For the most part, videogames are guilty of playing safe when it comes to genre categorisation, constrained by staunch alignment to popular or recognised styles of gameplay - whether it be in the guise of a first-person shooter, an action platformer, or a real-time strategy title. Of course, that's not always the case and, as such, sprawling RPGs and open-world sandbox games tend to spread focus across multiple contributing aspects such as character evolution, action mechanics, and interactive narrative.
Then there's Sega's Yakuza 3, which isn't a shooter, isn't an action platformer and isn't a real-time strategy title. But then it's not an RPG or a sandbox game either. Like other recent Japanese hits making the Western leap (i.e., No More Heroes), Yakuza 3 defies categorisation and stands alone by delivering an oddly disjointed but compelling experience that manages to strike the right notes and maintain player interest without ever settling on one concrete style of play. So what the heck is it?
At its heart, Yakuza 3 is a pseudo open-world gangster adventure set around returning series protagonist Kazuma 'Dragon of Dojima' Kiryu, the revered Fourth Chairman of Tokyo's mighty Tojo Clan. With his friend Diago safely installed as the new Tojo Clan boss, the game opens with Kazuma pursuing a bizarrely idyllic life on the island of Okinawa - where he runs a small beach-side orphanage and strives to avoid contact with the island's yakuza contingent. However, it doesn't take long before a shadowy mainland attempt to buy the deed to the land beneath Sunshine Orphanage combines with an assassination attempt on Diago's life and draws a smouldering Kazuma back to Tokyo in search of answers.
The reason why Yakuza 3 is such an oddball offering is that it chooses to dip a toe into various gameplay pools and its impressive open-world setting remains so without being very open at all. Specifically, players will often find exploration throughout the streets of Okinawa and Tokyo curtailed by annoying invisible barriers, pesky knee-high bollards and unwelcome camera shifts that push Kazuma back into quite disappointingly confined environments. That being said, players are unlikely to care because there are so many core story missions, secondary side quests, and random brawls crammed into these areas that boredom and frustration rarely sully enjoyment.
For example, beyond the beach-fronted Sunshine Orphanage, Okinawa's available streets amount to little more than a lively intersection and a modest smattering of urban sprawl crossing a meandering river. But packed into this small grid of roads and side streets are bars, shops, restaurants, convenience stores, a public shopping arcade, and a food market - all of which can be entered to unveil lots of hidden activities. Sticking firmly to the main story will keep such extras out of view, but a willingness to wander and chat to the game's plentiful NPCs will see players rewarded with distracting tasks and mini-events such as darts, pool, golf, gambling, karaoke, and even fishing. While Tokyo offers yet more in terms of both exploration and interactive entertainment (hostess clubs, bowling and videogame arcades), the total game world is somewhat condensed - but there's little doubting the richness and appeal of the content therein.
Of course, the main attraction attributed to Sega's Yakuza series has always been its bloody-knuckled action, and Yakuza 3 certainly pulls no punches where the liberal pummelling of faces is concerned. Sampling the game's hidden activities may be largely reliant on side quests and exploration, but battles are much more random and often involve street punks and gang members simply trying to relieve Kazuma of his wallet or doling out punishment for entering rival yakuza territory. Whatever the motivation of opponents, brawls are always fun and seldom disappoint, allowing players to hone their fighting skills and gather important experience points that can be traded against new attacks, throws and counter moves.
The really weird thing about Yakuza 3 is to be found in its gameplay balance. Before embarking on the trip to Tokyo - which is the main meat on the game's bones - up to 10 hours can be spent watching Kazuma delivering side-mission life lessons to his gaggle of young orphans before then chasing Okinawa's main storyline and mercilessly thrashing through hordes of naughty local yakuza who've kidnapped the orphan daughter of a rival clan boss.
For example, Kazuma addresses incidences of bullying, deals with inter-orphanage thievery, and teaches his charges to be kind and considerate to others. And when not being the perfect guardian by playing baseball and hide-and-seek, the former clan boss is kicking folk through shop windows, slamming heads off lamp posts, and using all manner of environmental objects and weapons to inflict excruciating pain on enemies. The distinctly black and white structure means there's no moral middle ground as such, but the stark contrast actually works surprisingly well given that Kazuma never really looks to pick a fight (a la Keith Carradine in Kung Fu) and is always trying to leave his questionable past behind.
