With the long-awaited Yakuza 4 mere weeks away I figure it's the best time to give the previous game a look. The Yakuza series is utterly fascinating in how it combines beatemup action, mini-games, Japanese culture, and a slight touch of absurdity. In a way it's the kind of vacation we can only dream of, seeing as how the realities and limitations of life usually prevent us from getting paid to throw bicycles at street punks.
Kazuma Kiryu just might be considered the ultimate Japanese male role-model. He's polite, respectful of others, trusting to a fault, honorable, and he beds more women than James Bond. Kazuma is an ex-Yakuza of the Tojo Clan nick-named "The Dragon of Dojima" and only wants to be left alone to tend to his orphanage and his adopted daughter Haruka. Kazuma probably should have kept up with his literature because if the Godfather taught us anything it is that the past can not be left behind. Daigo Dojima, the sixth chairman of the Tojo clan, and Shigeru Nakahara, the owner of the land the Kazuma's Orphanage rests upon, have both been shot by a mysterious assailant. Kiryu is left with little choice but to return to Kamurocho, essentially a fictional version of Tokyo's red-light district, in the hopes of setting things right.
There's no rush or anything it seems because Kazuma is likely to become distracted by all of the activities he can partake in. It's kind of like Shenmue where Ryo Hazuki is so driven to avenge his father's murder that he sits around playing games at the local arcade for several days straight. Kazuma still plays the occasional arcade game but he also engages in more adult-oriented activities like karaoke, dating, and golf. His specialty however is his ruthless fighting style and that gets put to work constantly. Walking down the street is a surefire way to get into trouble with street punks and even minor Yakuza fellows. They'll make up whatever excuse necessary to pick a fight but since Kazuma wins all the time it's just an easy way to collect money and experience.
There are also about a hundred or so side-missions that Kazuma can accept, which have him doing everything from helping locals with their shopping to beating people up to beating a lot of people up. I figure everyone doesn't look towards Kazuma for help with their taxes but really now it seems like every problem can be solved by punching enough faces. Dating is even worse as it usually works to be a pretty easy ride for Kazuma. I think in the Japanese version all of the women Kazuma can date work at hostess bars. These places are notorious for taking all of the customer's money just for the simple pleasure of talking to a pretty girl, let alone doing anything beyond that. In this version all Kazuma has to do is walk into the local burger shop and he'll meet somebody new. Dating isn't particularly difficult either as it's nearly impossible to screw up something as easy as "take her someplace that she'd enjoy." Kazuma doesn't say much of anything so it's not like there's a bunch of conversation choices the player could mistakes on. To top it all off it takes one or two dates before the woman reveals some life-changing problem that can only be solved by--you guessed it--beating people up. Thankfully unlike recent Bioware offerings we're spared the awkward PG-13 sex-scenes.
The fighting is the main draw of this game as it covers all of the elements of a great beatemup. Kazuma starts off with a pitiful array of moves but through upgrades he attains new methods of handling adversity. There are the simple but effective combos and the ability to pick up objects to use as makeshift weapons. All of these methods are just the lead-up to the dreaded heat actions. When Kazuma's body becomes surrounded by a blueish flame he's one triangle button-press away from ruining somebody's day. This aspect reminds me of Fist of the North Star except Kazuma doesn't share Kenshiro's penchant for making thugs explode with his finger. Surprisingly for a man who has a no-kill policy Kazuma has a nasty streak about him which leads to punks getting their faces smashed, their limbs broken, their body sliced up with a samurai sword, and seriously they even get shot. Kazuma will straight up grab a shotgun and shoot somebody point-blank in the chest. It must take a master of gun-control to do something like that without killing someone. For those gamers out there who don't mind side-quests of questionable usefulness there are tons of materials and other objects that can be used to build weapons. It's a nice idea except the weapons break after so many uses and must be repaired. Besides it flies in the face of the whole honor-shtick Kazuma has going for him. Defeating a bare-handed rival with some gold-plated fiery Masamune feels like the most hollow of victories.
