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Why the newest Kiryu Kazuma vehicle Ryu ga Gotoku 3 (Yakuza 3) is the biggest Japanese game ever made.
Matthew Arnold wrote of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, "We are not to take it as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life." Yakuza 3 (Ryu ga Gotoku 3) is a piece of Japanese life. It isn't the greatest video game ever made like Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written (all comparisons between Tolstoy and SEGA end here), but it's about the closest thing we have to a next-generation Shenmue in terms of your ability to just forget about things like plot or character and instead try to explore every single corner of a massively developed and detailed world.
What made Shenmue so amazing when it first came out wasn't just its story or graphical detail; it was its total dedication to cultural idiosyncrasies and realism -- you interact with seemingly everything and with great specificity, from gashapon and vending machines, to the changing weather, seasons, and environment itself. Japanese looked Japanese and foreigners looked foreign (no generic anime-styled universality here). But it was the objects and geography, the variety but total consistency in the landscape, which was so revolutionary. No game that's come after, even Grand Theft Auto 3, has provided such a ontological leap from what's come before.
SEGA and Amusement Vision's Yakuza series has always been a little like a GTA set in Japan, but with some cultural tweaks and modern representations. Yakuza 3, though, takes every major facet of major and minor urban Japan and attempts to completely document a place and its many diversions. Though time and weather conditions still don't fluctuate (a shame), visual details are taken a step further in every arena. Brand names and actual Japanese chain stores litter every corner -- Sega had to secure a LOT of promotional tie-ins, including the immortal Don Quixote on the entrance to Shinjuku's Kabuki-cho (Kaguro-cho in the game). Convenience stores play actual J-pop when you walk in, scouts will chase you down trying to take you to their hostess clubs, and guys you fight will try to take pictures of their action with their cell phones. There are TV news programs that mimic their real-life counterparts, with news reporters, interviews, and on-screen scrawling graphics. These things might happen in Tokyo, but all of this is just in the game's minor Okinawan city, Ryukyu-gai, which is the graphical update and spiritual successor to Shenmue's Dobuita Dori.
The gameplay has been updated in every important area to take advantage of the graphical detail and allow players to maximize general exploration. Controls from even Ryu ga Gotoku: Kenzan have been smoothed over, the biggest change being that all-important first-person perspective is finally available for the first time in the series, something impossible in past incarnations due to graphical limitations. Not only is Yakuza 3's world by far the most detailed ever, it's also the most observable ever -- you can now check out every person and object in most stores, restaurants, and bars. Because you download the entire game when you first load it up, there are virtually no loading times when transitioning from area to area or from cut scene to battle. (One of the major frustrations about Kenzan was its frequent and long loading times). The battle system retains the four fighting modes from Kenzan, though new moves are learned less frequently by real-life events and are instead gained through an experience-grid power-up system. There's even a new theme song, the one from the trailer at the Tokyo Game Show, which appeals more to gokudo movie purists than fans of Takashi Miike.
Were you looking for a story synopsis somewhere in there? Well, there's the usual plot of mob intrigue and betrayal, and there are a couple characters from past installments who make appearances apparently from beyond the grave. Really, it's all an excuse to situate Rikyu Kazuma's generic do-gooder yakuza in whatever exotic locale fits the creators' invention. Still, the writing is typically strong, dense, and occasionally touching -- for a brawler. The story begins in Okinawa after Rikyu has decided to exile himself there to run a children's foster home, and much of the story alternates Sopranos-style between the drama of Rikyu's (former) gang life and the smaller dramas of running a pseudo-domestic family. It's a sophisticated script, but don't expect the writing to be David Chase in its explicitness, or even anything like the zaniness of a Seijun Suzuki mise-en-scene, the hard-boiled ethos of a Tetsuya Watari flick, or the intensity and invention of a Kitano or Miike picture. Instead, expect more of the melodrama from the first two installments that ran with a modern romantic sensibility for the hard-core genre, mixed in with some home drama situations where Kiryu has to console one of his children after he's been bullied by the school principal.
The story is unfortunately pretty one-dimensional in terms of interactivity -- you can't really do much besides ask questions and beat up key characters. But it's a nice change of pace (and another throwback to Shenmue) with fewer violently critical situations mixed into the plot. The Yakuza series has never been as graphic or excessive as American gangster games, and this newest softens the series up even more. It should be noted that it genuinely sucks that the creators no longer want to model the characters after their voice-acting counterparts; one of the greatest joys of Kenzan was seeing Naoto Takenaka back in his first lead samurai role since 1996's Hideyoshi (one of the greatest taiga drama ever), and it would've been awesome to have seen Susumu Terajima in a lead gangster role as opposed to only the old samurai dude he played in Kenzan.
Obviously, the game's real stars are those environments. Yakuza 3 is nowhere near as large and sprawling as GTA, but there's not an area in Rockstar's games that has anything close to the level of detail as one of Yakuza 3's typical buildings or throngs of detailed passersby. One wishes that the developers would just take on a full-scale representation of Tokyo rather than settling on Shinjuku's Kabuki-cho, but even the game's smaller, Okinawan Ryukyu-gai is at least twice the size of Yakuza 2's Osaka Souton-bori. Like a great MMORPG, you'll probably want to put the controller down just to look at the pristine beaches and sunsets of Okinawa, or a quiet alley leading to members-only mahjong bars, or some of the products in a second-hand shop. Where you decide to stop, ogle, and soak in the setting comes down to your mood and personality, but there will definitely be a point where you do so.
And then you'll keep moving, because there's just so much to do, and you'll frequently decide to put whatever mission on hold when the usual staple of mini-games and side-quests are so much deeper and instantly gratifying. This is the game for the gaming hedonist -- crane games, golf, batting practice, bowling, billiards, darts, shogi, mahjong, and casino games all return from the first games, but now you can also play quiz shows, go fishing, or partake in karaoke with a decent listing of original enka and J-pop songs (one really wishes for the massive track listing of GTA IV here). The cabaret clubs are back, but instead of just being entertained, you can now raise and dress up hostesses to compete for clients like birds on a chocobo farm (I learned how to apply make-up!). If you're a bad man, you can get an oil massage from the local soaplands (prostitution bathhouses) and finish your day off with a "special service." Hell, you can even try to be a Japanese salaryman and just chill in your beach house with your kids.
It's debatable whether this is the most sprawling Japanese video game created, but it certainly is the most expansive game ever set in Japan. The biggest drawback to this kind of world is that everything looks so inviting and realistic, and yet you still can't walk into every building or jump into every car due to memory constraints. This is the kind of game that gets you thinking about the limits of the virtual world -- the next step is wishing Kiryu can flip the pages of individual manga volumes at the bookstore, or go to the theater and watch an entire staged kabuki play, or jump into the ocean and swim for hours and miles away from the shore without an ostensible destination -- just because we can. The only way to be disappointed with Yakuza 3 is to wish for the perfectly interactive game that doesn't yet exist, but knowing these developers, they might achieve that someday.
Date Posted: 6/19/2009