When SEGA slyly dropped not one but two demos of Yakuza 3 on the Japanese PlayStation Network, we here at the DailyGame bunker brushed off that trusty Japanese account, gave Toro and Kuro the night off, and hunkered down for some Yakuza 3 game-playing and note-taking to bring to our readers on this side of the Pacific.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Yakuza titles, not to worry. The Yakuza are Japan’s organized crime families, and they operate a little differently than their counterparts in the rest of the world. Yakuza was released quite late in the PS2’s life cycle, and SEGA actually managed to pull a rabbit out of its hat. Strong reviews followed from Famitsu, as did a marketing campaign that was, in a word, brilliant. Takashi Miike handled the promo videos, and there were advertisements in the types of “seedy” bars frequented by the very subjects of the game. SEGA caught a little flack over it, but the result was a surprise success. This led to Yakuza 2, which still hasn’t been released in North America (last September, SEGA announced Yakuza 2 would come to North America in 2008).
Yakuza 3 takes the story back in time, from the late 1990s to the 1600s and Japan’s Edo era. This is quite a clever move on SEGA’s part, as this is the period generally accepted as the time in which the Yakuza was born. During this period, the Tokugawa brought a relative end to numerous internal strife, pacified the country, brought the Samurai class under control as one of the four components of society, got rid of the gaijin, rewrote the laws of the land and appropriated the emperor’s authority. With the Shogun’s regional government and provincial government being the duty of the Daimyos, the Yakuza was born out of this class system. Lasting roughly 250 years, this changed much of feudal Japan.
OK, contextual history lesson over. Time for the demos! The first Yakuza 3 demo gives players a small village to explore and in which to complete some simple tasks, such as engaging in a few fights and meet a young girl. These characters are undoubtedly the ancestors of the first and second Yakuza games, as their in-game likenesses are identical. With the demo being entirely Japanese, we are making some assumptions on this of course, as none of us is fluent in Japanese.
The village is quite vibrant and alive, with stunning attention to building detail, a rainbow of color, confetti being tossed in the air, and streets buzzing with passers by. The characters, too, are a step above the first game graphically, although there’s not quite the next-gen jump we’d expect to see. At least we’re not in one of those sepia-toned worlds that this current version of consoles seems to be quite fond of. The ambient noise needs a boost, though, as the sparse crowd noise and distant soundtrack belies what the overall presentation could be. Also, when talking to characters there is minimal sound, save for the staccato noise of characters appearing in the dialogue box. This, too, is congruent with the first Yakuza title, but given the capacity of a Blu-ray Disc, there’s more than enough room for full dialogue at this point.
Yakuza 3’s fighting engine is still pretty loose, resulting in a lot of button mashing (I was unable to discover any combos beyond the simple punch, punch, kick). This may ultimately change, as your character is able to acquire skill points and raise his combat ability, but as it stands, it’s pretty much the same as the first game. It works, though, and it’s certainly tighter than the combat in the Grand Theft Auto series. The old adage of “If it ain’t broke” applies.
The demo isn’t as immersive as a game like Shenmue, but its closer than Yakuza 1. SEGA seems to have stayed true to the formula of the previous titles, and given the series’ success, you can’t really blame them. For reference, my review of Yakuza scored just 1.5 points below how I’d rate Call of Duty 4. It’s not without its rough edges, but those edges are easily looked over for the game as a whole. Menus are pretty much the same, and the equipment and map screens are very similar, which leads to a feeling of comfort and familiarity. In the first game there was a series of lockers whose keys you discovered to unlock various items. I was flabbergasted to see those same lockers yet again, albeit in the style of the game’s new 1600s era.
The second Yakuza 3 demo provides a look at another aspect of the game: mini-games. Back from the first Yakuza are the waitresses you romanced by buying gifts, buying the expensive food and drink and responding correctly to their inquiries. Again, this is much like the first, but with cosmetic changes to reflect the Edo era. The second mini-game features the main character on a horse to do some target shooting. You move the target reticule with left thumbstick and fire arrows with the X button. Holding down the button results in a power shot (once you see the blue flash), which destroys the target completely rather than just hitting it. Occasionally there will be an obstacle (read: “tree”) in your path that requires a timed button-press to avoid. At the end of the round, you are assessed and rewarded on your skill. The third mini-game seems to be a battle royale of sorts that tests your combat skills, first with two swords and then bare-handed. Again, the combat is pretty loose (it’s still button mashing) with no real skill or combination of moves at hand.
Those new to the Yakuza series should not look at this like a standalone title for the PS3, and they shouldn’t expect something like the latest Ratchet and Clank. That’s not the game’s intent. However, keep in mind that we stumbled though these demos without speaking Japanese, so there may be a fair bit we’ve missed. Still, the fact that the Yakuza franchise has spun-off two titles is impressive, and the PS3 is merely the obvious choice of platform. SEGA has done much to match the realism while giving equal respect to the source material, unlike a stereotype game like The Godfather or Mafia, which plays to fiction. After all, just who did you think the Omerta got the idea from in the first place?
— Phillip Vollmer