The Dragon of Dojima's Looking a bit Paunchy
HIGH Playing baseball with kids on the beach.
LOW The slow trickle of new moves makes combat painfully stale.
WTF "You have learned the art of pole dancing."
It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of Sega's Yakuza series. If you ask me, it consistently deals with some of the most mature subject matter out there, and the characters are always nuanced and human. I look back on my time with Yakuza and Yakuza 2 as some of the most fulfilling I've had with a controller in hand, and finding time in my review schedule for Yakuza 3 was cause for celebration. The party didn't last long, though... While the game manages to hit a number of high notes, it doesn't meet the standards set by its two predecessors.
To set the scene, players once again step into the third-person, open-world-ish shoes of reformed gangster Kazuma Kiryu. Although Yakuza 3 marks the series' PlayStation (PS3) debut, it's essentially the same as its PS2 brethren with only minor technical upgrades. Camera control is slightly better and more polygons have been poured into the character models, but it'll be quite familiar to fans of the series—it's not necessarily a bad thing.
This time around, we find our hero managing an orphanage full of children and working to prevent the loss of the land their home is built on. Players craving all-action, all-the-time might find themselves champing at the bit during Yakuza's frequent and extended cut-scenes, but they aren't just hot air or special effects. The voice actors capture their roles and the writers deliver above-average material that's smart and sensitive. Understanding how each character feels relative to their history, to each other, and to their dilemmas makes up the heart and soul of the experience.
While gangster-as-daycare-provider may seem highly unconventional, it actually fits with the rich backstory the developers have built for Kazuma over the first two installments—he's an orphan himself, so Yakuza often touches on the nature of family, relationships, trust, honor, and other themes which don't get more than a quick shout-out in other titles before having the player rush off to hijack cars, kill aliens or perform headshots. I can't praise the dramatic side of Yakuza enough.
However, while the story manages to deliver the same sorts of surprise twists and layered emotional moments the series is known for, the rest of the content can't match that same level of quality. Essentially, Yakuza 3 is an absolutely fantastic eight-hour game that's been stretched out and padded to run for twenty.
After some strong opening scenes, the plot begins to meander and tosses a number of tasks at the player that don't seem very interesting or important. Laying groundwork for the storytelling is important, but it felt a bit too much like pace-killing busywork here. Even after skipping almost all of the game's ridiculously plentiful sidequests in an effort to keep things moving forward, I still felt that fat could have been trimmed. Once past the start, it's several hours before things heat up again, and that paunchy middle can drag.
That issue aside, the hand-to-hand combat is where the game really falls down. By beating up disrespectful street punks and gang members during his travels, Kazuma earns experience that's applied towards increasing his power and unlocking new moves. While the previous Yakuza games have done a fantastic job of keeping fights fresh thanks to a constant trickle of exciting techniques, I was surprised to see that Yakuza 3's combat utterly fails to sustain itself over the length of the game.
The main issue is that instead of learning new punches, kicks and grabs, most of the upgrades are either simple stat increases or "Heat" attacks. (Heat is a powered-up state that Kazuma achieves by beating fools down and avoiding damage—once he's hot, this opens the door to special high-damage maneuvers.) Unfortunately, most of the Heat moves are overspecialized and quite difficult to routinely perform—for example, there's a kick that requires Kazuma to be on one side of a fence with an enemy on the other side. I didn't pull it off even once during my entire playthrough. There are many others with similarly strict requirements for use, and these conditions are rarely satisfied unless the player goes out of their way to do so.
With very few broadly-applicable moves unlocked, the result is that nearly every encounter relies on the same basic punch/kick combo that Kazuma begins with. It's boring, it turns combat into a tedious affair to be avoided whenever possible, and it's a big step down from what the series has offered before. At one point, I went nearly eight hours without learning any usable moves. By the time I had finally unlocked my next juicy technique, I was in the final chapter of the game! There are a few other irritating issues that pop up, but nothing's as damaging to the overall experience as this catastrophic regression of combat skills.
While I've heard some people say that Yakuza 3 is a good entry point for newcomers, I'd have to disagree. In my view, it offers the weakest combat out of the first three games and the story isn't as tight or as gripping as I'd expect. If I had never played the series before and Yakuza 3 was my first exposure, the impression I'd be left with wouldn't be extremely favorable.
Don't get me wrong; Yakuza 3 is still a good game that offers a uniquely Japanese experience and dramatic content an order of magnitude more mature than most of what's coming down the pike, but it just doesn't match up to the first two entries. I hate to say it, but the Dragon of Dojima's gotten soft in the middle—it's time for Kazuma to cut back on the yakiniku and get his ass back to the gym. .
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol, and violence. As you can probably guess from the abundance of content warnings provided on the back of the box, this game is intended solely for adults. Nearly everyone in the game drinks alcohol, there is a ton of salty language, lots of blood and violence and there are a few pole dancing clubs where players can go to watch the ladies do their thing. It's all appropriate to the subject material, just keep in mind that the subject material is not appropriate for kids.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You won't have any problems. Since the dialogue in cut-scenes is spoken in Japanese, both hearing and hearing impaired gamers must follow along with the text subtitles which are always present. During combat, there are no important audio cues. It's totally accessible.