2006 was a transitional year for gaming, the Xbox 360 had just been released and the PS3 was on the horizon, the future it seemed would be HD and developers began dropping the now aged PS2 to focus on the next generation. During this transition Sega released Yakuza in 2006 and Yakuza 2 in late 2008 long after the next generation had taken over as the market leaders, surprisingly both games met with overall positive reviews and a 3rd game was certain to come though when Sega did announce Yakuza 3 it was to the dismay of fans in the west as the game was going to be a Japan only release. After much petitioning from fans Yakuza 3 has hit out shores on the Playstation 3, but does it have enough appeal to win over first time players to the Yakuza series? Read on and find out.
The story revolves around Kazuma Kiryu former chairman to a Yakuza clan, tired of the mobster lifestyle he and the orphaned Haruka decide to leave the glitz and glamour of Tokyo to setup an orphanage in Okinawa. The first half of the game is played in Okinawa where you look after the children of the orphanage, dealing with problems in their lives. In terms of story not much happens for the first 5 hours. At the beginning of the game you're introduced to the over arching storyline in a spectacular cut scene involving Yakuza bosses and just what it's like to be a Yakuza, expectations were that the whole game to be of this style but no, as clichéd as it is Kazuma decides to leave it all behind to atone for what he has done as a Yakuza boss.
The main story boils down to the land Kazuma used to build his orphanage has been sold by its owner to the government in order to build a holiday resort and a military base. Yakuzas are of course involved in the negotiations and it's up to Kazuma to ensure that his children do not lose their home. The game really picks up in the second half the only problem is you have to endure a rather mundane first half.
Inconsistent pacing is also something the game suffers from in that on many occasions a story will seem to be complete but then something will happen to extend that chapter by an extra ten minutes or so almost as if the story was padded to extend its life. On more than one occasion one of the children will run away and you as their guardian must track them down to continue the story, as you search for them you'll be confronted with optional 'sub-quests' which further pad out the game and can make the pacing seem like it's ground to a halt.
For fans of the series along the way you'll meet up with a lot of old faces and places from the first two games and some new ones too, the newly introduced characters have very distinct personalities and are believable as characters, they all have their own faults and ambitions. Very few characters in the game seem two dimensional, this is shown in all aspects from the well crafted dialogue to the choreography of the actions to the facial expressions they show during a conversation.
As for actual gameplay, you could almost call it a 'Brawler RPG.' There is a city for you to explore, you can go to shops and do side quests etc, but within the city are random encounter battles much like in an RPG you'll be running around and suddenly someone will stop you, mildly insult you, ask for your money then a crowd will appear in a circle around the two of you making an arena.
The combat is amazingly smooth and simple to learn, combos can be stringed together with nothing more than tapping two buttons and the enemy AI though a little docile at times can put up a somewhat frustrating challenge especially the bosses. When fighting a meter in the top left hand corner of the screen will begin to charge, for every successful blow you deliver the meter will fill a little, once it has filled enough your character will be covered with a blue flame or a red flame if you max the bar out. This is called HEAT and in this mode your blows inflict more damage, you can do some pretty awesome special attacks such as stamping on an enemy's head after they've been knocked to the ground.
Like any old school beat'em up each level has an end boss, the end bosses vary in terms of abilities and difficulty, I found a few of the boss fights near impossible without being in HEAT mode as bosses can also achieve HEAT mode too, thankfully items can be bought from the stores to increase your HEAT level so in theory you can stay in HEAT throughout an entire boss fight if you so wished.
One of the great things about Yakuza 3 is the freedom you have in the strategies you can formulate, Kazuma can carry up to 3 weapons, and anything from umbrellas to nun chucks can be used. This along experienced gained during fights that can then be cashed in for status upgrades really give you the free will to customise and micromanage your character right down to the last detail. One small annoyance is that weapons break, an umbrella will break after being used 5 times, you can get it repaired but until you do it is useless.
If you don't fancy buying weapons or take the time to learn how to use them in tutorials so they can then be unlocked in the shop you can always during a fight use whatever the enemy is using, so say you're up against three thugs and one of them is wielding a sword, if you take the swordsman out first then pick up his weapon you can quite easily finish with the rest of them off, only problem with this tactic is you lose the weapon at the end of the fight. In a tough spot you can almost always rely on your environment to give you the upper hand. Since fights take place where ever you are anything from bins to bicycles can be used as weapons and each have their own special attack if you're in HEAT mode, the combat is extremely varied and combines the sensibilities of old school arcade beat'em ups in a full 3D environment.
One of the main gripes with the gameplay is the lack of variety and what variety there is doesn't quite fit with what is going on. For the most part the gameplay is literally go here, then here, once here do this and go back to the start to finish the chapter. It's only noticeable in the first half of the game as you wait for something to happen but it can be pretty tedious at times.
Yakuza 3 does however have a few mini games just in case you want to take a break from the main storyline and waste some time, Golf is available and handles much like a normal golf game with power meters, wind and a scoring system for each hole. Darts and snooker are available in one of the bars too.
The graphics are bright and colourful which is always a nice contrast to the majority of muddy and grey games being released today. The most impressive graphical area of the game is the character models, they're remarkably detailed, all character textures are razor sharp right down to the Yakuza Tattoo's on their backs, facial expressions are done exceptionally well too. This level of detail with no slow down really shows what can be done when effort and a good programming team really try to produce best looking product, and it shows.
Games in the past have always suffered from character interaction with the objects around them, objects be it a book or a pen would never look like it was in the character's hand, instead it would appear to float and not make contact with the character model, some games today still suffer from the same problem but not Yakuza 3, on many occasions the characters interact with objects be it car doors or opening a book, all are done almost true to real life, no floating objects or jerky actions here.
In terms of audio, I'm not sure if this was due to time constraints in dubbing the game into all the main European languages but the voice acting is entirely in Japanese with the exception of an American character who's voiced in English, the Japanese audio with the subtitles make it feel like you're watching a Japanese Yakuza movie. These subtitles can be a pain in extended cut scenes when you're trying to concentrate on the storyline while appreciating the graphics, some important onscreen actions can be missed if you're not a quick reader. It certainly was bold of Sega to release the game with the Japanese audio intact and I'm sure purists will love it but for the rest of us who are unaccustomed to playing a game in a foreign language this could be the one thing that puts off the average gamer from buying this game as it seems lazy on Sega's part not even to dub it into English for the EU release.
Yakuza 3 can be completed with less than 10% of the content done so you're looking at a play time of 15 hours to completion in the main story mode plus another 90% for all the extras you can do throughout the game. The story is linear so there isn't much point replaying the game to get a different ending but when you complete the main story mode you can unlock what is pretty much a sandbox mode where you can go anywhere and do anything you also have the option to play through the game again but with the stats you built up the first time being carried forward into the second.
After all has been said and done is the game any good? Tedious is the first word that comes to mind the game had a lot of potential to be a rollercoaster ride from start to finish but the developer thought it more important to utilise half of the game on character development and not to focus on the main storyline. You're not so much eased into the game as you are held by the hand and never really allowed to 'go crazy' until right up to the very end. The plot is run of the mill if a little bloated almost as if it's trying to do too much all at once. But in the end it is most likely the lack of an English dub as terrible as it might have been that will put off the average game in this instance.