Yakuza 3 Is Frankly Fantastic

I don’t have anything insightful to say about the state of the gaming industry, because I’ve been too busy playing games to think about what it means to play games.

I meant to spend the morning scrawling a self-indulgent screed about my experiences in the games press, but instead I spent that hour leveling up in Yakuza 3 by shopping for women’s clothing and photographing old ladies in the street.

Curious? I can explain, but first I need to set the (cut)scene: former yakuza Kazuma Kiryu has become an Okinawan orphanmonger who regularly witnesses stupendous feats of human fortitude in the face of danger, and he learns new fighting techniques by filming these near-tragedies and…posting them to his blog.

It’s kinda beautiful, in a fucked-up way: Yakuza 3 takes a few pinches of Zen Buddhist theosophy, rolls it in contemporary voyeur culture and lights it with the promise of power progression. Smash buttons in the right order, and you’re rewarded with a satirical flash of satori. I like it. There’s no question that QTEs are bad for you, but what’s the harm in one or two when they’re this charming?

Yakuza 3 sprinkles random encounters with the same subtle charm. For example, in my first dozen hours playing I’ve run into the same random group of thugs on multiple occasions. They’re con men, through and through; I know because they’re named “Con Men.”

The first time they ambushed Kazuma, it was just another random encounter. I’ve already watched the Dragon of Dojima pummel plenty of pedestrians in the sunny streets of Okinawa, and this encounter was no different; the leader of Con Men faked a dislocated shoulder after bumping into Kaz, prompting his priggish friends to demand 10,000 yen for “medical expenses.”

Naturally, Kazuma Kiryu beat the shit out of them.

I promptly forgot them entirely.

An hour or so later I was surprised to see the same character wandering the streets with a posse that had doubled in size. Out of curiosity I shoved Kazuma into their path, and was pleasantly surprised to see a slightly tongue-in-cheek scene in which the same Con Man brushed up against Kaz and promptly crumpled to the ground faster than a Brazilian soccer player. One of Con Man’s priggish friends (the same prig, perhaps) demanded 100,000, barely bothering to acknowledge the “medical expenses” schtick.

Naturally, Kazuma Kiryu beat the shit out of everyone. I’m pretty sure he curb-stomped Con Man on the way out.

Clearly these were scripted events, but how important are they to Yakuza 3’s central plot? Not very, I’d wager; yet I’m excited to see how these less-than-random encounters will escalate before the game ends. After mercilessly beating the Con Men a second time, one of the NPC punks (“Con Man In Training”) began to voice concerns about the future of the Con Men franchise, going so far as to point out that randomly demanding obscene sums of cash from ludicrously well-muscled men in the street was a less than sustainable business model.

Naturally he got his shit kicked out by the Con Man, but what happens if Kaz and I meet these Con Men again? Will the team splinter, or will the Con Man see the error of his larcenous ways? What if the group gets out of the confidence game for good, only to be pulled in by Kazuma later in the game for one last job? How far down the rabbit hole does this random encounter go?

Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because even though I despise phrases like “random encounter” and “quick time event” I’m committed to seeing this game through. While playing it I’m reliably surprised and delighted, which is why I’ve devoted ten or twelve hours to the game in the past week. I suspect I’ll relinquish two dozen more before I’m through; I relish games that offer fresh experiences. We’ve written at length recently about what makes a Good Game: Nate’s a Maker who makes no secret of his love for building systems and communities, while Pat’s more of a Fighter who brooks no disrespect for savoring the quick savagery of Street Fighter. Me? I’m more of an Explorer, sifting through game after game in search of strange and wonderful things.

Frank Cifaldi recently reminded us that not all games are new, and some great games are actually kinda old. I suspect he was referring more to Yoshi’s Island than Yakuza 3, but I still think it’s a sentiment worth remembering. Games don’t have to be new to be good, and they don’t even have to be good to be worth playing. After finishing Final Fantasy X I thought I was out of the traditional Japanese RPG racket for good, but Yakuza 3 is good enough to drag me back for one last job.

Do you remember that song you loved in high school? The one you loved so deeply that you played it on loop, over and over, until you were so sick of the beat you could scream? Yakuza 3 is like an offbeat remix of my favorite band, nicking all the best parts of an old obsession and spitting them back with a funky new bass line. I hope you’ll play it sometime.

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