Review: Yakuza 3 (Playstation 3)

Yakuza 3
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 03/09/10

Developers have been trying, for the past several years, to revive the beat-em-up genre in new, modern ways, all of which have met with no noticeable success at all, at least in the US. Retro beat-em-ups, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, and semi-modern beat-em-ups like Castle Crashers have done fairly well for themselves, but games like Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance and God Hand have tanked severely for one reason or another. The Yakuza series falls squarely on the “tanking” side of things, as the first game was a fairly high budget project featuring somewhat professional voice work that received fairly solid ratings, but received an apathetic response from the gaming market. The sequel was released at a lower price point and eschewed the English dubbing entirely in favor of the original language track with English subtitles, and it too garnered solid critical response, but it was also essentially ignored by the gaming market. After Sega opted to leave their medieval Japanese spin-off, Ryu ga Gokotu Kenzan, in Japan, it seemed like the franchise might be doomed to no further US releases. However, Sega has seen fit to bring to us Yakuza 3, albeit with some content removed, presumably for cost reasons. This has caused a surprisingly large amount of controversy, considering the fact that the franchise has performed less than admirably over here, but the content itself, which seems to be extra content like hostess clubs and quiz games, is only extended at best. Still, the first two Yakuza titles contained these little novelties, and while it makes sense that Sega would consider removing this content in order to make the game financially viable enough to release, the question becomes, is Yakuza 3 still a good game in absence of these elements, and for that matter, is it even a good game at all?

Well, as I reviewed the first game in the series for the site, why don’t we bring this full-circle with me reviewing the most recent? It’s not like Matt can do it, as even though he reviewed Yakuza 2, he doesn’t have a PS3, so it falls to me by default, one supposes. Maybe he’ll have one by the time Yakuza 4 comes stateside, if that ever happens. Anyway, let’s get down to business.

Yakuza 3 once again casts you in the role of Kazuma Kiryu, the repentant yakuza from the prior games. When we meet up with Kazuma this time around, he’s decided to retire from yakuza affairs entirely and spend his days running an orphanage on the island of Okinawa, far away from the day-to-day dealings of the Tojo Group, the yakuza organization he was chairman of for about five minutes. As it happens, however, his land is in a location that is needed for a building project by the Japanese government, which is causing some tension between himself, the government, and the owner of the land, who happens to be the local mafia boss in Okinawa. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Diago Dojima, who we will recall was installed as the Sixth Chairman of the Tojo Group by Kazuma back in Yakuza 2, is also being leaned on to make this land sale, as the profits from this sale will dramatically improve conditions for the Tojo Group. He won’t sell the land, however, because Kazuma has basically saved the group a bunch of times, and selling his land out from under him is kind of a dick move. Shortly afterward, the local Okinawa yakuza boss and Daigo are both shot in the same night, apparently by the same man, who just happens to look exactly like Kazuma’s father (who died in the first game, for the record), and suddenly, the game is afoot. Kazuma must now return to the life he left behind, figure out what in the world is going on, and try to resolve this whole mess with as little of a body count as possible.

On the plus side, the writing is once again spot on in Yakuza 3, and the characterization is excellent. Kazuma’s an incredibly complex character, and this game only helps to make him more interesting and well rounded, and the supporting cast fill their roles well as needed. The various characters generally have solid motivations for their actions, and the characters aren’t specifically “good” and “bad”, which is nice to see. The story, on the whole, is one of the better ones to come around this year, and the experience is generally very cinematic and interesting. That said, the plot has some issues that make it problematic at times. The game never really explains why stealing someone’s land deed instantly makes you the owner of the land, and while Japan has a vastly different culture from that of America, I can’t imagine it’s that easy to just forge documentation saying a sale was made, because if it was, why bother shooting the guy with the deed and stealing it in the first place? That aside, some of the plot twists are just a bit too obvious, like the reveal of who, exactly, this clone of Shintaro Kazama (Kazuma’s father) really is. Also, I’m getting tired of the “third act revenge spike” plot development that the Yakuza series is ever so fond of. I know that the game needs something to keep things interesting, but THREE TIMES NOW someone important dies in the third act to keep the pace going, and it’s becoming no fresher the more it’s done. That the good points in the storyline far outweigh the bad points is an obvious assessment, but the storyline in Yakuza 3 is ultimately the weakest in the series. It’s by no means bad, and the writing is great, but there are enough odd plot points and obvious elements to bring this below its predecessors in terms of plot quality.

