Whilst I don’t exactly regret having a Nintendo fetish; it does mean that over the years I’ve missed out on experiencing some well-known titles during the PSone and PStwo eras. The reason I’m mentioning this is to let you know ahead of time that I have not played the original Yakuza or Yakuza 2. Luckily for me Sega were kind enough to put many of the previous games’ cut scenes on the Yakuza 3 disc, this is great way for players new to the series to catch up with the story and characters.
To quote Wikipedia for a moment, the Yakuza are described as ‘members of traditional organized crime syndicates in Japan’. In my mind I consider them to be the Japanese equivalent of the Mafia or Mob. To keep things simple let’s consider Yakuza the overall brand name for these Japanese gang members; each gang is controlled by different ‘Family’ which is formed of many ‘Clans’ across the country. With so many ‘Families’ in play you can imagine that the rivalry can be pretty extreme to say the least; if Yakuza 3 is anything to go by then I am considering changing one of my lifelong ambitions to visit Japan. Why? Well for starters it appears that without warning, brutal fights seem to burst out between Yakuza members every few minutes in seemingly normal Japanese town centres.
We’ve covered the fact that Yakuza 3 is about the Japanese mafia and that they’re prepared to battle rival Yakuza families and clans anywhere at any time, but what is the game about? You control Kazuma Kiryu, 4th chairman of the Tojo Clan which is part of the Dojima family. I’m not quite sure of the ranking system the Yakuza use but let’s just say the Kazuma is a tough cookie. Seemingly weary of the Yakuza lifestyle, Kazuma decides to make up for the forced errors of his past by running an orphanage for children whose parents have died or been killed in the Yakuza wars. Now like me you could question what social system would allow a mass murdering gang member to look after young children; but don’t forget, we’re not Japanese.
The thing about being a former member of any gang is that you’re never truly out of the game. So whilst Kazuma is enjoying life with his orphans in Okinawa, it just so happens that his own clan are in a bitter war with another for the very land the orphanage is built upon. Kazuma is not the sort of chap to just let someone stroll in and kick his family out; hence he once again has to step back into the Yakuza shoes to start kicking ass. The catch is that one of the men behind the supposed closure of Kazuma’s orphanage is his (supposed) long dead father. Spooky eh.
For the most part Yakuza 3 is a third person action game; Kazuma heads from location to location with the sole intention of saving his orphanage. You’ll explore a mixture of gorgeously recreated areas of Japan as well as fictional ones, now whilst Kazuma doesn’t want to ever start a fight; he doesn’t take too much convincing if the need arises. This is to say that you’ll encounter possibly a few (too many) fight scenes throughout the game, to start with these can be lowly battles with common street thugs but eventually you’ll battle and eliminate other tough family leaders. Whilst for the most part Yakuza 3 feels realistic, the fighting is where things get a little silly. If you can imagine a 3D fighting engine which is a mixture of Streets of Rage and Street Fighter then your halfway there. Typically when a fight begins the area will be closed off either by onlookers or the scenery thus leaving you a smaller arena to battle in. Now it’s time battle with your usual mix of punches, kicks, throws as well as weapons and even random objects from the scenery such as trashcans, bicycles and even furniture. The fighting itself should feel natural to most beat em up fans; combos and special moves can be performed with your usual button bashing combinations. As with many other brawling games repeated successful hits will build a special meter which will unlock super moves; Yakuza 3 is no exception here. Good battling will quickly fill up your ‘heat’ meter which when full makes Kazumi glow blue, thus enabling him to perform an ultra-nasty strike on the opponent.
Sadly for me the extensive and regular fighting in Yakuza 3 is one of the few things I didn’t enjoy in the game. Let’s face it, when push comes to shove the story is a little weak; the thing is when it’s told in a mixture of (lengthy) gorgeous FMV and real time cut scenes that doesn’t really matter as there is certainly more than enough excitement, intrigue and action to keep me entertained. The only aspect to the constant fighting that I enjoyed is the RPG like levelling up of Kazumi with points attained during battle. Oh and you can buy new weapons as well. Apart from that I just couldn’t find anything that great or substantial in the fighting scenes. It’s all so repetitive to the extreme and feels so naff; I can’t be doing with it myself.
Graphically Yakuza 3 is very slick; the environments and character models are very detailed, if it wasn’t for that strange dead eyed waxwork look about the characters then I’d almost go as far as to say there were realistic. If you speak Japanese then the hours of dialogue will be music to your ears, if not then like me you’ll have a lot of subtitle reading to do. This is not a complaint however; having a badly dubbed crew of American actors on top of the Japanese characters would have been pretty bad – at least this way you experience the acting the way it was intended.
Overall I enjoyed Yakuza 3 more than I originally thought I would; the Japanese setting is rather eye pleasing. The Yakuza storyline did make for an interesting change from that of Aliens and Space Marines, seemingly the only thing to come out of Western development studio’s lately. Whilst the fight mechanics are simple and easy to control I found them boring, delaying me crucial time seeing the story develop further. An essential purchase for fans of the other Yakuza games but for me I think I’ll go back to Heavy Rain; a game featuring an equal amount of clever story but fight scenes that use a bit of thought and don’t go on forever. 6 out of 10.
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Related: Heavy Rain, Dragon Ball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 3 Wii review