Yakuza 3 Review

By Matt Keil - Posted Mar 18, 2010

Many Yakuza fans never thought we'd see the third installment of Kazuma Kiryu's life story on Western shores, but Sega has surprised us by delivering Yakuza 3 to American PS3s. The violent adventure epic has a modest but strong fanbase here. The sequel hasn't made it Stateside completely intact, but what's here is more than up to snuff, if you're willing to come along for the ride.

The Pros
  • Tons of quests and minigames to complete
  • Improved camera system
  • Fantastic and mature presentation
The Cons
  • Chase battles suck
  • A sizable amount of game was cut from US version
  • Short attention spans need not apply

Many Yakuza fans never thought we'd see the third installment of Kazuma Kiryu's life story on Western shores, but Sega has surprised us by delivering Yakuza 3 to American PS3s. The violent adventure epic has a modest but strong fanbase here. The sequel hasn’t made it Stateside completely intact, but what’s here is more than up to snuff, if you’re willing to come along for the ride.

After the violent events of Yakuza 2, Kazuma and the orphaned Haruka have retired to Okinawa’s beaches to run an orphanage. Their idyllic lifestyle is interrupted when sinister underworld elements decide they want the orphanage property as part of a political land grab that reaches high into the power structure of the Japanese government. After being pushed too far by yakuza families with connections to his former family, Kazuma is forced to take off the Hawaiian shirt and put on his silver suit of Plus-Four Badass to set wrongs right.

 Yakuza 3 Review

Orphans and Beatdowns

The story is a slow burn. There is a great deal of discussion of Japanese politics and a large chunk of the early part of the game is spent running the orphanage and solving Kazuma’s kids’ problems. These range from petty theft to food allergies. Short attention spans need not apply, although those who appreciate the surprisingly adult presentation of the narrative will find a lot to like. Despite being steeped in Japanese culture and references, Yakuza 3 does not fall victim to over-dramatic anime-style acting very often. Some comedy relief with the orphans rings hollow, but other moments are genuinely touching, and once Kazuma gets down to business in the name of protecting his new family, the story never lets up until the end. At no point in Yakuza 3 did I feel like I was playing a game designed for anime-obsessed tweens. This game truly has respect for the intelligence of its audience.

Perhaps most interesting is the character of Kazuma Kiryu himself, who is very unlike many of the hard-edged badasses that populate so many of this generation’s games. More than the other two Yakuza titles, Yakuza 3 goes out of its way to make one thing clear about its protagonist: Above all else, Kazuma is a good man. He solves problems with brutal violence when he has to, but his preferred weapon at this time in his life is words, and many of the scenes that show him doing his best to teach his young charges how to handle life’s complications are strikingly singular in the spectrum of gaming ass-kickers.

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Everything But Capsule Toys

There aren't a lot of changes to the basic structure of the game. As Kazuma, you run around, pick up tons of sidequests, play sports, and beat up hundreds of random punks dumb enough to challenge you in the street. The number of things to do is staggering and occasionally overwhelming. A dozen or more hours can pass in a chapter just due to the sheer amount of side material available

The camera is now standard behind-the-back style and fully controllable, doing away with the awkward preset camera angles of the PS2 games. Combat balances nicely in a somewhere between "less complex than a fighting game but not as monotonously simple as as a classic beat ‘em up" that makes for a pleasantly sculpted difficulty curve. Early battles are basic and easy to learn from, while some more advanced opponents will force you to utilize Kazuma’s full arsenal of skills to come close to damaging them. Even better, fights now take place exactly where you meet opponents, seamlessly transitioning from roaming mode to combat mode without a cutaway, although there is still some load time to deal with.

New to the mix is the Revelation system, in which a trainer named Mack will tip Kazuma off to a unique event in the vicinity. Once you’ve found it, Kazuma will whip out his cell phone and you’ll complete a QTE sequence to take pictures while a wacky cutscene plays out. These sequences run the spectrum from old women doing unintentional flip tricks on a scooter to severe genital injury by pitching machine. Afterward, Kazuma dramatically sends a text to his blog, resulting in his learning a new move, some of which turn out to be extremely powerful.

Also making its debut is a first person mode, primarily used to spot locker keys in odd places. Previous games have kept collectible keys on the ground, but Yakuza 3’s keys can be just about anywhere, and you’ll need to scan all over to find them. Thankfully, they glow much more noticeably than in Yakuza 2. First-person view can also be used to intimidate random thugs from a distance by staring at them for a few seconds. They hate that.

The one problematic addition is something called Chase Battles, which send you running after or away from someone in a frustrating and clunky sequence. These are riddled with collision problems, control problems, pop-in pedestrians that screw you up with no warning, and are generally infuriating. It’s a good concept, but the execution is sorely lacking.

And all of these elements barely scratch the surface of the activities Yakuza 3 offers. There’s golf, batting cages, bowling, weapon modding, the fighting Coliseum, dating, gambling, casino games, an arcade shooter, and of course, the realistically maddening UFO Catcher crane game. Most hilarious, though, is a visit to the karaoke booth. If you go without a date, Kazuma sits alone in the booth clapping and shouting along with the insipid J-Pop in one of his more pathetically lonely moments.

Yakuza 3 Review

Badass, Interrupted

Much ado has been made of Sega's decision to cut out what has been estimated as being anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of Yakuza 3’s content for its US release. Missing from this version are hostess bars, trivia quizzes, mah-jongg, shogi, and over twenty side missions. It must be said, I do not like this, nor will much of the audience that’s looking to pick this up. Sega may not realize it, but this is not 1993 and this is not a JRPG on the Sega CD. In general, even the most esoteric games make it to Western shores with 100% of their content present, including Yakuza and Yakuza 2. If Sega is no longer interested in going the distance with their Yakuza game localization, maybe they should contract Yakuza 4 out to another American distributor, like Atlus or Ignition.

Still, it should be emphasized that the cuts don't make Yakuza 3 feel light on content, since around 125 activities from the Japanese version have now been sliced to roughly 100. That’s still a lot to do.The main storyline is fully intact, and essentially what was an 80 hour game is now a 60 hour game. You’re not going to walk away from this one feeling you didn’t get your money’s worth. It's packed with more stuff to do than most games. The only real trouble comes when the content left behind feels abbreviated, like the dating sidequests with the hostess girls that are so brief they feel almost pointless, or the barren shogi and mahjong parlors that now serve no purpose aside from containing the occasional locker key. Because the world of Yakuza is so interactive, it’s jarring when an area is off-limits, and you know it’s likely been sliced out of this version.

Yakuza 3 is an unusual and delightful beast that's a direct descendant of Sega classics like Shenmue and ‘70s era Japanese films like Kinji Fukasaku's Yakuza Papers series. There’s nothing else quite like it, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that, despite the cuts and the minor flaws, we’re lucky to have it in English. Hopefully we'll see Yakuza 4 -- recently released in Japan -- brought to US shores, as well, preferably with all of its hostess bars and trivia minigames intact this time.