes have a level of graphical gloss that is far and above that of the in-game footage. These frequently long interludes have concentrated on recreating facial details such as pores and wrinkles capably, yet the classic static nature of hair that plagues many games detracts somewhat from this accomplished image. Clothes don’t flow, rather sitting on characters like cardboard. It becomes clear quite early on that the close-up tension of character interplay works much better than wide panoramas that show off the game’s biggest graphical problem – that of aliasing. Phone lines in backgrounds on the beach of Okinawa break into chunks as the camera pans and any scene that tries to show too many lines in close proximity, be they curved or straight, will show these up as a shimmer as opposed to stable distinct objects when the camera moves.
The game graphics rendered in a 720p resolution work somewhat better, albeit in a functional and reserved manner. There are a few nice transparency effects and the water of the ocean is naturalistic in its fluidity. This though is what we’ve come to expect from a PlayStation 3 game arriving several years into the console’s life cycle. The sounds in Dolby Digital are wonderfully sharp and complement the action well, with neat flourishes signifying the start and end of a fight. Yakuza 3 doesn’t do much that is truly stunning when compared to AAA titles, but it presents what is there in a functional manner, with an equal amount of adept and flawed graphical touches to even things out.
Before we can even enter into the world of Japanese criminal organizations, we are corralled into a 5 gigabyte mandatory install. Hardly ideal, but an all too frequent and necessary occurrence with PlayStation 3 games these days, so it’s hard to hold it against Sega in particular.
The core aspects of the gameplay are split into several distinct areas, each of which has little to do with the rest and the control schemes are new and unique for every one. This plethora of activities that lays before you can be a little overwhelming to start with, as the more you explore the more you are bombarded with snapshot tutorials regarding tasks that range from the mundane to the ridiculous. This though is what could be regarded as a social-action-RPG in the same mould as Shenmue. You are free to engage in the 100 side stories as little or as much as you like. The option is always open for you to walk away from the central plot and while away a few hours in a gambling den or singing karaoke. In this sense the pacing of the game is very much in your own hands. If you feel sick of fighting, take some time and explore the city, slow the tempo down to your own liking and help passers-by who may be in need of assistance.
This ability to move through the experience at your own pace is certainly refreshing, but not every aspect of the pacing is at your command. The early hours in the world of Yakuza 3 can drag on, being weighed down under the huge amount of mundane chores you find falling at your feet. Now that Kazuma Kiryu is no longer the "Dragon of Dojima", his time running the Sunflower Orphanage in Okinawa is filled with sorting out bullying, finding lost dogs and choosing children’s clothes. It can seem more like a kooky Japanese lifestyle game than an action RPG at times, but stick with it and thankfully you are soon rewarded with more substance.
In between the Kindergarten Cop routine of babysitting there are a few bloody encounters that remind you quite why the series has reached a fourth title in a little over four years. Fighting is the central tenet of the gameplay and the one which holds most variation. Unsurprisingly for a Sega game, the controls have been created around a simple layout, which contains a wealth of combinations and techniques to master. The Square button is your basic attack, with Triangle being the more powerful but slightly more delayed variety. A quick rapping of these two in varying sequences will give you your core punch-punch-kick combo. Pressing Circle enables Kiryu to grapple with a nearby enemy, whilst L1 as a guard and R1 to lock on/strafe finishes the control scheme.
The real variation begins once the story progresses, you defeat a few of the tougher opponents, and meet one of the “master” characters. These elderly gentlemen offer to teach you new techniques if you can defeat them in combat. Up to the point where you first encounter one such chap, you may be labouring under the false impression that a button bashing approach will eventually reap rewards against any opponent who crosses your path. Not so.
Considering you will fight each boss only once (assuming you defeat them), there is actually a great deal of variation to the attack speed, style and approach of the enemies. Some favour strafing and timed attacks, others opt for head-on heavy strikes, so it takes a few moments of any boss fight to gauge just what the patterns are and when you should make your move.
