Life in Croydon is kind of OK, I guess. Alright, so it’s a bit grey and urban, and we might occasionally have a riot that burns down a century-old furniture shop or see a group of youths try to fight a tram because England lost a football game… OK, so maybe it’s better to stay inside. Inside is where my TV is, which means I can play some videogames! And sometimes, those videogames are ones that completely passed me by at the time, like the one you’re about to read about right now!
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a massive Sega fan. Of course, the company makes it difficult for us diehards these days, having abandoned seemingly all of their incredible franchises of yore. No more Shining Force, no more Outrun or Daytona, no more Jet Set or Panzer Dragoon. No more Shenmue.
One series that rose from the ashes of Sega’s descent into third party publisherdom (if that’s not a word, it should be) is Toshihiro Nagoshi’s Yakuza series. While the franchise has struggled to find its feet in the West, it does well enough in its home territory to be heading towards its eleventh release with the upcoming Yakuza 6. It’s also often held up by fans as something of a spiritual successor to Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue, and for that reason, it’s a series that’s been on my radar for some time, but one which, for some reason or other, I’ve never gotten around to. As I patiently (not really) wait for the Shenmue 3 that I kicked $250 into to reach my grubby paws, however, it seems like a good time to address that.
Only I didn’t start at the beginning. That would have made too much sense. Also, it would have cost me too much cash, as Yakuza 2 is pretty damn expensive these days. But I’ve had the PS3 titles, Yakuzas 3 and 4, sitting on my shelf unplayed since their respective UK release dates, so I jumped in at the third game. Handily, sitting in the main menu are recaps for the first two games that aim to catch any latecomers up on the overarching story of the Dragon of Dojima, Kazuma Kiryu.
Having watched them, I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened in Yakuza 1 or 2. Something about ten billion yen going missing, and I think there was a gang of triads, or Korean gangsters, former friends turned enemy then back to friends, and there was a little girl and a big building. Point is, the catch ups don’t do a great job of communicating those stories to someone with zero prior knowledge. They delight in throwing names of people, organizations, alliances and events at you, and in such a condensed format, they just don’t stick in your brain. But that’s OK, because what they do manage to achieve is to give you a good feel for the kind of guy Kiryu is, and that’s really important. He’s a hard man, but an honourable one, and he’ll put himself on the line for his friends without hesitation. Clichéd? Perhaps, but there’s a lot more to Kiryu than stereotypes. He’s a fantastic, nuanced character, multi-layered yet easy to understand, and Yakuza 3 might just be the best place to see that for yourself.
We begin in Okinawa, at a beach-side orphanage run by Kazuma, ably assisted by a mature beyond her years Haruka – the aforementioned little girl who is now effectively Kazuma’s adoptive daughter. The start of the game is lengthy and rather slow-paced, taking a fair while to pick up a head of steam. Much of the early game is spent focusing on the relationships between Kiryu and the kids in his charge, and the game takes its time to introduce new characters, like the members of the local Ryudo Yakuza family. Returning players could understandably find themselves a little bored by the languid pacing, wanting to get stuck into the meat of the game, but for someone coming to the series fresh, I thought it managed to lay down an entertaining foundation, establishing Kiryu’s character as this stoic, erstwhile Yakuza chairman runs around tending to his kids, making sure they have everything they need, solving the odd dispute between them, and cooking them curry (again) for dinner.
Of course, it’s not long before Kiryu gets caught up in a complex plot involving a military expansion bill, a proposed resort complex, the land his orphanage stands on, and a grand conspiracy encompassing members of Kamurocho’s Tojo Clan, a man that looks an awful lot like Kazuma’s dead foster father, and even the CIA. Yeah. I told you it was complex, didn’t I? Again, there are a lot of names, organisations and titles thrown at you over the course of the 20-odd hour story, but in such a dense, plot- and character-driven game, you’ll end up remembering them all. Nagoshi’s team really excels in selling the relationships between Yakuza 3‘s cast of characters, and there are bonds here that you will really see develop over the course of the story. Some are already ingrained from the start, like when you’re strolling down Tenkaichi Street and Haruka hurries to catch up, taking Kazuma’s hand as she does. Others you will see grow over the course of the story, such as the fantastic friendship between Kazuma and the fiercely loyal Rikiya Shimabukuro, who may well be the ultimate bro.
