Disclaimer: Contains spoilers for the Yakuza series
Sometimes there are perfectly good sequels that, through missteps in game design or writing, fail to live up to the original. That doesn't make them bad; it just makes them less than their predecessors. This irregular series of editorials will delve into some of those titles.
Yakuza 2 is a hidden gem of the PS2 library. It has unique forms of gameplay insanity wherein stone-faced crime drama, bicycle murder, and a series of mini games wherein the player becomes the king of all hosts blend together to form a wonderful whole. All centered around this tale of loss and revenge, the game is absolutely amazing. Yakuza 3, however, doesn’t quite nail the story side of that equation.
The game opens with some intrigue around a shady land deal that Kazuma Kiryu's former yakuza clan has its fingers in. It then follows up with the murder of a character from the previous game that mob boss Kiryu is clearly connected to via an assailant who is a dead ringer for Kazuma's (deceased) adoptive father. These crimes take place on opposite side of Japan, many hours apart. It's a great mystery and the tension in the cutscenes leading up the start of play is palpable. Players are then forced to spend two hours faffing about with orphans instead of worrying about the murder.
The plot of open world games, especially the crime sim sub-genre, tends to meander. The impact of the story will always be lessened if players have the option to mess around too freely with side activities, no matter that the rules of drama dictate otherwise. Yakuza 3 revels in these tangents. It's one thing to offer side activities; it's another to enforce them. At two different points Yakuza 3 primes you for serious crime syndicate action only to require the player to run around Okinawa helping out children first. When players are forced to grind to a halt in an open-world game and deal with the dramas of elementary school children, there is a problem. Yakuza 1 had a similar problem with stopping the plot while Haruka forces Kazuma (and by extention players) to play mini-games, but Yakuza 2 never really let side-story content destroy the flow of the plot.
Speaking of plot, both games are crime dramas that rely heavily on revelatory plot twists to advance the story and reveal character backgrounds. In the second game, all these plot revelations come back to a single night where the Dojima clan settled its differences with a rival Korean Syndicate with utmost brutality. Every plot point and major point of character development stems from this night. Players see parts of that night out of context, and as the story goes forward, more pieces of the night come together to form this whole mosaic of loss and melodrama. It is some of the tightest plotting I've seen in game, and it is glorious as it comes to its close. The reveals in Yakuza 3, on the other hand, come out of left field and don't blend well at all. In fact, these points are so far out in the furthest, left-most part of left field that it's pretty much in the next stadium over.
To begin with, the murder that provided the inciting action of the game is in fact Dojima's never before mentioned identical twin brother who works for the CIA. This twist was already played for laughs in the film City Slickers 2: Legend of Curly's Gold. If your plot twist is a joke from a Billy Crystal comedy, you don't get to play it straight in your crime drama. It's just a rule. Second, the antagonists come out of nowhere and have no real motivation. They're a bunch of foreign arms dealers who pose as CIA agents and are evil because...well, they're the bad guys. Third, the big reveal from the main villain as to his motivations just leaves me cold. His rationalization for his actions just doesn't click and it is ultimately unsatisfying especially in contrast to the villains of Yakuza 2.
These issues never stopped the game from being fun, but it has given me reasons to hold off on playing the next game in the series. It was bad enough that I felt like I had to write about to work it out of my system. Yakuza 3 shows us that not all sequels are created equal, but it isn't always for the most obvious reasons.