If I’m to believe Yakuza 3’s depiction of Japan, a visit to the country would consist of being constantly accosted by punks while walking through markets, being asked out on dates by random beautiful women in burger joints, and performing menial tasks like going from shop to shop looking for dog toys. You’d get the occasional flash of excitement in the form of shirtless fistfights on the rooftops, but these would be few and far between.
For a game rooted so heavily in a tale of organized crime, Yakuza 3 is filled to the brim with wholly unexciting errands. In those moments where it does shift into all-out action, the gameplay feels incredibly dated. The brawling feels distinctly last-gen, complete with horrendous collision detection. You’ll unlock some vicious finishing moves and techniques that provide more wiggle room in terms of improvisation, but the combat feels downright mechanical when put up against other action games on the market.
Leveling up your abilities is a fairly basic ordeal, requiring you to funnel experience into one of four categories. However, these upgrades never do much to significantly change the way you approach combat. It’s a minimal nod to RPG conventions, but no matter how much you’ve upgraded, you’ll still groan every time some gangsters want to fight because they think you looked at them crooked.
An overall lack of polish is evident in many aspects of the game. Let's say you're wielding a giant couch as a weapon and a quicktime event occurs in the middle of a fight. The couch will magically disappear from your hands for the duration of the QTE, then it will pop up again as soon as you're done. If you're stumbling down the street in a drunken stupor and some gang members attack you, you'll become immediately lucid and fight them gracefully, only to return to your intoxicated stumble the moment they're successfully dispatched. I'll stop there for the sake of brevity, but rest assured you won't go 15 minutes in this game without seeing plenty more like this.
Outside of the repetitive fights, gameplay is mostly confined to walking around and talking to people in an effort to advance the story. When Yakuza 3 comes down to these open-world elements, it’s trounced by a title as old as Grand Theft Auto III. Downtown Ryukyu may be heavily populated, but the lack of any real interaction makes it feel like a ghost town. Numerous activities are available, from surprisingly complete recreations of golf, pool, and darts to afterthoughts like the dreadful karaoke minigame. Some of these serve as decent distractions when you want to take a break from the main quest, but the scant XP and cash bonuses you receive from them won’t do anything to make the core gameplay more tolerable.
Yakuza 3 does offer an involved, lengthy story for those with the patience to wade through the repetition and annoyances. Fans who have followed Kazuma through the previous installments should enjoy watching him return to mob life to protect his orphanage. Yakuza 3 carves its own identity and characters, making it more than just “Grand Theft Auto in Japan.” If you don’t feel a strong connection with the story, however, the dated gameplay mechanics and lack of polish do a fine job of sapping most of the enjoyment you could potentially receive.