Yakuza 3 is finally out in the west. After a year of petitioning, praying and lots and lots of waiting, fans of the series can now walk over to their local electronics store, pick up a copy of the game, and enjoy the most recent exploits of Kazuma Kiryu – all in wonderful English. The reason fans have been so anxious to get their hands on this title in the west is simple – Yakuza 3 is a masterfully crafted, blockbuster of a game that single-handedly jump-started lagging PS3 sales in Japan (it was the second highest selling game of 2009 in that country). There is so much to do, see, and experience in Yakuza 3 that it rivals hardcore RPGs like Oblivion and Dragon Age in terms of amount-of-time-played to amount-of-money-paid ratio – an equation that many games these days come up shockingly short on.
All that said, Sega’s release of the game in the west didn’t come off without a hitch. Several weeks ago, in response to a whirlwind of rampant, internet forum speculation, Sega confirmed that they cut content from the non-Asian versions of the game. The cuts aren’t widespread or gameplay mutilating, but they are there, and they are noticeable (to those familiar with the Japanese version). Yakuza 3 is so inherently and unabashedly Japanese that bringing it to the west would have been a challenge for even the best of localization teams, but Sega’s team seems especially ham-handed with their decision to, almost arbitrarily, lop off all hostess clubs (the hostess girls are still in, however, as are dates), the Club Sega trivia game, Mahjong and Shogi (Japanese chess), amongst a few other things. In the end, though, the cuts are trivial. They are like the removal of one flavor of candy sprinkles from an exquisitely decorated cake – if you didn’t know they were removed, you probably wouldn’t know the difference. Yakuza 3 is still one of the most polished gameplay experiences on the PS3, and the second must-have, system-exclusive title of 2010 (after Heavy Rain).
In Yakuza 3, former Japanese mafia power player Kazuma Kiryu has moved to Okinawa, far from the continual scheming of Tokyo’s many yakuza clans. He’s set up an orphanage, donned a Hawaiian shirt, and set aside plenty of time to fish for bluefin tuna on the white sandy beach in front of his place. For two years things go perfectly fine for Kazuma, until a government sponsored construction plan threatens his orphanage and sweeps him back up into a web of intrigue that involves murder, double-crosses, and plenty of good ol’ fashioned butt-kicking. The story takes players back and forth from Okinawa to Tokyo’s Kamuro-cho, and covers a breadth of mature, real-life topics that are rarely tackled in the game industry. Yakuza 3‘s cut scenes – which are gorgeously rendered – have been crafted for maximum emotional impact, replacing over-the-top eye candy with methodical exposition that focuses on the story’s wonderfully fleshed-out characters. It’s not uncommon for a cut scene to feature a close-up head shot (the facial animations are amazing) of someone as they light a cigarette, take a deep drag, exhale, and then ponder the situation for five or six seconds before talking again. A small number of gamers may get impatient with the twenty-five or so hour long narrative, due to this slow-burn method of storytelling, but most will find themselves emotionally invested in Kazuma’s world, and ready to see everything through to the bitter end.
The story’s potency is strengthened by Kazuma Kiryu himself – a video game protagonist who ranks up with Solid Snake and Nathan Drake as one of the all-time best. Kazuma is a man who follows a strict moral code – a code that mirrors the Bushido of Edo period samurai, with strong emphasis on loyalty and prowess in battle, but not on needless killing. Kazuma is also tall, muscular, sharply dressed, and capable of walking into any nightclub in Tokyo and leaving with the girl of his choice. He’s sort of a more stoic, less ruthless version of Ian Fleming’s 007, with a badass dragon tattoo sprawled across his back. Players get to step fully into Kazuma’s shoes and experience all shades of his personality, from his time cooking dinner with the kids at the orphanage, to his brutal fisticuffs with anyone who tries to challenge his strict ethical code.
And the fisticuffs are indeed brutal. Comprising of a majority of Yakuza 3‘s actual gameplay, these fights are something like a mix between Tecmo’s slick combat mechanics in Ninja Gaiden and the addictive simplicity of those great beat-em-ups of yesteryear like Final Fight and Sega’s own Streets of Rage. Whether it’s a single brawl with a random hooligan on the streets of Kamuro-cho, or a prolonged action stage in a multi-storied love hotel (no, really), the combat is invigorated by Kazuma’s wicked array of moves and his ability to use almost anything that’s not bolted down as a weapon. A typical fight might consist of Kazuma spraying multiple people in the face with a fire extinguisher, using a 9-iron to tee off with someone’s head, and then slamming another guy’s face into a parked car. Counters and weapon disarms can also be pulled off with a jarring realism that seems to have been influenced, more than a little, by the free-flowing, brutal style made famous by Jason Bourne. The excellent combat is topped off by a complex RPG-like leveling system which has Kazuma building up his attributes and move-set as the game progresses, keeping the fighting fresh as the player moves from chapter to chapter.
