At the start of Yakuza 3, it looks as though series hero Kazuma Kiryu has gone to seed. The first Yakuza kicked off with him spending a decade in prison for a murder he didn’t commit; the second began with the killing of his benefactor and yakuza clan leader. These are inciting incidents that players just know are going to lead the stoic ex-mobster with a heart of gold on a wild adventure of revenge, ass-kicking, and either hanging out in posh nightclubs, or running them. Not in Yakuza 3, though. Yeah, the opening scenes feature murder and betrayal, but Kiryu isn’t really involved. The dude is living on a beach in Okinawa, running an orphanage and hanging out. Your first real quests in the game are fixing dinner for the kids and playing golf with a city councilman. Nothing says “seamy underbelly of urban crime” like kicking it in a resort town and talking zoning with local politicians. Sheesh.
But the mundane has always been part of the appeal of the Yakuza games—and their genetic predecessor, the Shenmue series. In about 20 hours, you could plow through the game’s 12 chapters, engaging in a few mandatory mini-games and beating up a variety of thugs as you go, but then you really wouldn’t be playing the game. Yakuza 3 is about inhabiting a place as much as it is about unfolding a piece of professionally executed crime fiction. The chief joys of the previous franchise entries were found when you left the beaten path while exploring Tokyo: running into that transvestite bartender who could use a hand, taking in some karaoke. Yakuza 3’s domestic first third goes a long way toward enhancing the series’ greatest strengths.
The game doesn’t begin in earnest until its fifth chapter, almost eight hours after you start. The story lynchpin—Kiryu’s orphanage is standing in the way of a new resort and an American military base—begins to pull the strings of old and new characters, and the retired bruiser has to return to Kamurocho once again to bust heads and seek justice. From there on out, it’s business as usual. New play features aren’t bountiful. There’s a bit more permanence to weapons for supplementing the excellent brawling, and you learn new fighting moves by—yes, really—blogging. The lack of big changes to the formula is no bad thing, however. Yakuza 3 is workmanlike and archaic in many ways, barely taxing the graphical horsepower of the PlayStation 3, but it’s also unique. Most games make the big city a playground for the absurd. Yakuza 3 is only as absurd as an actual big city.