A violent gangster roaming a city of criminals, raking in the cash, a haul of weapons up his sleeve... remind you of anything? Relax. Fold those preconceptions back into their box, push down the lid and stab it for a bit. Kazuma Kiryu is nothing like Niko Bellic and Yakuza 3 is nothing like Grand Theft Auto - or any of its clones. Yakuza 3 is madness, though in an endearing way that, like Boris Johnson, forces you to forgive its idiocies.
Its cut-scenes stretch so far you could wallpaper a black hole with them, but they're beautiful. And even when you're not watching the story (reading subtitles, which is all the English you'll get, despite the long wait for this Euro version) you spend great swathes of time being nice to children. Yakuza 3 can be amazingly gentle for a crime game, something reﬂected in those Sega-blue skies, cheerful streets and lush ocean sunsets.
Retired gangster Kazuma (that's you) runs an orphanage on a gorgeous Okinawa beach, but it's no mere front for criminal activities. The game makes sure you recognise each child by sight and name: you play hide and seek, solve their bullying problems, befriend dogs as pets, help kids with their dress sense, guide their budding love lives... be a father ﬁgure. It's oddly peaceful.
You have some choice in how much attention / sympathy you give, but we felt compelled, somehow, to be as lovely as possible to the little shits. Thankfully, as Kazuma remains a double-hard bastard despite this philanthropic turn, you can always pop into town and Tazer locals in the eyes.
Just to let off steam, you know. Yet this is a long way from the free-roaming criminal norm: Kazuma is an honourable man. Fights are always started by others, and once it kicks off you're sealed into a small arena by crowds of cheering civilians. What's more the vanquished, instead of bleeding out or coming apart on a grenade, survive. And then they apologise, giving you money or gifts as well. Kids, eh? Feeble.
When you're not 'avin' it with terrifying bosses and their goons in the main story, challenges come from passing yakuza, con men and 'street punks' afﬁliated with other families, and while some ﬁghts can be avoided if you spot the men early, plenty of idiots simply rush up and start calling you 'grandad'. The randomness is rarely annoying, however, simply because there's so much else to the game. The changes of tempo are welcome, as is the chance to hone your skills.
THINK ON YOUR FEET
There are tons of blunt and stabby weapons, but combat is more Virtua Fighter than Liberty City. Punches and kicks are the best medicine, while anything you can grab - tables, lamps, bicycles, trafﬁc cones, bottles, people - can be wrapped around someone's face. In fact, if you cause enough hurt to enter Heat mode (where Kazuma burns with a blue ﬂame) an object is vital for the devastating Heat moves. And there's little better than slamming some idiot into unconsciousness with the buckled wheel of a ladies' bicycle.
Actually, one thing that possibly is better is the stranger who implores you to start a blog. Taking pictures of strange occurrences on your mobile and posting them, he says, is the way to learn new Heat moves. The ﬁrst occurrence involves an old lady falling so in love with a poster she doesn't notice her moped's hit a car and ﬂipped entirely over it. It's a completely ludicrous event that's cut with perfect comedy timing.
Yakuza 3 gradually fades from lazy days of shopping, ﬁshing and headbutting to Machiavellian rounds of golf with local politicians and the darker, meaner streets of Tokyo. And despite the deep core of story scenes and character building - and what fantastic characters, both in design and nature - it never feels as if you're simply a witness.