It's funny, for all the Japanese games you and I have ever played—and they number in the hundreds, if not thousands—few of them are Japanese in the way that Yakuza 3 is.
Think about it. How many Japanese games have you played where the recorded dialogue is still in its native tongue? Or that are set in contemporary Japan? Or that forgo the fantastical, like magic powers or alien invasions, in favour of the everyday, like convenience stores and meat buns?
The answer is, outside of Yakuza 3 for the PlayStation 3, not many. And it's this ironic sense of uniqueness that defined my experience with Sega's epic gangster tale, a game that should have been about brawling but is instead more memorable for everything else.
Kick, Punch, It's All In The Mind – You'll sometimes hear people compare the Yakuza series to Grand Theft Auto. That's wrong. It's a brawler with walking and talking attached for context. Lucky for Yakuza 3, then, that caliber of brawling is good, a deft balance between strikes and grapples that combine nicely with objects you can throw and bludgeon opponents with. Best of all is the severity of the combat; the sound effects, impact and blood splatters make it all feel a little heavier, a little more real.
Virtual Tourism Board – The thing I most enjoyed about Yakuza 3 wasn't the story, or the combat, it was the experience of simply walking around Japanese cities (well, small parts of them). While Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto townships are caricatures, designed for crazy driving and gunplay, Yakuza 3's representation of places like Okinawa and Tokyo's Kabukicho (a seedy red light district) are painfully detailed, each alleyway unique, each shopfront an individual entity. This transforms what could be—and I assume for many Japanese gamers is—a mundane experience of running errands and buying drinks from convenience stores into a bona fide tourist experience.
Soap Opera – Yakuza 3 doesn't give you a story as an accompaniment to a game. It gives you a game as an accompaniment to a story. The amount of dialogue and cut scenes in this game is mind-boggling, and while at times it can get a little much (especially during a pedestrian opening section), on the whole it's able to maintain your attention and drive your constant routine of run-brawl-run with a well-developed and executed tale of conflict and mistrust.
No Experience Required – Worried that, being the third game in the series, you'll be lost as to what's going on in Yakuza 3? Don't be. Even without knowing a thing about the last two games, almost everything you need to know will be made clear to you over the game's first 4-6 hours. And if you want to know more, there's a handy primer on the events of Yakuza 1 and 2 included on the disc.
Local Tongue – The Yakuza series is well-known for hiring big-name Japanese actors to play major roles in the game, and in this game, it shows. The voice acting is of a standard rarely seen in other games, regardless of their origin, something you'll notice early on when you hear men genuinely shouting - like, veins-popping-on-the-back-of-your-neck shouting - at each other, and realise how rarely you actually hear that kind of emotion in a video game.
Too Much Talking – There are some things I admire about the game's approach to story-telling. The thing I don't admire is how much time it soaks up, and how it results in huge periods of downtime, especially in the game's opening acts. You can go five, ten and sometimes even 20 minutes without so much as a button pressed in anger, which often leaves you feeling bored and frustrated.
Now On PS2 – A Yakuza game is released roughly every twelve months in Japan. Want to know how they get them out so fast? It's because these games, despite in some places looking new, are in fact relatively ancient. The animation, collision detection and textures in many areas of the game are of PS2 standards, which wouldn't be as big a problem were the principal characters not so lovingly detailed. This results in jarring moments where a contemporary Kiryu runs into a bystander that looks like he fell out of 2002.
Cut Content – It was well-publicised that some content has been cut from Yakuza 3 for its Western release. The good news is, there's so much other stuff going on in the game that you're not missing out on much. The bad news is, Sega could have done a better job of covering up the omissions, as mention is made of hostess bars by the game's characters, and you can walk into a mah-jong club, you just can't do anything. It's a little sloppy.
For all the complaining, petitioning and howling at the moon fans of the series – and those simply wanting something a little different – hurled at Sega to have this game released in the West, it's great to see that it's not only finally here, but that it's as good (maybe even better) as those people were hoping. Sure, content was cut, and that's understandably upset some people who wanted the full experience of not just a Yakuza game, but a virtual tour of Japan, but to allow that to impact your decision on picking up Yakuza 3 would be cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Yakuza 3 plays a great brawl, backs it up with a solid (if long-in-the-tooth) story and lets Western gamers indulge in that rarest of treats: the gaming equivalent of a foreign film. As such, for all those who maintained a vigil outside Sega's internet offices to get the game over here, well done. It was worth the effort.
Yakuza 3 was developed and published by Sega for the PlayStation 3. Released in North America on March 9, retails for $60. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played game to completion, which takes waaaaaaayyyy longer than you think it will.
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