|February 2, 2009 - One of Japan's biggest franchises is about to drop on PlayStation 3. On February 26, Sega will release Yakuza 3 to eager PS3 owners over in Japan. Just ahead of the release, Sega at long last gave the game its playable debut at a demo event in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, a few minutes from the real life version of the original Yakuza's Kamiyacho entertainment district.
The demo event was part of a larger tour that will see Yakuza 3 travel to major cities throughout Japan this month. Producer Toshihiro Nagoshi will be following the tour, signing autographs and shaking hands. Nagoshi was doing his PR duties right beside us as we took the controller in hand for a first experience with Yakuza 3.
The demo -- an actual demo, rather than just a retail version of the game booting up from a save point -- starts off with series' hero Kazuma Kiryu arriving in Kamiyacho and remarking how little things have changed since his last visit. In the distance, he spots his old Stardust host club just as a drunk yakuza gets rough with a couple of girls and tosses them out of the place.
That's when you're given control. We immediately tried to explore the area, but Kiryu kept on suggesting that we go see what the fuss was all about at Stardust. Following his wishes, we entered Stardust and were treated with a cinema scene in which Kiryu finds himself and two friends being confronted by about a dozen-or-so yakuza. Cinema scenes have always been Yakuza's strong point, but thanks in part to the added detail for part 3, they're now even more involving!
Following the cinema scene, the game switches into battle mode. Your task is to work with your two buddies to defeat the entire lot of yakuza scum. This is not an easy task, because one of the guys midway through the fight gets enraged at the fact that he's losing and pulls out a sword. Thankfully, you've got the entire Stardust, both lower and upper lounge areas, to use as your battle ground, and can also pick up all varieties of furniture from the ground to use as weapons.
Yakuza 3's battle system will be instantly recognizable to those who've played PS3's Yakuza Kenzan. Since Kenzan never made it out to our shores, we imagine most are picturing the battle system from the PS2 versions. That's a good starting point, but imagine an experience that's been exponentially refined, and you'll have Yakuza 3.
One of the nice features of the Yakuza 3 battle system that wasn't in the original Yakuza is the ability to assign weapons to d-pad hot keys. This allows you to switch between weapons with just a button press. The demo started Kiryu off with a nunchaku, longbow and blade knuckles, each bringing about a different feel to the fight.
Outside of this Stardust fight, we did manage to get a small sampler of Kamiyacho. While the city will be familar to players of the first two games (the third, Kenzan, took place during the Edo Era, so Kamiyacho was, of course, nowhere to be found), there are some obvious improvements. The buildings are more detailed, and the streets are flooded with people at times -- so many people that you'll have to push your way to get through.
As with Kenzan, Yakuza 3 offers a far more immersive experience compared to the two PS2 titles. The camera is now zoomed in on Kiryu's back as opposed to the three-quarter overhead views of the PS2 games. There are no transitions between sections of the map now. Yakuza 3 feels like a modern behind-the-back adventure game.
One of the biggest improvement to the series with Yakuza 3 is in load times. A major complaint for the PS2 titles was the lengthy loading that preceded those random battle encounters on the street. The encounters are in Yakuza 3 as well, but there's absolutely no loading. You'll be talking to some thug, he'll threaten you, the camera will pan back a bit, and all of a sudden, you're fighting. After the fight, the camera will zoom back in a bit, and you'll be instantly roaming the streets once again as Kiryu. If the experience throughout Yakuza 3 is as smooth as the demo version suggested, we're in for a treat!
There's plenty to the yakuza experience that, while not getting to try out for ourselves, we saw other players sample. In typical Yakuza style, the game has a number of mini-games, including golf, arcade games, and a rhythm-based karaoke game complete with actual voiced songs. We saw one player sampling an arcade game that looked like a 2.5D shooter.
Also catching our attention was Kiryu's method of learning moves. As with Kenzan, Kiryu will be able to learn moves by watching closely as things happen around him. In the demo, a young girl was grabbed from behind by a thug. She let out a huge scream, but then took care of the wretch on her own, tossing him over, then kicking him. As she performs these moves, you're prompted to make "quick timer" style inputs. Perform these successfully, and Kiryu will learn the girl's moves for use in a future fight.
All this represents what we saw in just 15-or-so minutes playing and watching the game while waiting for the line to clear up so that we could get Nagoshi's signature. If that fifteen minutes is an indication, Yakuza 3's Japanese release on the 26th is going to be one of the PS3's finest moments yet. We'll be sure and let you know all about it.