It’s a hard knock life for Kaz.
Modern Japanese culture isn’t exactly known for its subtlety. Spiky blue hair, tentacle sex, upended tea-tables, blaring pachinko parlors, and gigantic robots litter the bright neon thoroughfares of a land once known for its stoic warrior class and serene Zen temples. Combine that with gaming culture—which is generally about as “subtle” as a two-ton bomb—and you end up with games that fall on the subtlety scale somewhere between a deafening screech and Willy Wonka’s Technicolor chocolate factory.
[image1]Not so with Sega’s Yakuza series. It’s consistently been one of the most subtle, intelligently written, delicately constructed, and astonishingly moving video game series ever made. The series has had its rough spots in terms of its combat mechanics and overall design, but the story and cutscene cinematography have always been among the best in the business. In Yakuza 3, most of the odd design quirks and structural issues have finally been hammered out, and a number of welcome additions have been made.
Series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is now running an orphanage in Okinawa, attempting yet again to leave behind the criminal underworld that has dogged him for most of his life. However, it doesn’t take long before circumstances force him once more to bare his dragon-tattooed back and dive headlong into the dirty streets of Tokyo’s fictional Kamurocho district (based on Shinjuku’s red-light district KabukichÅ).
You’ll spend the first few hours attending to the disputes and problems of orphans. Anyone familiar with the series will recognize in these children echoes of Kazuma’s personal history, and you’ll also see parallels to the much bigger and much bloodier conflicts that have appeared in prior Yakuza games. More impressively, Sunshine Orphanage reflects in miniature the specific problems faced by Japan’s cultural outsiders. Many of the children in Kazuma’s orphanage have been abused and traumatized, and some come from Japan’s derided ethnic minority groups. As much as this orphanage is Kazuma’s self-imposed penitence, it is also Japan’s.
The remainder of Yakuza 3’s plot traces the convoluted politics and violence of a real estate deal gone bad. As in the two prior entries in the series, a series of national and international conflicts ensue that Kazuma then needs to bring to an end with his unstoppable fists and uncompromising moral rectitude.
[image2]It’s a mistake to think of Yakuza 3 as a uniquely “Japanese” game that outsiders wouldn’t understand. The language of gangsters is universal. Punching dudes in the gut is universal. Going to stripper joints is universal. Watching a bratty little kid drag his dad into an adult store because he sees a sign advertising “toys” is universal.
Yakuza 3 has the balls of a brawler and the soul of an RPG. When you’re not watching cut-scenes, you’ll either be fighting street punks or building your character. Combat has been tightened yet again, leading to a better lock-on system and much more robust weapon combat. There are hidden photo ops scattered around the two main areas that will unlock additional combat moves, and leveling up will net you even more combos and special attacks.
There are dozens of minigames to bide your time with, and hundreds of items to collect. Golf, pool, darts, card games, arcade games, bowling, fishing, and much more are everywhere. Sega of America has decided to cut a number of minigames for its release in the States. Sadly, both shogi and mahjong are gone. [Much to my Asian dismay. ~Ed. Nick] The Japanese trivia game is also gone, but unless you’re a real Japanophile, this particular cut won’t matter much.
The most controversial and glaring cut is the hostess club minigame. Along with it, a number of related in-game missions have also gotten the axe. You can still go on dates and build relationships with the hostesses, but none of that will happen in the actual clubs. Rather than meeting them in a controlled environment, the women will just approach you out of the blue and ask to go on a date. It’s both oddly funny and creepy at the same time, making the women seem more like street prostitutes than relatively innocuous hostesses.
[image3]But there’s just so much to do in the game that you will hardly notice these omissions. Sure, the shogi halls and mahjong parlors are now just empty areas, but it’ll take you a hundred hours or more to run out of other things to do before you start to miss them. The main story will take you about 20 hours; the sub-missions will take you another couple of dozen hours; and the additional games and activities will keep you busy well beyond the missions proper.
Yakuza 3 prides itself on old-fashioned quirks like random enemy encounters and lengthy cut-scenes. But much like a certain other Japanese open-world throwback, it stubbornly sticks to the old ways and doesn’t give in to the newest, trendiest game design fashions. Much like its protagonist, Yakuza 3 is rough around the edges and isn’t afraid to show its age, but, damn, does it pack one hell of a wallop. The combat is intense, the writing is top notch, and you’ll never run out of things to do.
Where most other major Japanese titles have long since moved on to distinctly Western environments, situations, and characters, Yakuza 3 refuses to budge. Releasing alongside two of the biggest global releases of this console generation, Yakuza 3 is a massive underdog facing overwhelming odds, but just as Kazuma Kiryu stands up to foreign imperial interests to protect his chunk of Okinawan paradise, Yakuza 3 holds firmly to its principles and undeniable virtues. Its old-school design may turn some people off, but the more open-minded among you are in for one hell of a ride. Besides, any game that can make running an orphanage seem fun has got to be doing something very right.