Yakuza 3 is a gritty, free-roaming adventure game that thrusts you fist-first into the Japanese underworld. But while it preaches violence to bend you to its will, it rewards players who uphold the hierarchical bonds of its namesake organisation. The juicy soap opera story, striking visuals, and kooky Japanese humour will suck you in, and though the game stumbles with some combat quirks, the abundance of peripheral activities will allow you to lose yourself in the city and will have you heading back to belt out one more karaoke tune long after the credits roll on the main story.
The story picks up a year after the events of the second game, and you reprise the role of Kazuma Kiryu, Yakuza and former fourth chairman of the Tojo Clan. After leaving the criminal world seeking a life less bloody, you establish an orphanage in Okinawa and play foster father to a handful of local children. In this role you do all the things parents do--confront school bullies, navigate the treacherous waters of teen dating advice, and extol the value of money. It's these seemingly banal exchanges peppering the storyline that reinforce the importance of family and represent the tradition and moral code of the Yakuza that Kazuma is witnessing being thrown by the wayside by gangsters seeking money and power.
When the land the orphanage is built on becomes embroiled in a turf war between politicians and local crime groups, you do the thing you know best--find the problem and punch people in the face. Taking control of a local Yakuza family, you set about unravelling the web of intrigue surrounding who is responsible for the assassination attempt on the Tojo chairman, Daigo Dojima. Optional lengthy recap videos and written character dossiers about the first two Yakuza games are included on the disc, so while first-timers may struggle a little initially, you can quickly get up to speed on who people are and where they fit into the fray. Regardless of whether or not you watch the cheat sheet videos, by the end, and as a result of choices made by those around you and allegiances you form and break, there's a genuine emotional connection with the game's characters even without requiring you to understand the bulky story backlog of the series.
Leaving the sleepy Okinawan town of Ryukyugai and your orphans behind, you return to your old Kamurocho stomping grounds in search of the shooter but end up in the middle of raging gang wars and power struggles. Peeling back the layers and working your way through street-level thugs up to the men dishing out the orders, you tussle with your own morality, but shelve peaceful outcomes for bloody beatings in the name of the familial code. You can only get so much info from verbal interrogation of suspects, so you do most of your sleuthing with your fists. Besting an opponent in a one-on-one fight is enough to get him to spill the beans, and you move on to finding your next target further up the food chain. You don't ever get given a choice to choose between pleasant and pummel, but you're rewarded with experience points for completing the objective. As Kazuma battles rivals old and new, he attempts to right his wrongs by taking Ryukyugai wannabe Yakuza Rikiya under his wing and shielding from the harsh reality of playing alongside the big boys in Tokyo.
As in previous games in the series, brawling remains quite basic and can only be initiated with those who attack you first on the street, or in closed arena combat scenarios. Punch, kick, and grab moves are your bread and butter, while throws and wrestling-style takedowns provide variety. Combinations of punch and kick do the job, but exploiting an opponent with a calculated strike while his guard is down deals considerably more damage than just swinging arms and legs until you land a hit. An assortment of weapons, including stun guns, swords, shotguns, staves, and nunchaku, can be bought, sold, and picked up off the bodies of fallen foes, but since their durability depletes with use, they're more suitable for crumpling someone to the ground or keeping him at bay than as your main course of attack. The game also includes a weapon and armour modification and crafting element, which lets you combine bought and found items. These made items mitigate specific damage types like bullets and knives, or you can modify everyday objects into superweapons like juicing up a Blackjack for extra clubbing power, or adding nails to a pair of shoes. The system is fun for would-be home MacGyvers who like to tinker and combine seemingly mismatched objects, but the system feels more cosmetic than functional since you're never required to create items via crafting to beat a boss or progress the story. That said, like the pickup and bought weapons in Yakuza 3, custom objects act as a nice perk if you need a temporary boost to your arsenal.
Successfully scoring a string of melee attacks without taking damage rewards you with heat, the game's version of energy. Charging your meter allows you to unleash special attacks and brutal finishing moves, such as slamming skulls into walls, breaking bicycles over enemies, and performing flashy weapon executions. Target locking is better in Yakuza 3 than in its predecessors, but while it retains your last damaged mark as you move around, it's frustrating to get hit repeatedly from behind as you attempt to turn and face a target or struggle to frame the action with the game's freely controllable camera. Attack animations continue to play out when you're trying to manoeuvre away from danger and often cause you to get caught in a flurry of hits. These issues aside, combat feels meaty, animations look good, and the associated sound effects as you connect with an adversary are good and hefty.
