SEGA’s Yakuza series is so huge in Japan that when this second sequel was released in the East last year, it became the second biggest selling game of 2009, behind Square Enix’s predictably untouchable Final Fantasy XIII. Frequently compared to the Grand Theft Auto franchise (largely because of its monumental size and underworld setting) the series has developed a strong cult following in the US and Europe, and after months of hard lobbying by the fanbase (who, amongst other things, utilised numerous online petitions to get their voices heard) the game has now secured a European and US release at retail. Those impassioned fans obviously do not need to be told what an enticing proposition Yakuza 3 is, but newcomers definitely shouldn’t shy away from investigating.

The Japanese tend to tell their stories in a much more mannered fashion than the rest of the world, and Yakuza 3 draws from their bountiful heritage of world-class filmmakers (like Akira Kurosawa, Yasujir? Ozu, and even Hayao Miyazaki) who are all famed for taking frequent pause, and letting their tales unfurl at a leisurely and unobtrusive pace. Alarm bells begin to ring as the game opens though, and we see our hero Kazuma Kiryu speaking aloud to his father’s grave. For a moment, it appears as if the entire Yakuza backstory is about to be slowly presented to us via Kazuma’s dialogue. Thankfully the speech ends up being as broad as it is brief, but after that you are (cleverly) given the option to watch cinematic cut-scenes that encapsulate the entire plots of both of the previous Yakuza titles into mini-movies that last a few minutes each. Its an excellent idea, and although most players will probably be too eager to get stuck into the game to watch them this early-on, the option is always present, and many will partake later as the series’ numerous returning characters begin to get re-introduced.

The game begins with Kazuma (who almost everyone refers to as ‘Kaz’) running an orphanage in a idyllic beach house in Okinawa. This not only signals a marked change from the Tokyo and Osaka settings of the first two titles in the series, but also a disorientating change in its hero. The first two Yakuza games began with Kazuma indulging in two pretty tough scenes of skull-cracking violence, and though a gangland assassination is the plot’s primary kick-starter here, Kaz isn’t involved in it. The majority of the game’s first few hours are all about managing the orphanage, tackling any problems that arise (including an instance of theft and one of bullying) with a few scenes of accidental (and not so accidental) street brawls spliced in to keep things lively.

Many people will probably be surprised by how involving and well-handled some of the orphanage drama is, but at its heart Yakuza 3 is a parable about Japan trying to claw back some of its long-lost cultural identity. Kaz’s business is endangered by a shady plot to turn his Okinawa beach front into a US military base, and once the action begins to take centre stage in the game’s second third, you’ll be so invested in Kazuma’s plight that the brilliance of everything that came before it comes into very sharp focus. Yakuza 3 takes its sweet time to get where it’s going, and it makes for a pretty delightful change of pace.

Fights are still simultaneously visceral and amusing, this time topped off by some hilariously OTT ‘Super Finish’ moves that you can perform on the game’s numerous bosses. You start with only a thunderous head butt, but as with everything else in Kaz’s inventory, you can upgrade them to your heart’s content. There are innumerable mini-games placed all over the world to keep you busy, and all of them are impeccably polished and never slight. Some of them, like the Golfing mini-game, are nothing less than excellent. In one set-piece you’re encouraged to play a few rounds with a city official to slyly extract a bit of information from him. As you take time to learn the ropes of play you may become eager to finish up and get back into the main plot, but by the second hole you’ll forget that you aren’t playing an actual golfing game. The scene ends up asking you to play three holes, but don’t be surprised if you are annoyed that it didn’t run for a full 18. And that just about summarises the appeal of the Yakuza series as a whole.

The way that the plot zips around its timeline will keep players curious and involved, the game’s world (and its inhabitants) will draw deserved comparisons with GTAIV’s Liberty City, and the almost absurd wealth of different things to do within those environments will keep everyone more than busy until Yakuza 4 hopefully makes its appearance on Western shores later in the year. Yakuza 3 may not push the Playstation 3 hardware in the way that the platform’s owners are probably now accustomed to, but then pretty pictures would probably dull the power of a world that keeps one eye so brilliantly (and invitingly) trained on the past.

Watch the Yakuza 3 trailer here…

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