Yakuza 3 is certainly one of the more visually impressive games on the console. While it’s not on the level of games like Heavy Rain or Final Fantasy XIII, the game world looks fantastic, and the characters are well designed and well animated. Kazuya has made the transition to hi-def very well, and while he has this odd “Bruce Campbell in Burn Notice” look about him, that is in no way a bad thing. The battle animations are fantastic and combat is especially satisfying because of the way enemies buckle and react to a good old-fashioned as-kicking, though some of the walking and running animations look a little awkward at times. The game is also insanely stylish, between the awesome recreation of various locales in Japan and the well-done cutscenes that pop up as you progress the story, and little touches, like how Kazuma’s clothes and hands become blood-stained as he lumps people up or how the game breaks into a full performance cinematic when you’re doing well at the karaoke mini-game, make all the difference. The audio is also as excellent as it’s ever been. The voice acting has the right tone and the appropriate feel that it needs to keep the story interesting, and the voice actors sound right for the roles they play throughout the game. The music is as awesome as ever, as have been the prior soundtracks, as the music has a very funk/electronic/rock sound to it that’s fun to listen to while splitting heads. The splitting of said heads sounds as satisfying as ever, and the various combat noises overall are very powerful and sell the whole “pounding the crap out of the moron who just pissed you off” gimmick nicely, which helps to keep the combat interesting beyond the gameplay itself.

Speaking of the gameplay, fans of the prior games will be pleased to know that Yakuza 3 has seen some significant gameplay improvements all around. A good portion of your time is spent alternating between what the game calls Adventure Mode and Battle Mode. Adventure Mode essentially boils down to wandering around town, talking to folks, completing missions, playing mini-games, and other such activities. In this mode, the left stick moves around, the right stick looks around, X interacts with objects, and Start accesses your menu, allowing you to look at the map, upgrade Kazuma, use and equip items, and so on. Battle Mode boils down to kicking the hell out of whoever is stupid enough to get in your way, either in random encounters or in fixed plot battles. In this mode, the left stick, right stick and Start button act the same, but Square acts as your regular attack, Triangle acts as your heavy attack, Circle allows you to grab foes and pick up weapons, and X allows you to dodge around. The L1 button allows you to block incoming attacks from the front, the R1 button puts Kazuma in a combat stance which allows you to lock on, and the D-pad allows you to cycle weapons you have equipped at the moment. This is all pretty intuitive, whether you’re a fan of the series or not, and picking the game up should take no time at all.

Adventure Mode is where you’ll spend most of your time, as you wander around Kamurocho and Okinawa accomplishing the story missions and performing various other tasks. This mode presents you with a pseudo-sandbox environment where Kazuma can wander about, but unlike something like Grand Theft Auto 4 or Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, the environments are a bit smaller and the boundaries are more obvious than “the ocean”. Wandering around town, at its most basic, allows you to get from place to place to accomplish various storyline missions, which will be highlighted on the mini-map in pink to make them obvious. However, there are many, MANY things for you to do aside from the storyline missions, so much so that you might find yourself spending hours just doing everything the game allows you to do. There are various side missions, which the game calls Sub-Stories, you can take on in most of the game’s twelve chapters as you see fit. The missions can be as simple as talking someone into or out of doing something or as complex as assembling a case to prove the innocence of a wrongfully accused criminal, and each pays out a good amount of experience points in addition to various wonderful prizes. There’s also the option of stopping in at various stores around the two cities to purchase various items, be they for healing, Heat Boosts (which we’ll get to in a bit) and other useful stuff. Both cities also contain a weaponry vendor who can sell you weapons you can carry into battle and a weaponsmith who can upgrade and repair your weapons as needed, which will be useful when your fists need to do the talking.