Though the series is often thought of as a sort of Japanese GTA, Yakuza 3 is structured much like a JRPG; you have your main plot thread, plenty of side quests, levelling up, which affords you new skills, and even random encounters, which, as ever, can get annoying when you’re just trying to get to the next plot point. Of course, combat isn’t exactly your standard JRPG fare, as fights in Yakuza are settled by brawling in the streets. You’ll punch with square, throw in combo-ending kicks with triangle, and use the same button to activate powerful Heat Moves when you have enough meter; these do massive damage and, if you’re holding a weapon – which can be anything you pick up on the streets, from bicycles and signage to stun guns and even swords – you’ll get a bespoke animation for each when using a Heat Move. As previously mentioned, you can unlock new fighting skills as you level up, giving you access to new techniques, and best of all, you can learn new, elaborate Heat Moves by turning voyeur and videoing odd people doing crazy things in public – like watching a drunken salaryman try to pole dance on a lamppost – and then blogging the results with a hilariously dramatic flourish. It’s completely, wonderfully bizarre.
Of course, there’s more to Yakuza than the main story objectives, and that’s where the comparisons to Shenmue come in. If you fancy a break from all the brooding and brawling, you can head on down to the batting cages and hit a few home runs. Or maybe go bowling or sing your heart out at karaoke with Haruka. Then there’s darts, pool, golf, arcade and UFO catcher machines and tons more besides. Like Shenmue, Yakuza gives you a ton of different distractions and ways to waste time, and like Shenmue, while none of this is compulsory to drive the story forward, it does serve to enrich the world you inhabit. Yakuza is often labelled as an open-world game, and it’s a tag that ill fits the series in my opinion; the game’s two locations of Ryukyu and Kamurocho aren’t the sprawling landmasses you’d expect to find in a GTA or an Assassin’s Creed – they’re maybe the size of a single district in one of those games – but they are absolutely packed with things to do should you feel like you need a breather. Seriously, I finished the game in 24 hours and only achieved 12% completion!
Ultimately, how much Yakuza feels like a replacement for Shenmue comes down to what you take from that long-absent series. There are certainly similarities in the way you can choose to ‘waste’ time doing lots of extraneous yet fun activities, and also in the way that you’ll be fighting lots of goons in the streets (though Shenmue is more tied to the Virtua Fighter combat engine than the more arcade-y feel of Yakuza). However, if what captivated you about Shenmue was the setting, the atmosphere, the detailed slice-of-life portrayal of a Japanese teenager in the mid-80s, well, you won’t get that here. The tone of the two games can often be wildly different, too; while ostensibly a ‘serious’ yakuza/crime drama, Yakuza 3 isn’t afraid to suddenly turn incredibly gamey, often to the point of gleeful absurdity. Of course, Shenmue had a handful of goofier moments, like racing forklifts around Yokosuka Harbour or anything involving Chai, but there’s nothing that matches two guys tearing off their suits in one motion as their fighting spirit literally erupts from their bodies before they do battle on top of a skyscraper. It’s a game with a great sense of humour, that never lets its setting and subject matter get in the way of glorying in its nature as a videogame. For my money, Yakuza feels like Nagoshi’s team wanted to make an amalgamation of Shenmue and a 3D take on Streets of Rage, and dress it up in an elaborate Yakuza-focused soap opera.
And that’s OK. Yakuza doesn’t need to ape Shenmue to justify its existence. For my part, while I didn’t manage to find a stand-in for Shenmue, I did manage to discover another Sega franchise to obsess over. Now I just need to find the time to play 4 and 5 before the next couple of instalments arrive on western PS4s.