It isn’t just the player’s skill that dictates the winners of fights though, as the RPG side of the game raises its head thanks to upgrades. A selection of attributes can be boosted and new moves learnt in the categories of Soul, Technique, Body and Essence via the acquiring and spending of experience points (XP). You can’t really tailor Kazuma into anything approaching an individual that might be considered different to the one found in a friend’s save game, but you can concentrate on particular aspects of your fighting style more than others if you have no plan to max everything out.
As with any role-play game, the amassing of XP is key to progression. You’ll earn XP with just about every action, from fighting punks to eating noodles, but obviously the amounts will vary. There are a total of 100 side stories to investigate and following these through to their conclusion will likely double your playing time. This shows up a slight imbalance in the structure, as the emphasis of the early hours, which was very firmly placed upon the social RPG elements, quickly disperses as you realise that fighting will be the only real way to gain serious amounts of XP in a decent time frame. Far from wanting to help a child that’s being bullied, the temptation is just to roam the streets waiting for someone to take exception to your face. This is something that happens with either satisfying, or annoying frequency depending upon your outlook.
They are not random battles, and you can see the yazuka/punks/gang members loitering looking for someone to pick on, but when you’re on an errand and in a busy street it is all too easy to bump into a character determined to start a conflict. I can see that there will be those who find these instances a chore when occurring with any great frequency, but it is essential fodder for any action RPG, and one I dare say the majority will continue to find satisfaction in throughout their playing time.
If you are of the more pacifistic persuasion, there is still much to enjoy between the plotline encounters. Many fans have decried the loss of a few key staples of the series such as the ability to play mah jong and the strange hostess managing mini-game, but Sega have still left more than enough for those who take the yakuza series less seriously. Fishing on the beach, pool, darts, karaoke, golf, bowling, gambling – all are available to partake in at any time of your choosing. The results range, from the disappointing to the downright addictive, with control scheme the defining factor.
It must have been hard for the developers to come up with intuitive ways to play this myriad of games without having to bore players with the same tutorials time and again. Luckily, for the most part they appear to have succeeded, with fishing and golf two prime examples of simple control methods that allow for an addictive mini-game. The story may be driven by the conflicts and fighting mechanics, but an equal amount of time can easily be spent elsewhere thanks to the wide variety of pastimes open to Kazuma.
Yakuza 3 is a strange beast, and one I’d categorise as distinctly Japanese in flavour. The series has gained a cult following in the West due to the curiosities that are its mini-games and the odd mixture they create when combined with the main storyline’s hard boiled atmosphere. This latest instalment, despite the loss of a couple of the more interesting and oddball (and therefore much loved by fans) mini-games, continues with this recipe for success.
The fighting is classic street brawler material, evoking the best elements of period fare such as Final Fight and more recently Sega’s own Die Hard Arcade. Waves of multiple enemies are beaten by way of fists, feet and any object that comes to hand, and this simplicity of core gameplay doesn’t seem to age.
It may lack a little in the way of graphical gloss, but the sound presentation is robust, drawing you into each encounter with fresh verve as the introductory “vs.” screen is accompanied by a pounding beat. Throw in enough distractions dotted around the cities to fill out your gaming time and it becomes a title that has a surprising amount of longevity attached. It may be possible to tear through Okinawa and Tokyo in somewhere just over ten hours, but you’d be missing so much along the way that I’d dare say this isn’t the game for you. Yakuza 3 is still a release with niche appeal and thankfully this hasn’t changed with the leap to the PlayStation 3. Equal parts thrilling action and oddball kitsch, yet always fun.
To be this good takes AGES
- Simple yet addictive fight mechanics
- 100 side stories
- A plethora of mini-games
- Original Japanese voice-acting cast
This mandatory install is taking ages!
- Repetition of enemies
- Lacks anti-aliasing
Yakuza 3 PS3 Review
Ever the niche title, Yakuza 3 is another solid entry that will help build the franchises loyal following in the West. Locations to explore and the distractions they offer have always been the backbone of the series, whilst the arcade combat is simple, no-frills thuggery in the best tradition of games of old. It's still an acquired taste, and it probably needs a host of new ideas (particularly ones that won't get cut in foreign releases), but the beat-em-up essence and sneering humour make it almost unique in the present market.
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