"Yakuza 3 Remastered feels like a modern entry in the series. Everything we know and love is here, just in an earlier state.
The Yakuza series has gone through some big changes over the last 15 years. From its humble PS2 origins, it's sparked six sequels, one prequel, multiple spinoffs, and two remakes. Now, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio is bringing the PS3 middle games of the series (3, 4, and 5) into the modern day with 1080p and 60 fps remasters for the PS4. So, getting started on this massive collection of games, how does 2010's Yakuza 3 stack up to its contemporary counterparts?
After sorting out the trouble for the Tojo clan once and for all (hah!), Kazuma Kiryu has fully retired from the Yakuza world to run an orphanage in Okinawa, the southernmost island of Japan. Unfortunately, a billion-yen land deal has put his orphanage in the middle of a Tojo civil war. Fighting to protect the children in his care, Kiryu returns to Kamurocho to save his home and prevent the Tojo traitors from tearing the clan apart (again). Of course, he might also fit in some karaoke, bowling, hostess clubs, UFO Catcher, and mahjong while he's in town!
Yakuza 3's storytelling shares the same robust mix of heart-wrenching melodrama and goofy weirdness as other titles in the series, but the pacing is slightly off. These momentum issues are primarily due to the "heartwarming" sections of the game which I came to think of as "Yakuza Dad." As the head of the orphanage, Kiryu is determined to raise these children right. And as the person holding the controller, you are too, for better or worse. You work to strengthen the relationships between the kids, train a stray puppy, help them confront bullies, manage asthma symptoms, and much more. Heartwarming, maybe, but these sections can be a slog.
What also kills momentum is the massive plot dump in the middle of the game. Up to that point, you are steadily uncovering the identity of the Tojo clan traitor and why they want Kiryu's land. However, that intrigue gets undercut when Kiryu is told every aspect of the plot in a half-hour-long cutscene conversation. It kills the latter half of the story, as there is nothing left to figure out. You know what all the power players want and how they intend to get it. The only thing left to do is beat the living hell out of them. This pacing issue is unfortunate because there are some truly compelling characters in Yakuza 3, including one of the most sympathetic villains yet introduced in the series.
It's challenging to communicate the humongous leap forward in graphics and gameplay Yakuza 3 took over its predecessor, Yakuza 2. In the PS2-era Yakuza titles, fixed camera angles, blocky graphics, and blurry visuals limited both the environmental immersion and gameplay potential. As Yakuza 3 utilizes a third-person camera system, we can finally explore a fully realized Kamurocho and greater Japan.
This massive generational jump in graphics, animation, and gameplay is critical to keep in mind for those who have only played Yakuza 0 or the Kiwami remakes. While we are taking a step forward in the overall storyline, the graphics and gameplay are taking a significant step backward from later titles. This entry is an earlier version of the Yakuza we know and love, and there are still a lot of rough edges to be polished.
Though hardly a graphics powerhouse by today's standards, Yakuza 3 Remastered's overall design and rock-solid combat animations are perfectly serviceable. For 2010, the fully-explorable, open-world spaces of Kamurocho and the new city of Ryukyu are quite impressive. That said, the upgrade to a 1080p resolution does make the blurry texture quality stand out much more, and the models of most NPCs don't come close to the overall detail of the main characters. It's also a bit distracting to see the incredible stiffness of NPCs as they walk the streets, especially children (of which there are MANY in this game).
Coming from the later Kiwami games, I expected the voice work here to be less sophisticated, but the performances are as fantastic, as always. The places where there is text rather than a voiceover feel somewhat arbitrary, but that is a constant criticism of the series. The music is also a high point, as everything from karaoke songs to the battle themes will get your heart racing.
Combat is a bit more primitive than you might be used to, but it's still as satisfying as ever to beat someone unconscious with a bicycle. As you wander the streets of Kamurocho and Ryukyu, a variety of gang members, ruffians, and low-level yakuza will pick fights with you, which might be the most unbelievable thing in any Yakuza game. Who in their right mind takes a look at Kazuma Kiryu and thinks, "Hey, that stone-faced boulder of a man looks like easy pickings!"
You only have one style of combat here, augmented by dozens of heat actions. The more hits you get in, the higher your heat meter rises, until you can perform powerful moves to take out enemies in a single button press. These moves are as entertaining and hilarious as always, such as dispatching your opponent by grabbing one of his legs and swinging him directly into his companions. I did find that there were many more quicktime events built into the combat this time around, which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how quick you are on the trigger. There is also much more blood in this game than in future entries. Enemies look considerably worse for wear after a fight here than in modern Yakuza titles (both because of the blood and the polygon count.)
New mechanics introduced in Yakuza 3 include a first-person viewing mode and a chase mechanic. Unfortunately, running down your opponents overstays its welcome by about two sprints, quickly becoming repetitive. I also found it frustrating that you could only sprint during these sections. Traversing Kamurocho is considerably more sluggish when you can't sprint down the narrow streets in normal gameplay. The first-person viewing mode nicely immerses you within the world, but dramatically increases the difficulty and frustrations of trying to find missing locker keys above your regular viewing angle.
As per usual, Yakuza 3 features a ridiculous number of minigames, but in somewhat more primitive forms. For example, included in the substories is an earlier version of the excellent Hostess Club minigame found in Yakuza 0 and Kiwami 2. However, rather than running a club like in those games, you are merely coaching a single hostess. The gameplay consists entirely of walking around a club to hear what guests want, then returning to the dressing room to "train" the hostess and boost her stats. The repetitive and passive nature of the minigame isn't very much fun. Thankfully, you can always blow it off and go bowling instead!
Despite occasional moments of dated gameplay, I entirely understand why developers opted for a remaster rather than a full Kiwami-style remake. Yakuza 3 Remastered feels like a modern entry in the series. Everything we know and love is here, just in an earlier state. It will be fascinating to see how the gameplay, graphics, and storytelling evolve as the Remastered trilogy gets closer to the glories of Yakuza 0!