Yakuza 3 Impressions: In English, Partly

Yesterday's surprise announcement that the Japanese hit Yakuza 3 will be coming to America after all was followed by the surprise that the English-language version was three blocks from Kotaku's NYC office. Good reason for a short walk.

The game is a brawler starring tough guy Kiryu Kazuma and the detailed surroundings of a fictional version of Tokyo as ell as other Japanese locales.

Since the 2005 release of the first Yakuza, which came to America on the PlayStation 2 with English dubbed voices, the series has been a celebration of the seedy and the profane. It's a narrative-driven game that allows for some wandering through local sights, a mix of indulgences in the hard-boiled world of crime and the eclectic diversions of Tokyo. This is a series that let's you swing a bat in a batting cage or into a guy's face. For another diversion, you can visit an arcade or pay girls to hang out with you in true-to-life (so they say) Hostess Bars.

The new game is the second on the PlayStation 3 and one that seemed doubtful for release in the U.S. While these Sega-developed, Sega-published Yakuza games are blockbusters in Japan, the first two games sold poorly in the U.S. This new one, technically the fourth, was released in February in Japan, with no indication of a planned Western release. But Sega is bringing the game to North America and Europe after all, leaving the Japanese voice-acting intact.

The version of the game that I saw near our New York offices had English subtitles and English written on the health bar and other on screen displays. That was the only noticeable change in the part of the game I was shown, which featured Kazuma beating up dudes and hanging out in the fictional Kamurocho district, modeled off of Tokyo's Kabukicho neighborhood. The game's in-world visuals seemed as Japanese as ever (which means, actually, that some signs in faux-Tokyo are in Japanese and others in... English). Even the screen-filling alerts that appear at the start of the game's version of random battles — guys walking up to Kazuma and starting a fight — are still in the kanji alphabet.

The Sega community manager showing me the game said he was unaware of any in-game content being changed for a Western audience. It sounds like the game will retain its heritage and style with little if any of its character or characters lost in translation.

The plot of Yakuza 3 draws Kazuma out of his post-crime life, forced him to leave the orphanage he has started in Tokyo to return to the seedier side of things. I saw Kazuma beat up a few guys, using the aforementioned bat in the aforementioned Kamurocho district against the aforementioned gangs. The player can make Kazuma run away from the people who approach him for a brawl, but gamers will likely be tempted to fight, not flee, letting the camera zoom in for some bone-crunching brawling. The better Kazuma fights, the more a meter fills and a halo of fire engulfs his body, allowing him to do super-attacks that drop an enemy's health by half.

I watched some brawling. Then I watched Kazuma, a man of simple pleasures, go to an arcade to try to win a stuffed animal in a UFO-catcher crane game. The Sega rep also had Kazuma considering one of eight in-game flavors of gelato.

Gamers don't often get a chance to play the equivalent of a foreign film, a work that is intentionally left in its native tongue and tone. In March, on the PS3, with Yakuza 3, they can, trying a game that offers a distinct mix of brutality, novelty and almost-real-world grit.