You can also spend time goofing around with various mini-games, like a crane game that allows you to collect stuffed animals, a golf game that you can compete in for cash, a batting cage, a bowling center, and other fun things. Some things have been removed from the game, like the mahjong and quiz mini-games and the hostess clubs, but you most likely won’t miss them, either due to the massive amount of other content to play with or, in the case of the hostesses, because you can still take them on dates by meeting them at the local gelati shop or Smile Burger. New to this game is the ability to look around in first person by pressing in the R-stick, which allows you to inspect the environment for various things. Obviously, you can look around for points of interest or landmarks, but there are two major reasons for first person view. The first is to allow you to find hidden items (marked as shining blue lights) in out of the way places so you can claim them, which is basically just a way for the developers to hide locker keys in more confusing places, which makes them more challenging to find. The second is to allow you to scout for “inspiration” in town. You’ll meet a guy who teaches Kazuma how to take pictures with his camera phone and then post them to his blog (no, really), which in turn allows you to learn nasty new techniques for battle, if you get the right sort of inspiration from the sights seen. This is an interesting addition to the game that pops up here and there and makes acceptable use of Active Time Events, since failure doesn’t equate to death or the inability to learn the technique.

Sooner or later, of course, it’s time to throw down, either in a random battle or a scripted event, and that’s when Yakuza 3 is its most fun. Kazuma is a beast who hits like a train and can dodge around like Muhammad Ali, and his enemies are often numerous and painful in their own right, so combat is a blast all around. The Square button, as noted, uses Kazuma’s light attacks, which can be comboed together with multiple presses, and you can use the Triangle button on its own or at the end of any regular combo for a high damage final hit, though said hit is slow enough that enemies can block it if you’re not careful. You can switch the direction Kazuma attacks in with a press of the stick and a button, allowing you to attack enemies on all sides when you’re surrounded, which is often. Kazuma can grab enemies when they’re close, and assuming they don’t fight him off (which they can), he can toss them or lump them up for big damage. You can, as noted, also use weaponry in battle as needed, either from your inventory or the environment. Weapons break after a certain amount of uses, making them unusable, though if the weapon is one from your inventory you can take it to the weaponsmith and have it repaired. Equipped weapons, as noted, can also be upgraded with various items and such you’ll find from defeating enemies, completing missions, and unlocking coin lockers, making it easy to upgrade a weapon if you can find the right parts.

Of course, Kazuma isn’t all regular attacks, thanks to the awesome power of the Heat Gauge. Put simply, the Heat Gauge charges as you lay waste to enemies, and when it’s full, you can press Triangle in certain circumstances to lay a vicious beating on an enemy. Smashing an enemy’s face into a wall, breaking a sign over their head, or just plain stomping on their face and rubbing it down with your heel are among the more amusing things you can do with Heat power, allowing you to heavily drop an enemy’s life assuming you can set them up appropriately. Also, as you complete missions and wreck people, you’ll earn experience points which you can commit to leveling up Kazuma’s abilities and combat skills. As you dump experience points into building up Kazuma, you’ll learn new combat abilities, expand your health and Heat meters, add additional strikes to the end of combinations, and other such things, which allow you to ruin people better than ever. Of course, the enemies will also improve as you progress, making leveling up a vital tactic if one values life. There have been a few additions to the combat system, such as random events that pop up where Kazuma can charge up his Heat and nail an enemy with a wicked shot in an Active Time Event styled cinematic event, but the two most noticeable additions to combat are Chase Battles and the lack of loading when battles start. Chase Battles are exactly what they sound like: you chase down an enemy, blasting them with some shoulder tackles when you can, while dodging pedestrians and obstacles. These are interesting and break up the pace of the game in a positive fashion. The lack of loading before battles, however, is excellent. In the prior games, when a battle kicked in, you’d have to wait a noticeable amount of time before battle started, which hurt the immersion and flow of the game noticeably. This time around, battles kick in within a couple seconds, keeping the flow and pace of the game intact and making the experience better overall, so thumbs up to Sega for that.

