Yakuza 3: The Best Japanese RPG You’re (Probably) Not Playing

This post has been edited by the GamesBeat staff. Opinions by GamesBeat community writers do not necessarily reflect those of the staff.

I stalk through the vibrant, flashy environment. The bold colors assault my senses just as the next group of enemies attacks me. I dispatch my foes with a few well-timed attacks and pause to quaff a revitalizing drink. I proceed further, and the leader of this band of thugs knocks me down and flees. I begin my pursuit.

We continue our deadly game of hide-and-seek for a few moments, and I finally think I have him backed in to a corner. I enter the chamber, and he's nowhere to be seen. I frantically search around, and he rises up from a pool of water and catches me unaware. This elite enemy ferociously attacks me, using tactics and special abilities I haven't seen from any of my previous foes. The first few exchanges go poorly for me, and I realize I need to take a different approach. I pull out a weapon that gives me a bit more reach and meet with some success. I finally start to wear him down, and he rips a large stone disc from the wall which he wields as an impromptu, but deadly, weapon.
I slowly whittle him down, and my successful attacks grant me a renewed sense of vigor. I finally see and opening, and I unleash a flurry of attacks that knock down this powerful foe. Now that I have him where I want him, I convince him to give me the information I need. I stroll out of the area in search of my next objective; no enemies are left standing to challenge my departure.
Welcome to the crime-riddled streets of Sega's Yakuza 3.
If you're not familiar with the series, it's easy to glance at screenshots and assume that Yakuza 3 is similar to a Grand Theft Auto game. This Japanese franchise does bear some superficial resemblance to the ubiquitous GTA brand. I've found Yakuza 3, however, to be a much deeper and enjoyable experience. Here are some reasons you should give this game a look:
1) It has some of the most vibrant and detailed backgrounds I've ever seen in a game.
Although Yakuza 3 does not offer the sheer square mileage of GTA4, the neon-clad streets of Japan do a much better job of inspiring awe and a sense of immersion than endless brown and gray structures. Each building has its own decorations and signs — so much so that I wish I could read Japanese. If you walk in to a convenience store, you'll see hundreds of products on the shelves — you can even browse the magazine rack. You'll see many other small touches that flesh out the city, such as traffic cones, trash cans, and sidewalk signs, most of which you can use as improvised weapons in combat.
Yakuza 3 City

2) Yakuza 3 features a real-time combat system that rivals most brawlers and even some fighting games.
When you first start the game, you'll be fighting with your hands and feet and a few simple combos and throws. As the story progresses, you'll not only unlock many more combos and special attacks, but you'll also acquire numerous weapons that also have their own attack routines. Each weapon style differs enough from the others in both form and function that you'll want to try them all. Combine all this depth with the animated finishing moves that also vary depending on which weapon you have equipped and you'll soon be gleefully drop-kicking enemies and using a baseball bat to hit home runs with their heads.
3) In Yakuza 3, the story is paramount.
More so that most other games I've played recently, I really get the sense that the developers wrote a story first and built a game around it, as opposed to writing the story to fit the game mechanics. This results in a much more cohesive adventure that kept me wanting to play more right up until the end. I really got the sense that I was experiencing the story rather than just uncovering it piece by piece.
4) It's got a ton of content.
Yakuza 3 ShopAside from the usual RPG trappings, Yakuza 3 has quite a lot to keep you busy. You can explore the city at your leisure and search out objects to collect. You encounter weapon trainers, covert arms dealers, and random citizens in need of help. If you want to bash some skulls, you can go participate in arena-style combat. If you need a break, you can go have a drink at a bar or eat a meal at a restaurant. You can even play video games or try to win prizes in an arcade.
5) Yakuza 3's minigames are well developed and actually fun to play.
This title's full of minigames, but none of them feel tacked on as an afterthought. Early in the story, the game forces you to play a few holes of golf, and this feels more like an actual simulation and less like merely pressing a few buttons. You have to select your club, set your aim, select where you want to hit the ball (to add or remove spin), and time your button presses to control the power and avoid a hook or a slice. Wind, obstacles, and the ball's lie on the green matter. 
Yakuza 3 Golf
Even though I'm not a big golf fan, I still enjoyed this interlude. It's rare to see so much care put in to minigames such as this, and this certainly improves the experience in my opinion. If you're not into golf, you still have plenty more to choose from: pool, darts, gambling, bowling, and even fishing (this one I could just not master.)
6) The main character is believable and relatable.
KazumaI had to quit playing the main story in Grand Theft Auto 4 because I simply could not relate to the actions or motivations of the main character, Niko Bellic. Kazuma, Yakuza 3's star, seems much more human, and more importantly, I could understand his actions. I sympathize with what he's trying to accomplish, and it honestly seems that he's trying to do the right thing and protect the people he cares about. By never being at odds with the character I was controlling, I found that I had much more motivation to see the story through to conclusion.
7) The voice acting is top notch.
The American release of Yakuza 3 has the original Japanese voice acting and English subtitles. At first, I was a bit put off by this, but I quickly realized that English-speaking voice actors would probably not have done as good a job. I don't understand a lick of Japanese, but I was still able to easily read the attitudes and emotions that the actors were trying to convey. I also think that keeping everything in Japanese ultimately adds to the setting and a feeling of immersion. 

The Final Word
Despite its relatively quiet and overshadowed release, Yakuza 3 has generated a bit of controversy in the removal of some of the content for the American release, most notably the hostess clubs. While the purist in me wants to play the original game completely intact, the simple fact is that Yakuza 3 is still a thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing experience — one I recommend to any gamer. Oh, and if you're concerned that you won't be able to jump in to the series at the third installment, don't worry. Sega wisely put narrated cinematics of the previous two games on the disc for you, so no prior experience is necessary. Do yourself a favor and give this game a shot.

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