Yakuza 3 is a game that wants to communicate what it's like to be in a certain place, not give you an amazing place to do things.
Yakuza 3Publisher: Sega
Platform: Playstation 3
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: CS1 Team
Release Date: 2010-03-09
Yakuza 3 is a game about mobsters but only in a peculiar, roundabout way. The series is often (ineffectually) sold as the Japanese version of Grand Theft Auto, and it often comes out looking shabby and underwhelming when looked at in that light. Of course, Yakuza 3 is nothing of the sort. It's much more akin to a linear, pseudo-open action game, like Fable 2. It's a game that wants to communicate what it's like to be in a certain place, not give you an amazing place to do things. Lengthy cutscenes and frequent bouts of text make up a little more than half of the game. The other half is separated into a host of mini-games and distractions, the fighting game around which the game's upgrade mechanics revolve and a circumscribed kind of world exploration.
Yakuza 3 wants to do a few things: it wants to tell a hilariously, bizarrely, and sometimes surprisingly well told crime story. It's also quite keen on selling you on its deep brawling combat, which most players should welcome, given the sad state of hand-to-hand combat in most games that aren't explicitly fighting games. These are the two things that Sega has chosen to highlight upon the game's North American release. After all, lots of people who aren't Japanese like Yakuza crime stories right? They also like beating up thugs and leveling up an amusingly dressed, fantastically sideburned hero, Sega hopes.
The thing that Sega isn't advertising (and that the enthusiast press has latched onto with understandable glee) is the third key element to Yakuza's unique charm: its rather rigorous reproduction of the sights and sounds of different bits of Japan (I assume, given my complete lack of experience in this area).
It's this idea (and the relatively fun combat and relatively entertaining story) that kept me hacking away at Yakuza 3 despite the fact that the first four hours were completely unbearable. The game starts out promisingly enough. You, Kazuma, are the famed Fourth Chairman of the Tojo Clan. Your history, as detailed in the outrageously complicated "Last Time on Yakuza" videos included on the Yakuza 3 disc, is too convoluted to explain. Suffice it to say that, as the game begins, Kazuma moves to Okinawa to run an orphanage. His companion is his adopted daughter, Huruka, the daughter of his long lost, dead love. Kazuma really loves children, as the game goes out of its way to inform us. For the first five hours of the game, Kazuma splits his time between exploring downtown Okinawa and getting into a ludicrous number of fist fights) along with solving problems back at the orphanage. These long, long hours of child-rearing are quite annoying, when playing a game that is ostensibly about beating up mobsters, watching people talk in serious voices, and exploring fastidiously rendered versions of famous Japanese urban environments.
While it is only a temporary annoyance, it highlights Yakuza 3's greatest failings. This is a game that wants to create a bright, brilliant, and highly interactive world but undercuts itself at every turn. Walking down the streets of Okinawa, and later, Tokyo, Kazuma can buy and sell almost anything that you can imagine. From old magazines to nunchucks to fish and milk, Kazuma benefits from all of the mundane bounty that capitalism has to offer. This over the top, over abundant approach is apparent in every nook and cranny of Yakuza 3. All of the minigames are as exacting and deep as they are boring. The skills, attacks, and abilities that pad out the fighting system are varied and deep, though they never elevate the fighting sequences above the level of amusing distractions.
Yakuza 3 certainly has a lot of stuff in it. Many games are keen to tell you just how big and open they are and how many things you can get up to during your tenure there. Yakuza 3 makes no such promises: this isn't an open world game, precisely. In fact, as regards its open spaces, cities, and smaller maps and dungeons, it really is a dead ringer for Fable 2. Like that bastion of gaming Britishness, Yakuza 3 is happy to provide players with pretty, dense locations to explore but to circumscribe the player's movement beyond certain cities and streets.
The result here is as strangely hollow as it was in Fable 2: fighting, exploring and socializing are all well-represented in Yakuza 3. Every time that you stop and really examine your surroundings, however, the blunt, obvious constraints of these cities become apparent. Invisible walls shouldn't exist in games anymore. It's 2010. Put a visible wall in or a line of implacable, invisible enemies (Far Cry and Red Faction: Guerrilla did this well) or some other plot contrivance. Don't let me stupidly run into a wall of nothing in the middle of a crowded road. The same can be said for Yakuza 3's wonderfully rendered indoor environments: if you do more than examine each location in passing, you'll find that most rooms and floors are off-limits, as are most buildings on the crowded streets. Every time that I let myself be taken in by the game's visual and item-based opulence, its blunt, crass boundaries reminded me of how limited my experience was.
It's not just a failure to deliver a fully (even partially) realized world that bogs this game down. The designers behind Yakuza 3 also don't know how to let players enjoy the world within the game. The opening orphanage sequences are indicative of how Sega chose to create the character of Kazuma, and, oh, how the designers wanted to make you feel for your young charges. Instead of letting you chose to care for and play with your children, Yakuza 3 shoves them in your face, again and again, until you'd like to ditch the whole lot of them for good.It's this brutish, narrow sighted approach to creating empathetic game situations and characters that ultimately breaks Yakuza 3.
I can take silly plot devices, annoying child actors, aging visuals, and a lackluster combat system, as long as a game gives me the tools to have enough fun. Yakuza 3 is much more interested in forcing me to engage in "meaningful" and "fun" activities, activities that obviously are in keeping with the designers' ideas of how Kazuma and Yakuza 3 "should be played” and “should make players feel.” It's a transparent, unpleasant method of game design, and it's a poor reward for people willing to put up with Yakuza 3's other faults, people who want to find something worthwhile and meaningful in the game. They deserve better.