The Yakuza series tells the story of Kazuma Kiryu, a notorious mobster
- Engrossing and authentic-feeling Japanese locales, an abundance of things to do and see, great story and characters, excellent combat
- Patches of "filler" in the plot, cut content issue
Even with the infamous "cut content" issue lurking overhead, Yakuza 3 is still an expertly crafted crime-drama jam-packed with pulse-pounding fights and a gripping narrative brought to life by a living, breathing Okinawa.
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It surprises me that the Yakuza series is often compared to Grand Theft Auto. Both games involve criminals in some way, but that's about where the similarities stop. If you're looking for a game where you can carjack and cause mayhem as you please in a Japanese setting, you're going to have to wait until Rockstar heads to the Far East for the next Grand Theft Auto. If what you are looking for, however, is a spiritual successor to the fan-beloved Shenmue series that improves significantly on just about every aspect of those two titles, then you should definitely look at Yakuza 3.
The Yakuza series tells the story of Kazuma Kiryu, a notorious mobster who, despite his best efforts, can't seem to leave the life of organised crime behind him. The events of the second Yakuza sees Kiryu leaving his home turf of Kamuro-cho and the Tojo Clan organisation with his adopted daughter Haruka to build an orphanage in the southern islands of Okinawa. But the spectre of criminal corruption haunts him as he discovers that some shady dealings are afoot to evict him and his children from their land. He soon discovers a plot involving not only power struggles between and within Yakuza families, but high-ranking officials in various governments. The story, though melodramatic, is involving and excellently told, and even touches upon some hot-button issues in Japan right now (such as the US Army presence in Okinawa).
Over the course of Yakuza 3 you'll have both Okinawa and Kamuro-cho to explore, and both settings are large and detailed. As in Shenmue, there is an emphasis on exploration and minor distractions; You can eat at restaurants to restore health, sing karaoke, go gambling, fish at the beach, shop for food and various sundries, among many other things. There are a lot of optional "side-stories" you can take on to help people and earn money, items, and EXP. There's always a lot to do and see here, and as the story moves along, even more will be open to you. A staggering amount of effort has been spent making these places feel as authentic as possible: As someone who studied abroad in Japan for a year and travels back frequently, I found myself smiling at the attention to detail paid to things like the layout of convenience stores and the odd little back alleys which line the streets. Exploring actually made me feel a little "homesick" for Japan at times.
You won't have this freedom all the time, however -- you're only able to goof around as you please between certain story sequences. Certain objectives can't be ignored and must be dealt with before the game can proceed. These range from furthering along Kiryu's investigation and taking down various slimy characters to mundane household stuff like trying to help the kids at the orphanage play baseball. The former is exciting, but the latter generally feels like unnecessary padding. I know we're supposed to feel for the kids, but I'm generally less interested in helping rescue a dog than slugging a murderous thug.
And speaking of thugs, you'll be fighting plenty of them, ranging from low-level street punks looking for a fight to skilled, armed, and exceptionally dangerous crime lords. Combat controls are intuitive, responsive, and easy to grasp, which makes pummelling the numerous scumbags into the pavement immensely satisfying and loads of fun. You can also buy and modify various weapons and defensive tools to use when you're taking on packs of grunts from the local family -- or you can even take certain elements from the background, like signposts and bikes, and use those as impromptu weaponry. You'll also gain experience along the way to boost your power and learn new skills, as well as discover new attacks during side events. The constantly evolving combat keeps the action fresh, fun, and challenging throughout the entire game.
There is some controversy regarding some content which was cut from the Japanese version while it underwent localisation, and that's an issue I'll talk about at length later on. But despite this, Yakuza 3 is a superb game, loaded with action, intrigue, and drama. It's tons of fun to play whether you're working to actively advance the story or just spending a few hours goofing off and running errands for others. It's a shame that this series hasn't yet gained the acclaim and sales in the West that it has in Japan, but if enough people give Yakuza 3 a look and see for themselves what makes it so special, maybe we can bridge that gap just a little more.
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