It’s always going to be a tough ask to review the fourth installment in a successful cult franchise when you’ve never been exposed to any of the previous games, but sometimes it is useful to get a fresh opinion anyway, untainted by any expectations based on prior knowledge of the series. Yakuza 3 continues the story of Kazuma Kiryu, a Japanese gangster (Yakuza) who gives up his former illustrious career in the hope of leading a purer life looking after children in an orphanage on the island of Okinawa. Of course there wouldn’t be a story to tell if he lived happily ever after, and it isn’t long before trouble starts to come to town. Kazuma soon learns of plans to seize the land that the orphanage is on in order to build a beach resort destined to bring wealth to the sleepy island. Being the bad-ass he is, you can imagine that Kazuma is hardly going to sit back and watch this happen.
The game moves almost painfully slowly at the outset, but once the background is set the pace soon builds. Beautifully animated full motion video sequences are forced at regular intervals through the game, and progress the plot. The visuals are superb and complemented by excellent Japanese voice acting with English subtitles. It feels right that the Japanese dialogue should be used instead of re-recording in English, as it somehow feels more authentic. This is probably more due to the fact that anything foreign often sounds more interesting even if it involves the mundane. Fans are sure to be annoyed that it took over a year to regionalise the title but with the amount of dialogue that needed to be translated, I’m not surprised.
The voice acting is so good that it makes one of the more negative aspects of the game that much more annoying. A good proportion of the dialogue in the game is not actually voice recorded, and appears only as on-screen subtitles. The movie like flow of the game is disrupted as the game audio goes from Japanese voice recordings, to beeps like Morse code, and back to voice recordings. It would have been nice to have had all of the game dialogue recorded; I’m not sure if this is too much of an ask though.
When you are not watching an animated Japanese movie, you’ll be taking control of Kazuma Kiryu as he seeks to save the orphanage. The gameplay is varied, and will have you free-roaming around some faithfully reproduced Japanese street, brawling with random street gangs and other tough-guys that have a problem with you, performing some strange and quirky (some would say “Japanese”) side-quests, as well as partaking in an impressive number of different mini-games. There is certainly plenty to do in this game, and even once you’ve completed your first play through you’ll discover that you’ve only finished a fraction of what’s available to do, find and collect in the game.
Fighting relies heavily on mashing a couple of buttons to punch and kick your foes, with a throw button included for good measure. As you gain experience from your battles, you’ll be able to level up and gain more moves and abilities. Landing successful combos builds up a “heat” meter of charged energy which allows more powerful moves to be unleashed in combat. There’s always going to be a limit to how much brawling can be spiced up, and Yakuza 3 makes a decent effort.
A range of weapons is available to add further variety to battles, but use of these is limited to a set number of blows before they must be repaired. The game has a deserved R18 rating for the brutal fist-fights, but the gut-wrenching finishing sequences using weapons you acquire will have you thirsty for more blood.
One of my first impressions of this game was that it was a cross between a chick-flick and Fight Club. Interspersed between the bloody combat are a whole lot of touchy-feely-girly themes which attempt to touch the heart. Being an orphan himself (raised by Yakuza), Kazuma has a strong compassionate side to him and this comes through as he deals with the day to day problems facing the children at the orphanage. So it is very much gangster by day, father by night. There are a wealth of characters in the game, many of whom draw you into the game’s world and make you want to care about them.
Yakuza 3 is not going to be for everyone, but I found it surprisingly absorbing. The detailed environments, masterful storytelling, and enganging characters all played their part in this. The gameplay is varied and while it is not entirely a sandbox title, there are plenty of opportunities in the game to allow free-roaming. Prior knowledge of the Yakuza series is definitely not required, and those that wish to can refer to the included videos detailing the story from Yakuza and Yakuza 2 to help fill in the gaps. I kid you not when I say that I am grateful to now have a compelling reason to turn my PS3 on after many months of hibernation.