Yakuza 3

Yakuza 3 / Ryuu ga Gotoku 3 (龍が如く3) – PS3 (2009), PS4, Xbox One, PC (2018, 2021)

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series Yakuza / Like A Dragon

After cutting their teeth of the unruly beast that was the PS3 architecture and cell processor with the samurai spin-off Kenzan, 2009 saw the release of Yakuza 3…in Japan. It took a year for western regions to finally get the game, and when they did, they got it with some of the worst, laziest box art of the generation, a ton of side stuff cut out, and one of the wonkiest localization jobs the series ever got. Thankfully, we now have remastered versions on modern storefronts, with new localization, restored content, and the removal of an infamously trans/gay panic based substory. However, we still have Yakuza 3 as the end result at the core, an entry that was the product of poor planning in the usual series year long or so dev cycle – you know, for the game where they had to make nearly every single asset from scratch for the other games of the generation to reuse. And it shows!

Yakuza 3 is one of the more uneven entries in the series, having the curse of being one of the first projects of the team during a new console generation, requiring more time to complete the planned vision that was simply not allowed. There’s tons of substories, but not many worth remembering. The plot is massive in scope, but has to come to a complete stop in chapter nine so a politician can explain to Kiryu and Date in excruciating detail every single mystery that was previously established to very unsatisfying results. Otherwise, the rest of the game wouldn’t make a lick of sense.

Even many graphical elements are notably low quality for the era, with some stretched and crunchy textures that would be more at home in the non-HD entries of Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games than a HD console release that late into the generation’s life span. That’s not even getting into the character models for NPCs, the most notable being a hunchback old man model constantly reused to the point it starts popping up on what are supposed to be regular guys in suits.

All this aside, the game is clearly trying, and manages to charm more often then not. The story goes a long way towards that, this entry meant to be a sort of thesis statement on what Like A Dragon is supposed to be about. After a cold open in modern day and a short prologue explaining how Kiryu helped set up Daigo for leadership and brought Majima back in the Tojo, we get a few chapters of Kiryu and Haruka taking over an orphanage in Okinawa. Kiryu is finally happy and helping kids dealing with the same struggles he did growing up, but a local yakuza clan trying to run him off his land to sell it off causes some problems he quickly deals with. Those problems come back in force, however, once we return to present day, where a mysterious blonde man and someone who looks exactly like the deceased Shintaro Kazama have shot Daigo Dojima and sent the Tojo in another self-harming power grab – and the deed to Kiryu’s land is smack dab in the middle of it all. He has to return to Kamurocho to sort things out (as usual) and ends up the target of a massive conspiracy of unheard of scope to this point, one that goes beyond the scope of Japanese affairs and then some.

The core issue with Yakuza 3‘s narrative is that it tries way too hard to do way too many things. Most every idea is a good one, but trying to shove them all in leads to all of them coming out half baked. Kiryu’s time with his kids is a nice, touching change of pace, as his initially low-stakes butting with the local Ryudo family (who have been bizarrely absent from later entries, even in passing mention). However, the use of the modern day cold open where you see Daigo get shot revs you up for the crime drama, the one it takes hours to reach due to all the kid time. Once you reach Kiryu’s old haunts, things still continue slowly, even with all the explosive developments, because they all feel very disconnected from the initial hook for a long chunk.

The parts that do feel connected to that hook are also too vague to really build any intrigue, because a lot of the most obvious guesses end up being correct. Even the Tojo based antagonists end up being mostly uninteresting, one a red herring, and one so one note that they never bothered to give you a boss fight with him (ironic since he’s also a major character in the next entry). There’s only one real stand out among them in Mine, but it takes awhile for his nature and role to be revealed – unless you recognize his back tat shown off in his introduction, in which case you will instantly know who’s going to be the final boss (though there is a satisfying twist to his character that makes him very interesting in the home stretch).

That would imply the plot is predictable, but only the character based beats. The actual structure of the conspiracy is so absurdly convoluted that you might end up wondering how Kiryu even got here in the first place. The stakes are so large that they become difficult to latch to, so unbelievable that one of the main villain factions end up feeling completely alien – which enters iffy territory in that they are literally alien, as in foreigners. Andre Richardson is one of the least interesting villains in the entire franchise, a one note scary white man in a black suit with no definition or character traits to speak of beyond that. He’s one of the worst examples of the franchises’ tendency towards stereotypes for non-Japanese characters, but thankfully not the real focus.

The story works when it’s focused on the title, as in the Japanese title. “Like A Dragon.” What does that mean, exactly? Yakuza 3 finally tackles this and creates the core ethos of the series, using Kiryu to give a message about positive masculinity, reaching out to others, and fighting for what you believe in, and succeeds in that via living “like a dragon.” There’s more focus on the strength of the bonds Kiryu had made, often with other men, showing an emotional vulnerability that was rare at the time of gray and brown cover shooters and CoD swill. You even get to see Kiryu cry, and as in actual, ugly crying instead of angry gruff war man crying, and it’s extremely effective. Alongside the brilliant turn with the final boss and the excellent ending cutscene, Yakuza 3 manages to come together where it counts, even if it takes awhile to get there.

