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Daily Grind: Yakuza 3 Demo Josh's avatar
Kazuma Kiryu
Aesthetically speaking, I usually find the baroque worlds of most Japanese RPGs quite off-putting. If I’m not immediately repulsed by the legions of girlyboy heroes who prance into battle covered in a thousand ill-conceived costume affectations, then the over-designed architectural nightmares that would have Le Corbusier spinning in his grave usually seal the deal. Sega’s Yakuza series eschews these contrivances by wrapping its ongoing tale of criminal intrigue around the far more interesting backdrop of modern Japan and a set of gentlemen who will are prepared to perform a variety of heinous deeds wearing nothing more than a tailored suit and a pair of sharp loafers.

After Sega’s habitual tooing-and-froing over a Western release, Yakuza 3 is finally making its way to our shores next month. Eager to discover whether salmon onigiri can be used as a weapon as well as a health item, I spent some time with the pre-release demo that found its way onto PlayStation Network last week.

Awesome: Tokyo Okay

The fictional district of Kamurocho proves just as much a star of the game as leading man Kazuma Kiryu, its streets perennially alive with the hustle and bustle of consumers, punks and promoters eager to interact with him. It’s quite impressive how well the game neatly distils the experience of being in Tokyo, and the impact of exploring Japan’s shady underworld is significantly heightened if you've spent any time at all in the neon alleyways of Shinjuku or Shibuya. This extends to very specific aspects of Japanese culture, and I got as much joy from recognising brands like Boss Coffee and C.C. Lemon in the convenience store as I did kneecapping enemies with an umbrella.

Awesome: Fight Club

Whether slamming a punk headfirst into a vending machine or crippling someone’s security detail with a ten-hit combo and a pair of prototype nunchucks, the combat in Yakuza 3 remains delightfully brutal throughout. In particular, I couldn’t help but giggle with glee every time I performed a Heat Action; QTE execution sequences which see Kiryu committing acts of immense savagery upon his foes and often concluding with an almost pornographic slow motion close-up of their broken forms. Like the previous games in the series, Yakuza 3 continues to do an excellent job of fusing a brawler with roleplaying progression, and there are just enough systems in place to ensure that the action has depth without unnecessary complexity getting in the way of the fighting. Speaking of which, the seamless shift between explorative and combative gameplay also allow you to enter scuffles more immediately. The battle transitions normally associated with JRPGs give way to fleeing salarymen and gaggles of schoolgirls, who create impromptu arenas between the district’s hostess clubs and yakitori bars.

Boresome: Visuals Are Kei

As a game that originally came out in Japan over a year ago, Yakuza 3’s visuals come up markedly short in comparison to a number of recent PlayStation 3 games which have started to show us exactly what the platform is capable of. This seems to be more a case of unfortunate timing over poor execution; the graphics are more lacklustre than outright unappealing. In most cases, detail more than makes up for the lack of eye candy; the shelves upon shelves of products found in Kamurocho’s numerous branches of M-Store are a great example of this. Similarly, although some of the game’s characters come dangerously close to resembling something that would roll off a Bandai conveyor belt, their expressions and movement (especially during cutscenes) are entirely convincing.

Awesome: Local Vocal

In an attempt to garner greater appeal, Sega opted to fully localise the Western release of the first Yakuza game on PlayStation 2, a process which involved casting a number of famous voices and translating dialogue to invoke familiar Mafioso stereotypes. Unfortunately, using these cultural touchstones to make the game more palatable to a broader audience came at the expense of the inherent Japaneseness that makes the series so unique, resulting in a somewhat diluted experience. Taking criticism to heart, Sega decided to localise Yakuza 2 with subtitles only, and thankfully Yakuza 3 continues this tradition. The presence of the original voice acting amplifies the already immersive qualities of the game world and means that all of the great Japanese delinquent stereotypes remain intact, rolling their Rs like they're going out of fashion.

Awesome: The Dragon Of Karaoke

In case the sprawling gangland storyline isn’t enough for you, Yakuza 3 provides a surfeit of mini games and side activities which allow Kiryu to indulge in the Tokyo nightlife. These include a surprisingly robust Karaoke rhythm game which, like other aspects of the game, manages to perfectly tap into the reality of Japanese culture. Since playing the demo, I was excited to discover that the full game features a pretty substantial battle mode which sees you progressing through the ranks of an underground fighting tournament. It seems that Yakuza 3 provides plenty of fun distractions that will last long after the dust has settled on the main plot and the long wait until the Western release of Yakuza 4 begins.

Awesome: Tokyo Okay - Fight Club - Local Vocal - The Dragon Of Karaoke

Boresome: Visuals Are Kei

It’s worth mentioning that Yakuza 3 provides a fantastic example of how developers should put together a demo; a taste of the game’s diverse elements which leaves me wanting for more. With the game’s March 12th release just a few weeks away, I’m greatly looking forward to spending more time in Kamurocho and revelling in the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture.

Editor Opinions
Sam's avatar

Having been on the very same trip that Josh made to Japan, I'm probably not in the best position to offer a different view on the Yakuza 3 demo as I get the same feeling of nostalgia every time I see Kazuma flick through a catalogue of karaoke songs or stroll past an entire street of vending machines. With my rose-tinted glasses firmly in place, I punched, kicked and sang my way through the restricted streets of Kamurocho, thoroughly enjoying myself as I went along. I have to admit that I didn't investigate the finer details of character progression or pour through the multitude of screens illustrating combo upgrades and weapon proficiencies, but I did have a great time with a kookie dressed girl in a downtown bar.

One minor issue that I did notice during my time with the demo is that the dialogue in the cut scenes felt a bit hammy at times. I am fully prepared to acknowledge that the authenticity was simply lost in translation but after my recent experiences with the suave characters of Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age, I can't help but feel I'm watching a play by the Acton Town Amateur Dramatics Society. Likewise, the paradigm shift towards player choices that Bioware has catalysed makes it feel a little strange that I have no say in how Kazuma responds in conversations. However, it would be pretty mean to hold this against a game first released a year ago to a Japanese audience with a traditional disposition towards linearity.

Finickiness aside, I'm definitely going to schedule some time to play Yakuza 3 come March 12th, as taking a trip down memory lane while getting stuck into an almost insurmountable array of mini-games and character progression grinds is my idea of a great night in. It's just a shame I can't play it while sitting in onsen to sit while being tended to by a maid I've hired to make endless cups of sencha.