I just finished Yakuza 3, and I'm pretty sure that I love it. The game looks a bit dated because it was released in Japan a while ago and SEGA took its sweet time getting it over here, the "beat all these guys up" gameplay can get repetitive, and the entire thing's in Japanese so you better be ready to read some subtitles. But, despite all of that, Yakuza 3 is a blast.
A blast where my first playthrough clocked in at more than 20 hours and I only completed 11 percent of everything there is to do in the game.
Yakuza 3 continues the adventures of Kazuma, a former bigwig in the Japanese mafia known as the Yakuza. After two games of dealing out beatdowns, Kaz has retired to the sunny shores of Okinawa to found an orphanage and live out his days rocking Hawaiian shirts. However, when a resort/military base proposal threatens his home for kids and some of Kaz's friends get shot by a guy that looks just like his dead dad, this former Yakuza chairman is out of retirement and busting jaws to get to the bottom of what's going on.
I've previewed Yakuza 3 a lot, but I think I've finally settled on describing it as a Grand Theft Auto/JRPG love child. You're getting this intense story about Japan's seedy underbelly that's set in an open world where you can take all sorts of side quests, but as you do so, random battles are popping up, you're earning experience points so you can level up your moves, and you can take stuff from your extensive inventory list and craft new weapons and armor. There are no cars or chocobos, but you see where I'm going with this -- one minute you're slamming a crowbar into a guy's face or tearing off a fingernail with pliers, and the next minute, you're taking photos to blog about or on a fetch quest to find a certain fish.
It's a delicate balance between the two genres, but for the most part, it worked for me thanks to the game's three strong points –fighting, story, and crazy quirkiness.
An average mission in Yakuza 3 goes like this: get an awesome-looking cutscene, run around town, collect a side mission, get in a few fights with people who walk up to you and challenge you for one reason or another, find the objective, get another awesome cutscene, fight, get the information you needed to end this thread and start the cycle anew. As you can imagine, spreading that formula out over 20 hours means that you're going to be fighting a lot, but Yakuza 3 has a fun system that gets deeper as you level up Kaz's abilities.
At first, fistfighting is going to seem uber-simple. You can light attack, heavy attack and grapple. There are block and lock-on buttons tossed in for good measure. After you get the hang of wailing on guys like that, you'll begin worrying about your Heat gauge – a tiered meter below your health that fills as you beat on people. Once full, Kaz will glow with blue fire (red eventually) and be able to pull off devastating finishers such as just stomping the face of a guy on the ground as well as hoisting one guy onto his back and tossing the jerk on a downed foe for the 2-in-1 knockout. However, the real fun starts when you toss weapons into the mix.
If you want, you can just use the nunchucks, katanas, and stun guns you find on foes in battle. Each weapon has a limited number of uses, so you're free to button mash away as you attack people. But if you want the most bang for your buck, you'll save these weapons (either by not picking them up in fights or not equipping them if you own them) until you're glowing with Heat. By doing so, you can now use these for spectacular finishing moves. Kaz will hit someone in the leg with his bat, the guy will drop to his knees, and Kaz will wind-up and crack the enemy in the face. He'll pick up pliers and rip out opponent's fingernails, slam someone in the head with a crowbar and then bash their skull with the piece of steel over and over again, and even hurl mountain bikes on top of people.
Once you get all of this down pat, the system does – eventually -- go back to being very simple. You beat on the baddies, get your Heat full, and KO the foes. Toward the end of the game, I found myself trying to avoid the random battles, but this was just because I wanted to see the story through. I enjoy the fighting in Yakuza 3 quite a bit, but it can feel repetitive when you're getting challenged for the umpteenth time by some guy who wants you to bow when you see him.