Don’t be fooled, though – brawling is far from the last thing you can do in Yakuza 3. Players are given two meaty open-world areas to explore (Ryukyu town in Okinawa and Tokyo’s Kamuro-cho), both of which have been meticulously detailed for the sake of authenticity. Technically, both areas are purely fictional, but the developers bent over backwards to model the environments after real life locations, all the way down to acquiring a record number of actual product tie-ins with major Japanese brands such as Promise, Boss Coffee, Suntory, Aeon and Kodansha. In January 2009, I spent my honeymoon in Okinawa. A month later I was playing Ryu ga Gotoku 3 (the Japanese name for Yakuza 3) and found myself utterly blown away by how thoroughly the game’s Ryukyu area was modeled after Naha Okinawa’s Kokusai street – complete with a Blue Seal ice cream parlor, monorail track and station layout, and even the sanshin (the habu snake-skinned instrument of Okinawa) music wafting pleasantly out from street side shops. If you’ve ever wanted to go to Japan, but couldn’t for whatever reason, consider Yakuza 3 to be the closest way to experience the country without actually stepping foot in an airport.
It just didn’t resonate?
Cut content from the western version of Yakuza 3 includes:
-“Loser” (Japanese theme song by Eikichi Yazawa)
-Wooing women in hostess clubs
-Rina Ayukawa (one of the hostess girls)
-Massage parlor mini-game
-Answer X Answer trivia game
-22 of the original 123 sub-missions
Of course, just exploring the game’s remarkably detailed cityscapes isn’t the only thing to do outside of pushing forward with the main story – over a hundred sub-missions will open up to the player over the course of the game, with themes that range from silly (running from a lustful crossdresser) to serious (investigating a local tea shop murder) to romantic (helping a buddy reunite with an old flame). And, as fans of the Yakuza series already know, there are dozens of ways to keep yourself entertained when taking a break from completing missions or advancing the story. Want to go bowling? It’s in there. How about golf, billiards, darts, or just a quick trip to the batting cages? Go right ahead. How about some gambling? Poker, blackjack, roulette… even traditional Japanese gambling games such as chinchirorin (a sort of Japanese version of craps) – all in. Heck, go grab a hostess girl (seven of which are digital recreations of actual Japanese Ageha models) and sing some karaoke together. There is so much to do, in fact, that after completing the main story, all sub-missions, and dabbling here and there with the plethora of mini-games, my save file read a whopping seventy-five hours. Seventy-five hours – and that was with my total completion percentage at forty-five. It may be cliché, but this is one of the few games on the PS3 that really does keep on giving.
I could go on and on about how great Yakuza 3 is – about how its soundtrack is one of the quirkiest, yet poignant compositions Sega has created in years, or about how the Japanese voice acting (there is no English voice work, only subtitles) is brilliant, propelled to lofty heights by some of the best seiyu (i.e. voice actors) in Japan. But, I won’t (I’d probably be beating a dead horse). Instead, I want to detail a few reasons why Yakuza 3 might not appeal to everyone. First, as mentioned above, there is no English voice acting. I know that there is a fairly large group of people out there who refuse to enjoy any type of entertainment, be it anime, film, or game, if there is no English dialogue. If you fall into this category, Yakuza 3 is probably not for you. Second, those who were never fans of old school-style beat-em-ups, like Streets of Rage, may be turned off by the continuous fighting in the game (random encounters, although avoidable, can pop up quite a bit while exploring the cities). And, lastly, if you’ve been spurred forth to check out the game based on rumblings around the internet that call Yakuza 3 a Japanese Grand Theft Auto, you may be disappointed. Not because this is worse than GTA4, but because it’s an entirely different experience – the games aren’t even in the same genre.
The Yakuza IP is still relatively unknown outside of Japan, but those willing to take the plunge will likely come away wondering why Kazuma Kiryu’s exploits haven’t garnered more mainstream attention. Yakuza 3 is a game that cleverly juxtaposes brutal, skull-cracking combat with real world environments and mature, adult-oriented themes – all driven forward by passionate narrative and one of the most magnetic video game protagonists ever. It’s a chance for those living outside of Japan to slip into the many folds of Japanese culture – to experience a way of life unknown to all but 2% of the world’s population. Picking up a bottle of Suntory tea at the convenience store, wooing the heart of a coy hostess girl, or clashing with rival yakuza members on a tower overlooking the neon-lit expanse of Tokyo – whether shockingly real or fiercely dramatized, the experiences of Yakuza 3 are wholly Japanese, completely riveting, and absolutely worth the price of admission.