The almost criminally badly translated Yakuza series hopefully gets a bit of an extra life here in the West when it now takes a step over to the Playstation 3. The franchise debuted in 2005 on the Playstation 2, and was a gigantic success for Sega in Japan. It was not as well received over here, despite good reviews. The many odd Japanese elements together with the heavy focus on a dramatic story probably scared away a lot of people.
But I cross my fingers that more people give the series another chance in Yakuza 3. Again we meet the gangster Kazuma Kiryu who now has grown tired of the Mafia life. He has turned his back on the Yakuza-intrigues in Tokyo and taken his adoptive daughter to Okinawa, Japan's answer to the Canary Islands. Here he has started an orphanage and a new and better life as a more law-abiding citizen. But political intrigue on the holidayesque island soon leads to conflicts with local landowners and the mafia, and Kazuma must once again use his fists to dish out some justice.
By moving the action to Okinawa and starting up a brand new story, Sega makes it possible for new players to more easily jump into the series. You do not have to played the previous games to get any pleasure out of Yakuza 3 and you if you really want to know Kazuma's background story the game comes with a couple of lengthy films detailing exactly what happened in the first two games.
Many have called the Yakuza-games the spiritual sequels to Shenmue, and I must say that I agree with that comparison. As Kazuma Kiryu I spend a lot of time strolling around, exploring the huge urban areas. And the graphics are impressive. The cityscapes look realistic, right down to the power cables, advertising signs, window displays in stores and the crowds. If you can't afford a trip to Japan, this is as close as you'll get from just playing a game. It is simply a delight to walk around and explore the areas and I never get tired of discovering all the small details that spice up the environments.
Unfortunately, the graphics of the locals aren't as good as those of the backgrounds. Where games like Heavy Rain and Assassin's Creed have both done a great job at simulating the physical sensation of moving through a crowd, Sega has thrown those physics overboard. There are certainly some involuntary ridiculous moment when Kazuma runs through the crowds that scatter like bowling pins, and I wish Sega had used a little more time on this part of the game. If they had, immersion would have been much more complete.
Between the exploration there's a lot of fights. I hope the game does not give an accurate picture of crime in Japan, because Kazuma meets up with troublemakers on more or less every street corner. Most of them are actively looking to get punched in the face and Kazuma happily obliges.
The combat system is the backbone of the Yakuza-games, and the third game builds on the previous games' solid mechanics. As usual, you fight alone against multiple opponents, and it works a bit like Tekken. Ok, it does not have the same spectacular movements as Namco's classic fighting games, but it scores high on brutality and feels a lot rougher than anything else I have played in the fighting genre. Kazuma packs quite the punch and especially the brutal special attacks are almost painful to watch. Blood is everywhere and screams of pain erupt through my speakers, and my girlfriend sometimes have to hide behind a pillow because she thinks it is too violent. But somehow it never topples over the fine line and becomes tasteless in my eyes. We're talking about the Yakuza here, ruthless gangsters without scruples, and the brutal violence has a certain aesthetic quality.
After every fight you get experience points, which can be used to purchase new skills and special moves. The system feels balanced and well made, and variated enough to keep your interest up. I actually look to every new fight, and if nothing else that's quite an impressive feat from Sega.
Yakuza 3 is not only about exploring and fighting. The game includes a whole bunch of mini games, ranging from golf and darts to poker and fishing. Most mini games have a surprisingly high quality, and they work fine as a break in the main story. It's also fun to see how some of them are actually an integrated part of the story, which gives the game even more variety.
The story deserves to be mentioned as well. Crime author Hase Seishu, who wrote the story for the first two games, is no longer involved in the project, but I think that the story still manages to live up to the same level as the previous games. We talking solid political intrigue and you'll get to meet many profound and memorable characters as you progress through the game. The developers have spent a lot of time to designing them to be as realistic and believable as possible.
Yakuza 3 is the first game in the series to PlayStation 3, and the transition to a next-gen console is mostly seen on the graphical level. The game does come with a few snags that the previous games had as well, which stops me from giving it a 9/10 score. Most annoying is probably that a lot of the dialogue takes place through text boxes. It feels like a strange blast from the past, and stands in stark contrast to the many voiced and dramatic conversations in the game. But the game feels a little old-fashioned in other areas too, animations are not always top-notch, and controlling the camera can get a bit tricky; especially indoors.
But that is really all the picky criticism I have against the game. Yakuza 3 is something as rare as a realistic Japanese drama game with strong elements of both RPG and fighting. A blissful blend of role-playing game, action game, adventure game and social soap opera. It has depth, charm, and many memorable events and characters. Highly recommended to anyone who wants a Japanese game that offers something more than androgynous boys with amnesia.