Helping keep things entertaining – besides the awesome moves – is a whole lot of blood. All of these special moves and even your regular blows are accompanied with streams of blood. There's blood on Kaz's fists, pouring out of people's mouths, and featured in glorious in-air trails as bad guys crumble in slow motion. However, it's important to note that Kaz never kills anyone in these fights. Whether it's a random street thug or one of the game's bosses, these savage, bloody beatings end with the bad guys holding their heads and apologizing for starting trouble. Well, that's usually how the random battles end; bosses get a bit more love than that.
Getting those bosses the proper amount of screen time comes down to the way the story plays out in Yakuza 3. Sure, it's in another language, but I really dug this tale – although it dragged in places. See, Kazuma is in charge of this orphanage, and the developers really want you to connect with that side of him because it's his motivation for everything you're going to do in the game. That said, you spend a lot of time on the shores of Okinawa with the kiddies. You cook dinner, settle arguments, take care of the sick, and so on. It equates to a rather sluggish start ("When do I get to punch things?!") and a speed bump towards the end of the game ("When do I get to go after the final boss?!"), but this humanity is key to the endgame – because the crap hits the fan at Chapter 11, and if you didn't care about your support system at that point, the events would have no impact on you. Luckily, I did care and found myself watching some cutscenes at the end of the game and muttering obscenities as well as even tearing up during one of the final battles.
Framing and telling this story is the work of some really good-looking cutscenes that show the shootings, backstories, and pole-dancing clubs in the exact way they need to be shown. Still, the way Yakuza 3 is laid out isn't perfect. I know the English subtitles are going to turn off a lot of people as you do have to read and remember what you've read while playing, but I also had an issue with the way some cutscenes worked. I'd have this CGI cutscene playing but then stop so that I'd have to read and click through a bunch of text in an in-game cutscene. Then, a new CGI cutscene would begin. Why not tell me all of that story in the nice-looking movie?
I mentioned before that Kazuma doesn't kill the people he's fighting, but it's actually kind of rare for anyone to die in this game, and I feel like that's a bit odd. When you're playing and you see someone brutally attacked in a cutscene and then be fine, it cheapens these moments. I mean, I literally saw a guy take a sledgehammer to the base of his skull, seem like he was on his deathbed, and end up being fine. Why worry about these characters when they keep dodging certain death? Of course, I did tear up when one of them really died, so maybe that desensitization is what the game was going for. Still, I could've done with more consequences to character actions.
Also, if you'll double back with me to the slow parts I mentioned earlier, I have to ask if those dips are going to kill the experience for some people. Like I said, I was enjoying the hell out of Yakuza 3, but when Kaz went back to the orphanage right before we launched into the final fights of the game, things started to drag. I think it pays off in the end, but the all-out action followed by this intentionally slow part might be a turn off for some, and if they quit, the fact that there's this awesome cap to all that doesn't really matter.
Still, even if a foolish player quits early, they'd get a dose of Yakuza 3's final strength – quirkiness. Western players have seen inklings of how kooky Japanese developers can be – the LEGO heads in Dead Rising and the porn mags in Metal Gear – but Yakuza 3 really blows all of that out of the water seeing as how just about every interaction you have is peppered with wonderfully weird stuff. When someone runs up to you and challenges you to a random battle, they're spitting obscenities and usually only starting trouble because they want money to go to a strip club or because they don't like that you're drunk in their town. You can buy an un-inflated blowup doll at the convenience store. You can learn new moves by taking part in "Revelations," which involve you snapping pictures of insane stuff -- there's the one where this woman gets distracted by a billboard and flips her moped over a car while having a fictional conversation with the guy on the billboard, and this other one where a guy is drunk outside the pole-dancing club and imitating the ladies inside by spinning around a light pole… and eventually falling on his head. After snapping these photos (you need to hit the button that pops up on the screen and then pick the correct revelation from a list of three possible lessons learned), Kaz types a blog at super-speed on his phone and you get to read the entry.
The game is littered with awesomely odd stuff like this, and it really makes exploring and taking side missions exciting. You never know what's about to happen.
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