The battle mechanics in Yakuza 3 are pleasingly simple to execute but also provide a decent amount of progressive depth. A basic attack combo is performed via repeated presses of the square button and can be punctuated at any time by a more violent final attack when used in conjunction with the triangle button. From a defensive standpoint, the L1 shoulder button is used to block incoming blows, while holding R1 and pressing the 'X' button causes Kazuma to dodge in whichever direction the thumbstick is pushed. Each victorious battle, completed mission and various other in-game actions reward the player with experience points, which can be traded through the Upgrade menu to attain more powerful attacks, throws and finishing moves - and here's where the Heat Gauge and context-sensitive special attacks steal the show and earn Yakuza 3 its PEGI 18 rating.
Specifically, the Heat Gauge fills as Kazuma completes chained attacks, bathing him in ethereal flames when full and granting temporary access to unlocked finishers that are likely to cause the player to yelp in empathy as enemies are pulverised. Depending on where the action is unleashed - and often depending on whether Kazuma has a particular weapon to hand - finishers can range from crushing a bloodied face underfoot to bouncing skulls off walls, smashing foes through the air with a sledgehammer, or using seemingly innocuous items to inflict damage (i.e., a park bench, a flag pole, or even a traffic cone). Factor in cash-based weaponry and equipment modification and there is more than enough on show to keep action fans happy. And, trust me on this, when it comes to tackling some of the game's latter yakuza bosses, players would be well advised to whittle experience from every aspect of gameplay in order to sculpt Kazuma into a suitably formidable fighting machine.
Another point of interest worth noting is Yakuza 3's new 'epiphany' system, which is tied to Kazuma's mobile phone camera and can be used in first-person to locate and snap NPC events that present the player with three possible on-screen interpretations of what has just transpired. For example, a drunk man staggers into a young woman and accidentally gropes her breasts, to which the otherwise timid woman becomes incensed and throws the man to the ground. If the player correctly surmises that the move is a grapple counter, Kazuma's skill portfolio receives a new move to use in future brawls. If the player guesses incorrectly that the girl has perhaps unleashed a secret rage or is incredible strong, Kazuma gets nothing and has to wait until the next 'epiphany' moment to try again. It's a clever mechanic that encourages the player to monitor their surroundings at all times, which in turn helps reveal flashing keys scattered about the game world that open goodie-filled storage lockers in both Okinawa and Tokyo.
From an aesthetic point of view, the streets of both Okinawa and Tokyo are teeming with NPCs and certainly work well in creating believable virtual populations. Yet, although the predominantly urban game world carries plenty of atmosphere, Yakuza 3 isn't going to win any awards for its visuals, which fail to tap the PlayStation 3's potential. Character models are decent enough and animation is strong, but everything else has a gritty, almost dirty presence that suggests PlayStation 2.5 and doesn't marry well with all the surrounding inner-city colour provided by glitzy shop signs, product ads, and nightclub hoardings. Game sound also falls short in striking a consistent tone (no pun intended), and while the soundtrack and original Japanese character voices lend a weight of authenticity during cut-scenes and brawls, the generic typewriter sounds accompanying text-based conversations grate after a while - not least because ambient game world sound effects are almost non-existent during such (often incredibly lengthy) exchanges.
Yakuza 3 doesn't completely defy description and, if pushed, I'd be forced to draw a parallel with one of Sega's other videogame adventure series by saying it most closely resembles Shenmue. Don't be dissuaded by that comparison; while Shenmue was largely an exercise in boredom that crawled along at a snail's pace with as much personality as a housebrick, the two games do share the same narrative and gameplay structure. Yakuza 3 excels thanks to an irresistibly likeable hero, a world pulsing with life, brutally fulfilling battles, and a good 30 hours of core story missions and secondary character tasks. Plus, if we're comparing Yakuza 3 with Shenmue, it doesn't involve mundane forklift employment, time-restricted exploration, and a questionable homoerotic search for sailors.
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