A great, underlooked game.
Yakuza 3 is one of those games that if you haven't played it yet, you either never will or you'll inevitably stumble across it years from now, see it and think "I remember hearing that game was pretty cool," buy it, take it home and wonder why the hell you didn't play it sooner.
The History Lesson That Wasn't Cut
The series is known as Ryu Ga Gotoku(roughly Like A Dragon) in its home country of Japan where it is outrageously popular and already on its fourth installment, known for bringing to life the seedy side of urban Japan while drawing the player in with a well told, character driven story filled with drama and emotion with plenty of side missions, mini games and asses to beat along the way.
The game does a good job of filling you in on the story, with options at the main menu allowing you to watch some lengthy cutscenes told from the main character's point of view to bring you up to date on the first two games. While very long, at least twenty minutes total, the game expects you to know who the characters are before you go into Yakuza 3 and watching these is much better and more entertaining way of situating yourself than browsing a wiki for hours trying to soak up every fact.
Trouble In Paradise
The game follows the exploits of Kazuma Kiryu, Ex -chairman of the Tojo Clan, one of the Yakuza gangs situated in Kamurocho, a fictionalized area of Tokyo modeled after several real life locations in the city. Kazuma, fed up with life as a gangster, decides to head to sunny Okinawa to start up an orphanage to give back and help set kids straight, as he was an orphan himself in his youth.
However, if this all worked out perfectly the game would be pretty damn boring and probably the shortest game of the past decade. The designers probably realized this too, which is why it doesn't.
Unfortunately, the game sets this up in a rather confusing way; the game begins in Okinawa where Kazuma has been for a while, then cuts to Kamurocho several years before that, before jumping forward a few months to a point BEFORE where the game's beginning takes place, then about halfway through the game you're back to where it began. If it sounds confusing, it's because it is. Thankfully the game decides that it's going in a straight line after an hour or two, so the confusion ends.
Pretty soon after getting his house on the beach and a load of kids to go with it, big trouble hits little Okinawa and Kazuma recieves an eviction notice from a local Yakuza gang. Kazuma is forced to reenter the shady underground of the Yakuza gangs in an attempt to keep his orphanage safe and protect those he cares about while still attempting to keep the Tojo clan afloat and this is where the story kicks off, rife with unique characters with interesting personalities, twists, turns and loads of orphan drama which will take the average person 20-30 hours to complete.
Kick, Punch, It's All In The Mind
Gameplay in Yakuza 3 tends to go something like this: You watch a cutscene, get your objective, get plopped into the city with a little marker pointing where you need to go, get sidetracked by all the stuff there is to do along the way and eventually make it there to repeat the process.
You can stop to get a bite to eat at the local Smiler Burger(which conveniently houses women you can date, whom I have affectionately nicknamed Smile Burger Sluts), stop for a game of pool or darts at a bar or get totally wasted, stop by an arcade and play a shoot em up or spend 20,000 yen trying to clear out the UFO catcher and many other activities. You can easily get lost in doing these for hours like I did, wasting 7 hours in a single day(!) just running around doing random stuff.
As Kazuma explores the city, despite being the most chiseled looking dude in Japan, random punks and gangsters will attempt to stop him and beat him up for lunch money.
Combat in Yakuza 3 consists of pressing the Square button to punch dudes in the face, pressing Triangle to use heavy attacks and use special moves, Circle to grab dudes and X to dodge attacks. There's a lock on and block system in place as well which are required mostly for boss fights. As you hit enemies(and later block attacks) a bar below Kazuma's health gauge will fill up, called "HEAT." As the HEAT fills more and more Kazuma can unleash special attacks on his enemies. This is where Yakuza 3 really earns its M rating.
Every weapon has a different special animation, different parts of the environment can be used against the enemy and every single one of them is brutal and painful to watch. Smashing a guy's head face first in a concrete wall, stabbing them in the stomach with a knife, breaking a bench over their head, stomping on his face or pulling out a tooth with a pair of pliers, every one of them feels like it has a huge impact and coupled with the intense spattering of blood and heavy sound effects, it leaves you with the lasting impression that you really, really ruined that guy's day.
Defeating enemies and completing tasks gives Experience, which can be used to upgrade Kazuma's abilities. There are several categories that can be upgraded independently of one another that grant more special attacks, an upgraded health bar, extra HEAT actions and so on. By the end of the game Kazuma has gone from a skilled street brawler to a one man army of ass beating, capable of kicking the crap out of anything that crosses his way, and all of this can be transferred over to a New Game+ upon completion of the story.
As enjoyable as the combat is, it's not without problems; attempting to grab an enemy can take several tries, bad guys sometimes don't react to being hit and unfair advantages like stun guns early on can leave beginning players frustrated. These issues are rare and do not detract much from the experience, but when you're really getting into it and one of these pops up, they kick you right out of "the zone."
As you walk throughout the city, there are special events that can be triggered by entering a first person mode and pressing the X button when a prompt appears. These are almost always hilarious and reward Kazuma with a new move to perform on enemies when special conditions are met, such as pressing Triangle while running towards four or more enemies. These are entirely optional, but the patient player who takes the time to find them will be rewarded with some very powerful attacks.
What Do You Mean It's Over?
Yakuza 3 is one of those rare games that has its faults, but you're having so much fun that you don't even care. The story is engaging and interesting, the combat brutal and satisfying and the districts of Kamurocho and Ryukyugai feel like real places with real people living in them. Stuff is constantly going on around you and there's never a shortage of things to do, and for $60 this game is practically a steal.