I enjoyed the first two Yakuza titles on the PS2 and I was very much excited to try the first entry on the PlayStation 3. From the start, I knew this was Yakuza : the bad-ass Kazuma Kiryu was the main character, there’s a heavy emphasis on story, there’s no option for English voiceovers (which is just fine by me), and there’s a combination of gut-wrenching brutality combined with Japanese quirkiness. Then you’ve got the semi-open-ended gameplay format that has you running around several large cities, looking about for items, battling street punks, stuffing yourself with the local cuisine, and…well, snapping photographs of bizarre events and situations. It also features some role-playing elements in relation to character advancement, so Yakuza 3 is quite the appealing package. That being said, there are a few issues that may plague the overall experience, and such flaws really get tiresome towards the end of your 20-hour quest.
Not surprisingly, the third title looks a heck of a lot better than the first two ‘cuz this latest effort is on the PS3. Still, it isn’t the prettiest next-gen project you’ll ever see, as there’s a definite lack of sharpness and clarity in the backdrops and the special effects during gameplay don’t exhibit enough “punch,” if you get my meaning. The cut-scenes are pretty solid, though, and character detail can even be impressive when it comes to key members of the plot. And it seems as if there’s more going on in the streets; the PS2 installments usually just boasted a lot of people on foot and plenty of mostly abandoned back alleys. This one features the appropriate amount of traffic on main roads and despite the aforementioned lack of intricate detail; the colorful and vibrant presentation breathes life into those active Japanese streets. The graphics fall a little short by today’s lofty standards; they are indeed a bit uneven and underwhelming. But it’s forgivable.
The sound may be more subjective than with other games, just because of the Japanese voice acting that may or may not resonate with a Western audience, and the distinctly Japanese soundtrack. I have little doubt that the Eastern demographic laps it up and personally, I’m a big fan of the Japanese voices. But I have to admit that the over-emphasis on generic rock music that accompanies my butt-kicking gets repetitive and even annoying; I needed more balance and diversity. However, to help bolster the graphics, the sound allows the environment to really stand out; the calls and cries of the surrounding crowds, the hustle and bustle of a lively city, and the various ambient sounds that differed from area to area helped a great deal. In other words, the sound isn’t amazingly accomplished, but it works. It matches up nicely with the rest of the technical presentation and brings you into the dangerous, exciting world of the yakuza. I just hope Yakuza 4 gets a little more imaginative when it comes to the soundtrack.
When addressing the gameplay, I think it’s important to make one thing very clear: Yakuza 3 focuses on a deep and engaging storyline as most any role-playing game. This means it will take a little while before you dive into the meat of the exploration and combat; you can even view and play crucial scenes from each of the first two Yakuza titles before you get started. This is great for those who never got a chance to play them and it’s important, too, because Yakuza 3 is indeed a true sequel. The cut-scenes are of good length and are quite abundant, and they are also well done in just about every respect. I can only read the English subtitles but it seems like the voice acting is pretty good, and I’ve always liked Kazuma’s deep, commanding baritone. The story is a little convoluted in my eyes – especially if I take the preceding plotlines into account – and some parts are either strange or just plain boring. Even so, the story is a highlight and worthy of your attention.
I won’t give away any major story details, but I’ll just say that Kazuma has tried to remove himself from the potentially deadly career of a yakuza boss, and has retreated to the solitary quietude of a small shoreline village. Believe it or not, the big, tough, seemingly invincible member of the Tojo Clan is running an orphanage. Being an orphan himself, he feels very close to the children who have lost their parents, and it’s obvious that the kids love him to death. It’s surprisingly touching, really. But when the powers that be want the land back, and are perfectly willing to put those kids back out on the mean streets for the sake of the yakuza’s glorified ego, Kazuma isn’t about to stand by and watch. And that’s how he gets dragged back into the dark and gritty underworld. It’s a great way to start the story and really gives you a sense of purpose as you traverse the dangerous streets of various cities. Oh, and the entertainment factor – due to a lot of ass-beating – is sky-high.
Let’s talk about that now. The brawling in Yakuza 3 is straightforward and even a little barebones, but it’s still fun. The square button executes a light attack, the triangle button is your strong attack, circle attempts to grab a foe or pick up an object to use as a weapon, the X button dodges (when holding the R1 button to put yourself in a fighting stance), and the L1 button blocks. Once you get the hang of it – and it won’t take long – you’ll really start relishing the beat-downs you dish out. You will earn experience with every successful tromping and those Exp points can be used to increase your Soul, Technique, and Body. As you can see, this is part of the RPG feel, because you really do have control over how Kazuma advances his abilities and physical attributes. In addition to the random objects around the environment (bicycles, traffic cones, chairs, etc.), there are plenty of weapons to use, ranging from knuckle dusters to swords and clubs.
These weapons will only last a certain amount of time, though, so you might want to save the powerful katanas for tough boss encounters. You will also want to keep some health restoration items (Stamina X, for instance) to keep yourself alive during particularly harrowing situations. Lastly, there’s the HEAT meter, which builds as you beat on opponents; when full, Kazuma glows blue – and eventually, red – and he can then unleash super powerful moves after grabbing an enemy or equipping a weapon. For instance, you can grab an enemy and slam his face into a brick wall, or use a certain weapon in a really nasty manner: smacking a dude in the face with a baseball bat via full-armed swing, tearing out an enemy’s fingernails, and crushing a skull with a big ol’ sledgehammer. It’s all really brutal and very bloody. You can also learn new abilities by snapping photos of certain weird events, like a dude emulating a stripper out in the street (he’s swinging around a lamppost like a nut). Once you get the picture, Kazuma will post up a blog on his phone and gets himself a new, neato move.
These are called “Revelations” and they’re just part of the Japanese quirkiness ingrained in the adventure. You might expect some of it and in some ways, it acts as an interesting complement to the nastiness and hostility that inundates the plot. It may be a little too silly for some members of the Western audience but again, that’s more a matter of personal preference and subjectivity. Therefore, I won’t harp on it. However, it’s the control and combat that must be addressed; there are a few problems that can’t be ignored. I think the controls are just far too loose sometimes, and this tends to become very obvious during difficult encounters with multiple enemies. You can lock on and face an opponent with the R1 button – where you can also dodge – but you will find yourself missing many attacks due to a lack of aiming. I also don’t particularly like the camera. You have control over it, but it’s tough to deal with during battle and sits too close by default, so you’ll often get nailed from an opponent that’s off your screen. It gets super frustrating.
Lastly, there’s this strange lack of weight to Kazuma’s movement. It almost feels as if you’re gliding around the pavement when exploring, and this sort of transfers into the combat, too. It just doesn’t feel like a tight, finely honed mechanic, which brings the entire experience down a few notches. However, you should be able to get past these drawbacks because, as I’ve said, the entertainment factor really is very high. You’ll want to follow the story, the battling, despite being a little too simplistic and repetitive, is almost never boring, and there’s always plenty to do. Exploration is encouraged as you will discover plenty of new and useful items and pieces of equipment, and the incentive to get into fights is obvious (experience, duh). So, Yakuza 3 is definitely worthwhile if you think you’ll enjoy the premise and you’ve always wanted something like a cross between Streets of Rage and an exotic, quirky Grand Theft Auto . The good vastly outweighs the bad, and that’s what’s most important.