The red-light district is home to all sorts of charming night-spots and it can help Kazuma with working out all of that aggression of his. Honestly I'm not a fan of most of the mini-games in Yakuza 3 because all I seem to accomplish in most of them is getting beaten by whoever I'm dating. I manage to pick up a spare in bowling and my date gets a strike. I can't play a game of pool without whoever I picked up at Super Burger running the table. Thank goodness none of the women show any interest in the batting cages, I can't fathom why completionists bother with mastering this nasty minigame. It's a shame Kazuma can't just beat up the owner of the bar until he gives him a perfect score in darts.
With all of the minigames Yakuza 3 offers I wonder why they never considered an orphanage-raising simulation. The first several hours of the game are going to be spent at or around the orphanage solving little kid problems. While Kiryu has plenty of opportunities to curb-stomp anyone who looks at him funny the main goal is apparently to help one of the kids talk to a girl, or help another kid deal with a bully. Maybe some kid isn't being treated fairly by the other kids, and it gets to a point where I start hating kids. This makes the game start off very slowly and late in the game Kiryu comes back to do even more help around the orphanage. C'mon Sega, spare me the family sitcom nonsense here. I sat through enough episodes of full-house to predict the outcomes of every orphanage related storyline and aside from moments so ridiculous they must be seen to be appreciated it's just boring and a waste of time.
Aside from the orphanage-junk the storyline is really well done. Although I have to say the game takes a number of liberties. For starters there are the cut-scene bullets. The in-game fight scenes are loaded with people getting shot, stabbed, and looking like they should be very much dead. Surprisingly however the only people who actually die are usually those who get shot by the far more powerful cut-scene bullets. Then again even that doesn't guarantee anything so it sort of feels like everyone sticks around until the writer can't find a use for them anymore. I can't help but worry that this will lead to some sort of self-awareness where all of the characters figure out what's going on and it leads to tons of inside jokes and people getting brought back from the dead just for kicks.
By comparison the other aspects of the game feel relatively minor. The storyline has a few moments where things happen that cause certain characters as well as the player to say "What the?!" In one instance in order to save somebody's life Kazuma is given a ride on a jet. As I said earlier time is of the essence and Kazuma can't afford to waste a second in order to rescue this person. Needless to say after arriving at the destination it was the perfect time to play some golf. The player is also liable to see several things that probably can't happen in real life. Really though unless you're some sore-headed fun-hater you shouldn't be bothered about the going-ons of this game.
I look at it like this. The Yakuza games are basically male-power fantasies. This isn't like God of War where male-power is apparently found in blood-bathing and having sex with anything on two legs. It runs quite a bit deeper than that. Everything that Kazuma does he excels at and his reward is that for one brief moment the world becomes his and the game does its best to reflect that. With the special Heat actions Kazuma ignores physics at every opportunity to deliver the most punishing beatdowns, and the camera does its best to capture every moment. When Kazuma delivers an especially great karoake performance the box of a room he's singing in changes into something resembling Broadway. Along the way Kazuma also earns respect not just through his actions but also through his words, which is a far cry from somebody who has to kill every possible living thing to get even a little self-respect. Kazuma also makes mistakes and even gives off the impression that he is human in some way or another. Obviously there are limits to the humanity of a videogame character but Kazuma proves to be one of the better protagonists in the medium.
There's a little of that feeling in all of us. Those moments where the walls of reality crumble ever so slightly to give us that euphoric feeling that we're accomplishing something beyond our means. Yakuza 3 is all about living in these moments and making the most of them. It helps that despite the hackjob the localization received there is still a ton of content for the player to pick away at in-between other games. Still it's just as likely that someone could get the same effect from the upcoming Yakuza 4, as it'll feature all of the same content and action of this game and then some. Still I'd give this game a recommendation as it has the advantage in price and availability.
Game Rating - 3.5 out of 5
My Rating 4 out of 5