Tuesday 10 August 2021

IMHO: Yakuza 3

There are many times when I feel utterly ill-equipped to be attempting to talk about video games on the internet, a place full of intelligent and experienced people who have valuable and insightful things to say about the craft. People like Tim Rogers, or Noah Caldwell-Gervais or Hans Stockmann who it sometimes seems have not only played every game in existence, but can somehow summon up something of interest or somehow even something important to say about them.

And then there's me, someone who faced with having given myself the task of reviewing the remaster of Yakuza 3, a widely-respected open-world adventure game from 2009, really doesn't even have a frame of reference with which to judge it. I've been playing games all my life, from a NES and 386 onward without a noticeable break, and yet somehow the whole genre ( I don't even know what to call them, action role playing games, maybe?) completely passed me by. I haven't played an Elder Scrolls game, a Half-Life, a Fallout, a God of War, or a Soulslike. I played one of the Might and Magic games for a bit. I tried Bioshock but didn't really get into it. Any game where you're controlling a character in a 1st or 3rd person perspective, it's very likely that I haven't played it or seen someone play it, I probably haven't even heard of it. Is Yakuza 3 like those games at all? I can't really say. I think that might make me a fake gamer boy.

But judge it I must, because I set myself a target of reviewing all the Humble Bundle games this month and this game has the misfortune to be on it. My first impressions are that it:

  1. Is mostly about the plot rather than the rather rudimentary game mechanics
  2. Has far too many cutscenes (I think there were seven scene-setting movies before I could do anything meaningful with my character)
  3. Leans heavily on the story of the previous games in the series (which I have not played) to make me care about the characters. Except the main dude, who is my dad now (sorry dad).

I was going to go into more detail on those points. On how the gameplay that is not fighting feels like just an excuse to get you either to the fights or to yet another cutscene where we learn that our tough guy hero is just a big softie really. On how the fights feel so rote and uninspired that you just want to get back to the aimless roaming around and cute little side quests. On how the introductory exposition may well be the worse example of un-lampshaded introductory exposition I've even seen. But honestly I think the dot points above pretty much cover everything that I have to say about this game. Maybe I'm missing something, but I'm pretty sure that this game, and games like it, are just not for me.

Except...hold on just one cotton-picking second. Because wait, what's that sign hanging above that unassuming little staircase? "Mahjong Camp"?

If you ever hear people saying nice things about the Yakuza games, it tends to be that they're chock full of weird and wacky moments and odd side quests that you can get lost in, and that they're extremely Japanese, to such an extent that for Yakuza 3, for example, a lot of the content judged more obscure to a western audience, the Japanese trivia, the hostess clubs and the mahjong, for example, were cut out in localization. It turns out that in this remastered version that excised content was added back in, and that I had inadvertently stumbled across this city's one and only mahjong parlour. In an instant, I forget about the boy that has gone missing from my orphanage that I was ostensibly supposed to be searching for, and ascend the stairs.

Inside the mahjong parlour, I am invited to trade my money for mahjong sticks. Having just barely begun the game, I have very little money, but I can afford one game. I sit down at the beginners table with a mix of working folks (who kept emoting that they needed to get back to work or feed the kids) and serious gambler types (whose emotes seemed to mostly consist of sneers) and proceed to get my ass absolutely handed to me. 

Forced back out onto the street to scrounge for cash to feed my new-found gambling habit, I run into a few groups of thugs and swiftly relieve them of their hard-earned cash and belongings. After a short trip to the pawnshop, it was back to the mahjong parlour, where once again I sat down at the table and this time everything was coming up Milhouse. I repeated my victory on the intermediate and advanced tables in short order, although the fact that I kept seeing some of the same faces at each of the tables combined with no discernible change in the gameplay suggests that the table names must be at least a little bit academic. Though who really knows, we're talking about a game of chance here, after all.

The interface for the minigame is a little strange, partially (but probably not completely) caused by insistence on using a mouse and keyboard for a game that emphatically wants to be driven by a controller. This means it's frustratingly easy to accidentally call tiles when you're trying to draw instead, which would be a fatal flaw if this were a serious mahjong platform. The rules are a customisable to a small degree, and seem to be pretty well implemented, though they might be very slightly different to what I'm used to (since I should have had a win from the bottom of the river at some point but it was disallowed). My favourite feature is that the ability to call riichi is hidden, you have to realise that you have a ready hand and press another button to make the option appear, which is a nice little touch of realism that I appreciated.

It's impressive that the designers have gone to such lengths to put this detailed minigame in here, and after checking out the mahjong, I also dove into a few back alleys until I found the gambling house and a bar, both of which also housed a number of other seemingly well-rendered mini-games, each with variants and details of their own. While the main game of Yakuza 3 might not be my cup of tea, I find I'm willing to beat up enough punks to collect enough cash to try out all the minigames, at least, even if I might never find that poor lost boy at the orphanage, so it has that going for it. And that's not nothing.

Some quick numbers

  • Time played: 4.9 hours
  • Children abandoned to their fate: 9
  • Gangsters squeezed: Somewhere around 30 or so
  • Mangan hands achieved: 4
  • Rating: 5 hapless thugs out of 10

The rankings so far

I find it hard to rank games that are so different to each other, but in the end I decided to give it to the one that I'm more likely to leave installed on my hard drive, so the gangsters lose out to the dwarves.
  1. Hammerting
  2. Yakuza 3
Next up in this series, due some time in the next few days once I've had a chance to download and properly absorb it, is Deadly Days.

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