The story missions can be completed in around fifteen to twenty hours, depending on how well you do at them, but if you look to complete all of the various side quests you could easily triple that amount of play time. There are seriously over one hundred regular missions to complete in the game, even with a couple cut from the Japanese release, as well as numerous other sub missions to plow through, mini-games to play around with, locker keys to find, and more, giving the player PLENTY of stuff to see and do should they wish to take a break from the plot. Aside from that, there’s also a New Game Plus option here that allows you to start over with all of Kazuma’s neat stuff, should you with to keep building him up or try the game on a higher difficulty, of which there are several to choose from. The game also comes with some codes in the box that allow you to take on added content post-game, such as a survival mode and “Haruka’s Request”, which allows you to spend a good amount of time trying to make your niece happy… if you’d want to do such a thing. In short: between the massive amount of content in the game itself and the large amount of content available after you complete the game, Yakuza 3 is a seriously in-depth experience that most players will enjoy for a good while.

Not that the game isn’t without its flaws, of course. The weapon customization system feels largely useless, not because of a lack of functionality specifically but rather because Kazuma is such a beast that weapons are often useless when compared to the damage you can do without them. The random battles you’ll be asked to engage in as you run around town feel a bit overdone, as you’ll end up being accosted something like three or four times just crossing town, and the enemies you face during these random battles are often not even a challenge. I’m not saying that they needed to be removed, but reducing their volume or allowing a way for the player to bypass them would have been ideal. The removed content will also grate for some players, and while most people won’t miss the hostess clubs, Japanese board games and quiz show mini-games that were removed, as well as the few quests that were associated with these elements, some players will be annoyed by their removal. Fans of the first two games will also note that while the game has received a massive visual and technical overhaul, it is, in some respects, the same game, which may or may not be annoying, depending on how much you loved those games… if you played them at all. Finally, if you’re the sort of person who strives for full completion of any game you play, you’ll find the game to be a bit repetitive as you come closer and closer to full completion. It’s nice that there are all sorts of mini-games and such stuffed into the main game, certainly, but most of the game comes down to punching people in the face, and while the boss battles can be very interesting, most of the battles against random thugs ultimately feel the same, which is unfortunate since you’ll spend most of your time plowing through those.

Yakuza 3 is one of the better exclusive games available on the PS3, and it’s a worthy sequel to two of the best unplayed games on the PS2. So long as you can deal with its few flaws, it’s a blast from start to finish that is well worth the asking price. The story is well written, and the game looks and sounds fantastic at all times. The game is simple to learn and understand, the game world is varied and interesting, and the combat is fast-paced and brutal without being brutal to the player. There are a ton of things to do around the two towns you visit in the game, both the first time through and in repeat playthroughs, and with so many missions to take on, games to play, battles to fight and so on, as well as the option to play through the game again with your gear intact or take on various special modes post-game, there’s an insane amount of replay value to the game. Some of the plot elements don’t work as well as they could, unfortunately, and while most of the improvements are awesome, the weapon customization system feels pointless and nothing has been done to reduce or otherwise mitigate the amount of random battles in the game. The removed elements, though not really missed based on the sheer amount of content in the game, will annoy fans of the prior games, as will the fact that it can feel like you’ve done this all before, and the repetition that pops up late in the game might put off newcomers to the series. If you’re willing to overlook the, frankly, minor flaws in the game, Yakuza 3 is well worth its asking price and is a good exclusive Playstation 3 game that should give you plenty to see and do, but it might not be for everyone.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: UNPARALLELED
Balance: GREAT
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GREAT
Miscellaneous: GREAT


Short Attention Span Summary:
Yakuza 3 is one of the better games released so far this year and one of the best exclusive games released on the Playstation 3, and so long as you can overlook the few issues the game has, it’s worth every penny. The writing is strong and the characters are convincing, and the visual and aural presentation are among the best the console has to offer. The gameplay is simple to learn all around, and the adventure mode offers plenty to see and do, while the combat is in-depth and robust overall. The game is meaty, with a long story mode and a ton of extra content to plow through, and there are plenty of reasons to come back to the game once you’re done with it, making it worth owning if you’re the sort of person who likes their games lengthy and deep. On the downside, the weapon customization system feels pointless, some of the plot elements are needless and at times silly, old fans may be annoyed by the removed content and the feeling of déjà vu the game inspires, and new fans may be annoyed by the repetition that pops up late in the game. If you can deal with the issues the game has, Yakuza 3 is an awesome game that justifies its asking price nicely and is worth owning, but it’s not for everyone, unfortunately.



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