The game proper has a similar mixture of good and bloat. There are some good substories, but the huge list of them here (over 100 total!) results in a lot of stinkers and mind-numbing fluff mostly here for gaining experience. You need that experience, because it takes an eternity to unlock new abilities and upgrades as the requirements for them grow massive, and the rewards often underwhelming. Kiryu becomes a satisfying beast as you reach the endgame, but it takes awhile to really feel that. The fighting system also gets off on a bad foot, with two of the earliest fights being a dodge heavy Majima fight, and a very defensive boss who constantly blocks, with you lacking a block breaker at that point.

A few ideas from Kenzan make their way here. Weapons can now be modded, repaired, and crafted, creating a new economy to sort with and a reason to bother with weapons, though it takes some time to get anything that fancy. We also have revelations, a method to give out some gimmicky but fun heat moves, and mostly an excuse for the staff to create some goofy slapstick cutscenes they thought would be funny. Neither of these systems are game changers, but they offer some fun if you choose to mess around with them.

As minigames go, we get the introduction of the legendary karaoke game, though mainly as something to do with Haruka in set chapters. Kiryu doesn’t get anything that fun to sing by himself. We also get the introduction of Hostess Maker, an attempt to switch cabaret club management to just hostess management. It has more personality, but suffers the same, drawn out menu monotony. You might finish the first hostess and leave before bothering with any others – of which there’s a lot of. The other major side activity is just more combat missions via hitman missions, which do have an unexpected super boss at the end of them and some main story connectivity. They’re solid enough, but nothing terribly inventive.

For masters, Komaki once again returns, and we get another weapon master to introduce a few new weapon move sets for Kiryu to mess with. Mack, a photographer who introduces revelations, also has some chase battle training. These will see more play in future games, but as for here in Yakuza 3, chase battles are kind of horrible. You either chase someone or run from someone else, with poorly thought out mechanics, including having to manually activate running speed, which requires stamina and takes a hit when you run into people, which you will because the streets in this entry have FAR too many people on them. You also don’t get training for these until chapter nine, so good luck until then! Later entries do much better with these, thankfully, with the Judgment series finally nailing them in Lost Judgment.

The one interesting training addition is IF7. Created by a Doc Brown looking scientist (who also made an arcade game in-universe from the PS2 era), IF7 is a virtual reality experience that amounts to boss rematches, with the added twist of being unable to use heat moves (your heat bar now your health). Clear them, and you can get some extra moves and abilities, with rematch wins getting materials for weapon modding and crafting. It will be a mainstay for the PS3 era, outside Yakuza 0. Speaking of the arcade, we get an original shump here made by the team called Boxcelios, with a really unique set up and presentation harking back to the dark tech aesthetics of the PS2. Hold down your laser attack when you’ve lined up with the given enemy, and break their defenses until you can get to the glowing weak point, made trickier by the shifting camera angles. Simple but enjoyable, and would get an update in 4, a turbo version in Dead Souls, and a new base defense variant in 5.

Other than those, some added minigames you’d expect, and the very horny massage parlor game, we mostly just have more of the PS2 era style game, but with a new generations’ worth of bells and whistles. You can now look around in first person mode, and control the camera to see the world around you easily. The first one is a bit annoying, as the designers decided to put locker keys in all sorts of weird areas you have to look around for, but the freedom of sight is overall a quality change. The unique atmosphere of fixed angles is gone, but the camera switch up fits the goals of making the world feel “real” better (plus they can shove more ads on signs).

We also get a fun starting area in Ryukyu, a recreation of the Makishi district of Naha, Okinawa. It’s littered with power lines and is filled with homely areas, like a cozy shopping center, community market, tons of tourist traps, and eateries with a bit of a nautical flavor. Kiryu’s orphanage is even located right next to a beach, for some really lovely nature shots in cutscenes, and a logical place to mess with the fishing minigame. Kamurocho manages to stand out this time around with its larger size, and the camera change really shows just how developed the area really is, with the size of the buildings now easy to see.

Presentation wise, we have a unique, early PS3 aesthetic on display, the team still struggling with the challenges of HD graphics and creating some awkward character models for cutscenes, plus low quality textures. Despite that, the eye for cinematic framing still results in interesting shots for cutscenes, while the main game areas have a kind of nice uncanny valley feeling you only find from this period of time in 3D graphics. Nothing is quite right, but nothing after really looks like it either. It’s a mixed bag, while the soundtrack mostly leans in the middle ground. Nothing sounds bad, but the mixing of tracks and general production feels a bit stuck in the past, while most of the soundtrack lacks the grit of the PS2 era. Nothing particularly stands out too much, except maybe Encounter the Dragon, the theme of the weapons trainer, just due to how old school hokey it is with the Bruce Lee film score vibe.

Overall, Yakuza 3 is an uneven entry, and a nightmare entry for completionists in particular, due to how few of the substories managed to engage all that much. It does attempt something really interesting in its narrative, creating the core ethos the series would run with from here on, and is not without nostalgic charm, but you’ll probably be better off passing over it to get to Yakuza 4.

Series Navigation<< Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan!Yakuza 4 >>

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