The Yakuza series has always been a PlayStation baby since its debut on the PS2 back in 2005. Known for its ridiculously high production budgets and a story line that would make soap opera writers quiver in their boots, the third Yakuza game has finally round-house kicked its way onto the PS3. Now the developers at SEGA have next-gen hardware to painstakingly re-create the gritty underground world of the Japanese Mafia, where tailored suits and epic body tattoos are a must.
However, the first thing you notice about Yakuza 3 is the install time. From the time you first insert the game disc you’ll need to wait over 10 minutes while the game chews up a fair chunk of your hard drive space copying files across. Thankfully, after this, the loading times throughout the rest of the game are fairly brief.
The second thing you’ll notice are the graphics. They are simply stunning, opening up in the brightly coloured beaches of Okinawa, where our buff hero Kazuma owns an orphanage. Not quite your typical samuari sword wielding, thumb-removing, member of the Mafia sort of occupation, but Kazuma has started a new life away from the violence and crime of his Yakuza days. As luck would have it, his past soon catches up with him (for those who never played the previous games you can view the backstory from Yakuza 1 and 2 in the main menu).
I’ll be honest and say that I was looking forward to hours and hours of just running around the streets of Japan beating up cliché goons. But in typical Japanese video gaming fashion, there is a lot of story in Yakuza 3. Almost too much story in fact. Expect pages and pages of text and cinematics with running times that even James Cameron would be proud of. Everything is beautifully rendered and animated but it still felt like an eternity before I even got to throw a punch. At one point I got up to make myself a coffee and bake an orange soufflé and still made it back in time to see another four cut-scenes. It was clear that Yakuza 3 was about to be more than just a button mashing street brawler.
The monolithic dialogue, complicated story and shear level of detail in Yakuza 3 is both a blessing and a curse. While you can walk the perfectly recreated streets of Tokyo and see vending machines, crows going through rubbish, karaoke bars, hostess clubs, love hotels and arcade parlours. You also need to aimlessly wander around these same streets talking to random people in order to gain information. The RPG element is a welcome change but unfortunately the amount of text can often result in you just skipping everything in order to unlock the next objective. The in game map doesn’t help matters either, and quite often you will just happen to stumble across the right person or the street you were looking for. Along the way, you will run into folk with names like “Cocky Punk” and “Impatient Guy” who will pick a fight with you for no real reason other than they don’t like your face. Having random guys charge up to you and ask to punch your kidneys isn’t great for tourism in Japan but it’s here that the actual fighting gameplay finally kicks in.
The fighting mechanics in Yakuza 3 do seem quite dated and rigid, but carry across a sense of simplicity that reminded me of retro arcade classics like “Final Fight“ and “Double Dragon”. The square button is your basic attack and pressing it multiple times goes through the motions of a combo. Adding in the triangle button gives Kazuma a more powerful special attack. The circle button either grabs and throws an enemy or picks up nearby objects such chairs, trash-cans and even bicycles to use as a weapon. The X button is a dodge and finally the L1 and R1 shoulder buttons are used to block and target respectively. It is simple and effective but hardly the advanced combat system I imagined the game using. I also encountered some other issues like the targeting system failing to turn Kazuma around resulting in him punching thin air despite being “locked on” to an enemy. Also when surrounded by two or more enemies you can become the pummelled meat in the sandwich from a never ending loop of weak blows that you can’t recover from. The combat does get better however thanks to an upgrade system that allows you improve your strength, health and special attacks. Unfortunately just trying to decipher the upgrade menu is a game all in itself. Random numbers and statistics litter the screen and upgrading requires you to hold down the X button until a bar fills up. It’s all rather confusing but with trial and error you’ll get the hang of it.
The limited fighting mechanic is explained somewhat when you take a look at the insane amount of mini-games Yakuza 3 throws at you. During your journey you’ll have the opportunity to visit the local bar to play some pool (8-ball and 9-ball) or darts, each with their own gameplay mechanics. The underground clubs offer gambling with poker, blackjack, roulette, chō-han, koi-koi, oicho-kabu and numerous other dice games. You’ll be bowling, playing UFO Catcher, fishing down by the beach, batting in softball cages, singing karaoke… at one point you’ll even be playing rounds at the local private golf club! Considering that every of one of these side-activities carries a decent control system and huge attention to detail, players certainly won’t be short on things to do. But Yakuza 3 felt rather schizophrenic at times, almost like it didn’t know what sort of game it was trying to be. Part Tiger Woods Golf, part Tekken, part The Sims with a touch of Gangs of London thrown in.
Basically if you buy this game hoping to simply run around punching people in the face, you’re going to be in for a long haul. But what Yakuza 3 does do is totally immerse you in the living, breathing world of Kazuma. He runs an orphanage so you’ll need to cook things like a delicious Katsu Curry Don and mingle with your nine orphan kids, each one lovable and full of character. There’s the nerdy one with glasses, the sporty one, the perfect daughter type and of course the fat kid. You even need to sort out issues like bullying at school; and no, you don’t get to beat up kids – it’s all sorted through gentle discussion. Just like normal people. Despite the fact that Kazuma has a menacing full-back tattoo of a yellow-eyed, needle sharp clawed dragon and is built like a tank, he still prefers to act like a gentleman.
After a few hours you’ll feel empathy for Kazzy and be above the whole getting into fights thing. Instead you might just wander down to the beach with some worms to go fishing or head into town to drink a glass of 1,080 yen whiskey and eat some pork gyoza. Or maybe have a chat with the whopping great big cast of over 350 full-bodied characters through-out the game. Yakuza 3 has more depth to it than the Titanic and although this strange combination of gameplay elements might deter a lot gamers, you just can’t help but admire it at the same time.