Defeating gang bosses and completing the plethora of side quests and hired gun missions scattered around the city will reward you with experience points used to upgrade your abilities and increase your health and heat bars. You can complete the main story mode with basic well-timed punches and kicks, but seeking out the hilarious (and very Japanese) "revelation" challenges has you snapping photos of bizarre street behaviour to learn specific fighting styles. Examples of its ludicrousness include capturing a woman distributing tissue samples on the side of the road at ninja-like speed, a drunken businessman stumbling to avoid being hit by a goading teen, and a woman flipping her scooter 360 degrees over a car while ogling a picture of a pop star on a billboard. The revelations play out as quick-time events, and providing you press the indicated buttons in time and then select the correct statement from a choice of three options, your images are uploaded to your blog and new finishing moves and skills are added to your repertoire. It's a very different way to introduce new abilities, but they're a blast to search out and complete and are valuable for improving your fighter
The environment is one of Yakuza 3's best characters, and its living, breathing feel and attention to detail are astonishing. Realistic-looking vending machines line city walls, popular Japanese food and drink brands are available in stores to purchase, and the excitable welcoming yells of "Irasshaimase!" as you enter businesses make it feel like home. You can't enter every building, but the ones you can are clearly marked by a colour key system on the minimap. This means that as you wander the streets taking in the sights and sounds of Kamurocho around you, you won't ever be stuck wondering which buildings you can interact with or find yourself bumping up against invisible walls or jiggling the knob on every door. There's a strange serenity in this hectic city as you eavesdrop on locals chattering and watch couples meet and embrace. But as beautiful as it may appear on the surface, the game snaps you back to its true personality as club promoters follow you spruiking their sordid wares and strangers stop you cold to exchange knuckles in random street fights.
While the pace and events of the story are enough to propel you towards its conclusion, the non-story peripheral content gives Yakuza 3 a welcome sense of diversity. There are more than a hundred side and hitman quests that allow you to do everything from carrying ice cream for a father who has overpurchased, to playing UFO Catcher claw machines in the arcade, to chasing down a bag snatcher, to offering financial advice to a man deep in debt and precariously perched on the edge of a bridge.
Dozens of shops and entertainment venues give you the chance to browse magazines at convenience stores, take ladies out on dates, go fishing, and try your luck in the underground casino dens and fight clubs. Some of these serve purposes; eating at restaurants replenishes your health, and fishing allows you to make money selling your catch at the markets. While others, such as practicing your swing at the Yoshida Batting Cage, are just a nice way to unwind after a hard day of pulping faces on the sidewalk.
If all that isn't enough to keep you occupied, once you've completed the main story, you unlock the Ultimate Skill, Premium Adventure, and Premium New Game options. Ultimate Skill is a series of rewarding and challenging trials that let you relive cage matches with boss battles from the story mode, take on the clock as you pummel hordes of attackers, put down foes with the fewest number of hits, and win by using only nominated abilities. Tag-team matches are fun and pair you with an AI buddy as you grapple with two targets at once. If you just want to focus on blowing through the story first and then attempt the other missions once you're done, the Premium Adventure and Premium New Game modes give you the chance to go back and tie up all the loose ends with the skills and money you've accrued and max out your character stats, or simply wander the city with or without your bankroll. They're a good way to extend the playtime past the 20 or so hours of the main story, but since the game doesn't offer a branching storyline, you're limited to redoing the same events over at a higher difficulty.
The delay coming to the West has been worth the wait. While localisation removes some of the more esoteric Japanese cultural phenomena like hostess clubs, the game retains its excellent Japanese voice acting and includes subtitles rather than redubbed audio for cutscenes. The biggest new feature is the inclusion of the game's Japanese downloadable content free in the box, which adds a survival cage match mode and a minigame challenge that lets you explore the city with minor character Haruka.
Don't let the fact that you haven't previously tackled a title from the Yakuza franchise put you off picking up this game. While the learning curve for the story starts off a little steep, by the end of the ludicrous, action-packed storyline, everything falls into place and you have formed genuine connections with endearing characters. Yakuza 3's detailed and living environments, engaging story, and abundance of extra things to see and do make it an entertaining ride and a great addition to your brawler collection.