Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Yakuza 3: Demo Impressions

It’s rather ironic that a few days after I posted my Heavy Rain impressions, whilst also making some obviously valid comparisons to Sega’s Shenmue, that Sega should release a demo of the very Shenmue-like Yakuza 3 on PSN. How utterly weird that must feel, especially since there was also some interesting news on the forthcoming Sonic 4 revealed last week, making IQGamer seem for like IQSega.

The demo that was released on Thursday allows you to explore only a very small part of Tokyo City, giving you very limited access to which shops or arcades you can go in, and people whom you can speak to. It’s really just a tiny taster of what’s on offer in Yakuza 3, and for the most part bares only a passing resemblance to Sega’s other epic. You could in fact describe it as a Shenmue Lite of sorts with the limitations present in the demo. It’s also true that the very first game in this series also felt this way compared to how much stuff the second game allowed you to do.

You start off the demo playing as Kazama, a once prominent gang member long since retired, pulled back into action after hearing that your two closest friends have been gunned down, interestingly, by a man who is said to look a lot like your deceased father. You find yourself starting out in the heart of Tokyo, wondering down a bustling, neon-lit street after just arriving back into the city to follow up on some leads and to hunt down the killer. As you casually stroll down the street, you are greeted by a group of screaming girls hastily being thrown out of a club by some ugly looking Yakuza types. It’s a this point you get your first task of the day, to find out what’s going on, and possibly to kick some arse along the way.

It soon transpires that there is a brewing Mafia war between families, with one such family known for unleashing sporadic violence having run into a sizeable amount of money, and are now using it to influence their grip on another families turf. Really, at this point the club owners – two friends of yours - have no choice, it’s either accept the money or get re-educated on how this business actually works. With a fight about to go down, Kazama challenges these guys, and the game sets you up with your first action scene.

The combat here is pretty much like every side-scrolling beat’em up ever released, or more specifically Virtua Fighter Lite, with button mashing and well timed counters being the order of the day. The face buttons are used for attacks and throws, the d-pad for changing weapons, and the shoulder buttons for both blocking and locking-on to enemies. As you are kicking the crap out of the various thugs the game presents you with, a meter called the heat gauge fills up. When it’s completely full you will start glowing with blue flames surrounding you, allowing you to unleash a brutal weapons-based finisher on whoever is left standing in your way. In addition, when squaring off against the boss character of these fighting segments, you have the option of performing a stylish QTE finisher to take them down permanently. This is another Shemue-esque trait that Yakuza has inherited.

Disappointingly, the animations when fighting in the real-time sections are rather stiff, lacking the fluidity of the Virtua Fighter games, or even those found in the Tekken Force mode of Tekken 6. Everything looks extremely last-gen, from the basic punching and kicking animations, to how characters get up after being floored, or even how you just run and move around the environments. It seems like nothing has really been improved upon, or reworked to any great extent from the first two games on the PS2.

The same could be said for the visuals overall, with basic texturing lacking detail found in many western AAA titles, and average looking character models, all running at thirty frames-per-second with a noticeable amount of aliasing. Certainly, it looks very much like an enhanced PS2 game, without the polish needed to really immerse you into the world you are thrown into. Heavy Rain this is not.

Anyways, back to the gameplay itself. After beating the seven shades out of those Yakuza guys, you become informed that the life of an ex mafia colleague of yours is in danger (aren’t you mr popular), after which conveniently, he contacts you in order to arrange an urgent meet up.

This now opens up a wider area for you to explore in the demo, most of which there is very little to do other than to fight it out with the local punks and street gangs, or to enjoy a spot of arcade gaming, before stopping off for a quick Karaoke session with a girl who blatantly sees you as her love interest (oh Nozomi I should’ve noticed you).

After leaving the club in which I’d just disposed of those pesky Mafia scum, I’m told that the police are everywhere, and that I should find another route down the back streets to avoid arrest, whilst heading to meet up with my contact at the Millennium Tower. Instead I decided that I would rather meet up for a quick date with Rina, and go sing it away with her in the Karaoke first for a few hours, seeing as I’d just arrived in town almost having my arse handed to me, and am now expected to dive in head-on into who knows what. No, I needed some time out.

This is perhaps the best thing about Yakuza, that you can just go off tangent and do your own thing, completing side missions you find whilst exploring the streets, or simply stopping off to have some fun with the local nightlife. In this case Karaoke, which brings up a bizarre mini-game in which you have to push the correct face buttons as a coloured circle moves over them on screen. Results range from clapping, to Kazama shouting hey whilst Rina belts out her vocals. Of course you have the option of going alone if you really want to humiliate yourself.

Naturally, I failed miserably, and Rina said that she wasn’t ‘feeling it’ as a result, so my chances of getting in there with her were busted right down. With all this negativity it was time to get back on track and head for the Tower.

Now back onto completing my second mission, the game has you walk around the city avoiding the numerous police roadblocks that have been set up – though walking up to one simply results in Kazama saying to himself how he should avoid any contact with the police – at the same time having to fight off potential muggers and more street punks, before finding that elusive back alley you need to avoid any law enforcement.

Once you find this alley, it’s time for another real-time battle, but this time against some FBI Men In Black wannabes. This one plays out exactly the same as the fight in the club, with several henchmen to take on followed by the identikit looking, group leader. Again, it’s simply a case of combining those face buttons to perform combos, whilst alternating between whatever weapons you have left until all these guys are down, before taking down the leader with another QTE finishing move.

The demo ends after this battle, giving you only a glimpse of the type of things you will find yourself doing in the final game. You can’t venture into most of the shops and bars found in the game, and most people on the street will just give you a sly comment rather than open up a basic conversation with you. In some respects Yakuza has never been as in-depth as Shenmue on this level, and with Yakuza 3 it seems Sega have done very little to move the franchise on since the first two games. However, what you have here isn’t representative of all of Yakuza 3, just the opening few minutes of an early chapter of the final game.

One thing that is going to be the same is the voice acting and dialogue. The UK and US releases of Yakuza 3 are both subtitled with no English language option for voice acting. In addition, only the most important of scenes are actually acted out. Most are simply text based, having you move on the conversation by pushing X, and with more text appearing afterwards, rather than fully voiced dialogue present in almost every area of Shenmue. It was the same for the first two PS2 games, though the first one did have full English voice acting with regards to the dialogue, along with using many text heavy segments.

From what I’ve seen so far, Yakuza 3 is looking rather dated and less interesting compared to Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. Not surprising, given that it has been available in Japan for over two years, and since then, things have moved on significantly. However despite the stiff animations, unimpressive graphics, and familiar gameplay, Yakuza 3 may still be worth picking up, especially for fans of the last two games, and for people looking to at least try something different.

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