The Yakuza series is a throwback to the glory days of gaming. It’s a series that still enjoys masses of mainstream success in its homeland of Japan, with porn stars and actresses lining up with every installment,
In this three part review series exclusive to Invision, I’ll examine why the current gen games have enjoyed such lasting success – and more importantly, why the West deserves Yakuza 5.
The Yakuza games put you in the snakeskin shoes of criminal legend Kazuma Kiryu, an orphan who rose to the top of the criminal underworld and then gave it all up to stop his childhood friend from spending the best years of his life in prison. There’s way too much backstory to explain but during the first two games – still available quite cheaply on PS2 – Kazuma finally managed to leave his brutal life in the Tojo Clan and make an honest living.
I can’t stress enough how important the story is to this series. It’s a grossly overlooked criminal opus that is, without a shadow of exaggeration, on the same level as The Godfather or Once Upon A Time in America – with all of the cheesy American-Italian stuff removed and replaced with bizarre Japanese humour. So yes, there will be cutscenes in excess of twenty minutes sometimes. You will actually have to pay attention to the dialog to get an idea of what’s going on (cue horrific flashbacks to the nineties). The average Yakuza story takes around 20-30 hours to complete, depending on how distracted you get by the masses of Tokyo available to explore in the process. I have easily logged 100+ hours on Yakuza 3 alone. It’s not quite a sandbox game, the focus is definitely on a linear story, but the sheer amount of quality detailed sidequests and mini-games is almost overwhelming.
So where does Yakuza 3 begin? Kazuma, finally free of the criminal underworld he was raised in, is running an orphanage out by the Okinawan beaches. It’s a slow, easy introduction to the massive world and plethora of opportunities available, and although it might seem a bit slow-paced for some you’ll end up caring for these characters much more than you will for Marcus Fenix, Niko Bellic or Random Call of Duty Squaddie. Flipping between teaching children how to work together, playing rounds of golf with bureaucrats, settling disputes over stolen pocket money or play fights go wrong is often a surprisingly welcome change from beating up thugs with bicycles or dodging police.
Combat is seriously old-school (like quite a lot of Yakuza’s gameplay). It’s not perfect by any means, clearly designed for fighting opponents one-on-one, but often you’ll be fighting entire gangs at once and Kazuma just doesn’t move fast enough or block efficiently enough to deal with it. When it works, it feels like a classic brawler like Streets of Rage tastefully updated. When it doesn’t, it’s just frustrating. Case in point – you’ll often come up against immovable sumo type enemies wielding sofas or other ridiculous pieces of scenery that knock Kazuma down and away when he approaches. It’s impossible to block outright and difficult to dodge, so what you end up doing is running in and out for quick combos and fleeing before you can do any real damage. These instances don’t do the combat, which comes alive in protracted one-on-one conflicts, any justice.
Those issues aside, the game is a playground crime-sim in which an extraordinarily dramatic and well-voiced conspiracy unfolds. You’ll be balancing your time between hacking entire families of gangsters to ribbons with a katana and dating hostesses, or taking your adopted daughter Haruka out for ice cream. There’s a lot of bizarre humour in there – the game makes a huge albeit very naive joke out of chasing down a black guy at one point – but for the most part it’s a genuinely mature game that knows when to lighten the mood, something a lot of Western games don’t do very well at all. It’s either full-on misery after misery or a splash too much humour that it defines the entire game. But in the Yakuza world, it’s entirely possible to go from the ridiculous to the serious and still shed some (totally manly) tears about the more painful plot developments.
So yes, it is a game for story-lovers, retro fanatics and completionists – there might even be enough of a cultural pull to attract JRPG lovers too. The visuals aren’t massively impressive outside of the cutscenes, but bear in mind you have the entirety of Tokyo’s red light district and the tourist-infested Okinawa to explore, replete with shops and people going about their lives. Some less than amazing graphics and clunky combat is certainly worth a living world bursting with high quality content and exploration, and genuine emotional investment in the story is something you rarely find in gaming these days. Don’t dismiss this series – a movie-level story and hundreds of hours of activities are worth the effort of reading a few subtitles, surely?
NEXT TIME: We take a look at the bizarre zombie spin – off, ‘Dead Souls’, and have a tiny glimpse at Yakuza’s cultural relevance in Japan.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.