I never had the honor of playing the first two installments of Sega’s Yakuza series, the third game was the first time I had ever heard of it despite both being available for the PS2. It’s no surprise really since the first two games received a very poor reception outside of Japan. Ever since the franchise began in 2005 Yakuza has had a new installment in Japan on an annual basis whereas we in the West have had to wait years between games. Even as Yakuza 3 was finally being released here the fourth game in the series was being released in Japan. The only reason we even saw Yakuza 3 make a western release was due to a mass of internet users demanding it and a year after its release in the East Yakuza 3 is finally here, but was it worth it in the end? The short answer is yes.
Up front it has to be made clear that the western release of Yakuza 3 is not the full game. Parts were taken out due to time constraints and strangely because there were certain things that apparently as Westerners we just ‘couldn’t handle’ which makes little sense. Things like the ‘Answer x Answer’ trivia game, certain side-quests and the hostess clubs. It has even seen a reduction in the number of trophies available, downgrading from 50 in the original to the 45 now present in our version. Since I have not played both versions of the game I can’t really say if the missing parts have made any real difference to the game, though what I can say is that I was disappointed they weren’t there. I suspect that the real reason behind the cuts were so that the game could be released at the same time as Final Fantasy XIII, it seems a bit too coincidental to be otherwise. Though features have been removed we have also had certain others added which I will explain later on. I also had the impression that Yakuza 3 would be released here in English but it turned out not to be so. The voice acting remains Japanese but is accompanied by English subtitles. This can sometimes impair your enjoyment of the cutscenes since you have to keep your concentration on the text rather than just sitting back and watching the visuals.
The storyline of Yakuza 3, like the first two games are full of twists and will keep you interested and on your toes. Don’t let the fact that you have not played the first two games stop you playing the third, in the main menu Sega has thoughtfully included two lengthy videos explaining the key events of the two previous games. Even without it Yakuza 3 is relatively easy to get into. What does make it hard is that this is a very Japanese game and almost every character in the game has a virtually unpronounceable name. They are also names that for us aren’t very distinctive from the rest and this can often lead to confusion grasping who is who, or just plain forgetting. Despite that Yakuza 3 does have a handy chart in the menu showing information on all the key characters, their history and the way they are linked to the others. What seems most obvious is that this installment is a lot more laid back and less exciting than the first two games. A possible reason for this is that the original writer for the first two games, Hase Seishu, was not responsible for the story this time round and Yakuza 3 is instead written by Masayoshi Yokoyama.
You take the role of Kazuma Kiryu, the main protagonist from the first two games, as he tries to put his Yakuza way of life behind him. Now retired and once being an orphan himself he sets up an orphanage on the beautiful island of Okinawa and runs it with his adoptive daughter Haruka, who also accompanied him in previous games. Inevitably he is dragged back into the dark underworld of his past as the place he has come to call home, the Sunshine Orphanage, comes under threat. The deeds to the land are owned by the boss of the local Yakuza clan, the Ryudo Family, who finds himself under pressure from the government to sell it. Two competing politicians are fighting to use the land either for a seaside resort or to install a US military base. Kazuma finds himself now caught up in the battle to protect the sanctuary he has built for his family of orphans. At the same time Kuzuma’s friend and the Sixth Chairman of the Tojo Clan, Kuzuma’s former clan, is assassinated pulling Kazuma further into his dark past as a war begins between the Yakuza as they try to obtain the deeds to the land by any possible means.
The story is much less action orientated than the first two games seem to be, the first half of the game mostly has you taking care of the children in your charge. At times doing so can seem pretty pointless since this mostly consists of resolving petty conflicts between the children, dealing with their self-esteem issues or teaching a dog to do tricks. They may seem pointless but it adds an element of emotion and caring to the game and that only serves the story better by making you genuinely feel for the orphanage and its orphans, giving you a deeper motivation to try and preserve it. The story itself is split between two fictional settings based on real locations, Ryukyugai on Okinawa and Kamurocho, a version of Tokyo’s red light district. While it isn’t the greatest story ever told it will keep you suitably entertained. Watching the videos for the first two games shows you a story that in the previous two games was full of massive twists and turns. Yakuza 3 didn’t seem to provide as much in that aspect. Nothing really came as a massive shock and I could see most of the twists coming. The first half of the game was pretty easy to follow but later on a lot of politics comes into the story and for anyone not too familiar with Japanese politics, which I think I can safely say is most of us, will start to find it harder to follow.
Kazuma as a character can often be questionable considering his background as a Yakuza. He seems too soft, considerate and helpful to have been part of the Japanese mafia, even when he comes into direct contact with them. I mean how likely is it that an ex-Yakuza would retire to run an orphanage? Aside from that gripe he is a solid and compelling character and I had a lot of fun playing him. I’m one of those weird people who when faced with a moral choice in a game will always choose good over evil. It is what I would do as a person so it makes little sense to me why people enjoy being destructive so much.
Despite now being a year old the graphics in Yakuza 3 are still beautiful and run smoothly, especially since they have moved away from the previous games grittier cityscapes. The locations found on Okinawa like the Sunshine Orphanage and the market town of Ryukyugai are full of color and an impressive level of detail, while Kamurocho holds fast to the gritty appearance from previous installments. What stands out most as you explore these environments is that they have in no way been westernized, instead you have a true representation of the way Japan really looks. Japanese culture is so different from our own that sometimes the visuals and gameplay seem overwhelming and alien, but they always remain beautiful throughout. The only real graphical issue, aside from the subtitles, is the way that during certain cutscenes they abruptly switch between FMV and real-time so that you can read through conversations in scrolling text. When this happens it does disrupt the flow of the story and can make it seem awkward.
Since I don’t speak Japanese I can’t give a fair assessment of the voice-acting but it does seem to suit the characters most of the time, although the children can be particularly high-pitched. Like most RPG’s battle music stays consistent which means it can get repetitive eventually and you get something a little special playing to get your blood pumping during the boss fights. The music suits the game but you won’t find anything truly epic. There is no music as you explore the world but the sound effects are well-done and keep it from becoming dull. It will make you feel like you are wandering through a bustling city which is exactly what you’re doing.
The gameplay is what makes Yakuza 3 shine, especially since it is an action RPG. Despite being a sandbox structured kind of game and despite so much focus on the world of crime and gang warfare, this is not a game like Grand Theft Auto, far from it. You can’t attack random pedestrians on the street and you won’t be hijacking cars or even using them. I’d say primarily this game is an RPG and as such is very story-driven. The gameplay itself is separated over three modes that run seamlessly together. Firstly is the Event Mode which encompasses the main storyline itself. In Event Mode you will be presented with cutscenes and dialog, and introduced to new missions. The main storyline spans over twelve chapters and a prologue. What came as a big surprise to me was the length of these chapters. Having watched the videos explaining the two previous games I thought there had to be far too much story involved to have such short chapters. Maybe it is just Yakuza 3 that isn’t that lengthy. If you ignore everything else on offer and just concentrate on the story it will last between 15-20 hours. What does make this a lengthy game is everything else that is available to you in the game’s Adventure Mode.