Kazuma Kiryu is a really nice guy. When you first meet him, he's running an orphanage in Okinawa, but here's the rub. In Tokyo, they know good ol' Uncle Kaz by different names, "the Dragon of Dojima," and "the Fourth Chairman of the Tojo Clan," to name a few. And, like the mafia, even when you're out and attempting to live a peaceful life, you can't escape gangland brutality, they'll reel you back in. Apparently it's the same in Japan. Yakuza 3 follows Kazuma from the shores of Okinawa back to Tokyo's city lights as he fights to save his orphanage from developers.
Giving the sandbox treatment to both Okinawa and Tokyo's fictionalized "Kamurocho" red-light district, Yakuza 3 plays a lot like an eastern version of Grand Theft Auto, minus the cars. Most missions play out similarly, go from point A to point B, beat someone up, and return to point A. While not boasting the most varied missions, gameplay is solid, and the fighting is particularly good — and it's necessary, as these are some of the most violent streets in the world. Kazuma can't walk a block without a fight.
To break from the main storyline, there's a lot going down in the city. There are enough mini-games — from golf to darts — to become their own Mario Party-style game. It's good that gameplay is deep, because the graphics aren't the prettiest; the imagery looks like a last-generation console game, and the animation can seem pretty silly. Also annoying are the sheer amount of invisible walls throughout the city. Sure, you can't expect to go into every room in the game, but we're talking entire courtyards that are completely inaccessible, a cardinal sin for any sandbox game.
So it doesn't always look pretty but, all in all, Yakuza 3 is the real deal. There's a fully fleshed-out (but slow-starting) story, fulfilling action, and should your ADD kick in, there are enough side missions and mini-games to quell your impatience.
Final Fantasy XIII
Square-Enix; PS3, (Review Copy) Xbox 360, PC
Final Fantasy XIII is a really good game and you should buy it. But had I based this review on the first few hours of play, I would've totally hated it.
Taking a cue from both Greek epics and Star Wars, FFXIII opens in media res, and sees key character Lightning getting deported from the flying city state of Cocoon to the main world of Pulse. You are then thrust into an intriguing storyline where your band of characters may've been tasked with saving the world, or possibly destroying it.
Changing things up from earlier Final Fantasies, the battle system has been revised: Full-party control is out, replaced by the paradigm system. With full control of only the group leader, your two computer controlled allies take one of six different roles, each with their own separate abilities. The paradigm shift, where you switch character roles on the fly, is initially very complicated, but once you get the hang of it, leads to a very fast paced strategic battle. Summoning giant beasts (Eidolons) to attack your enemies, a series staple, has also been revamped. The Eidolons resemble giant Transformers, and are visually stunning in action, as is the rest of the game. Square-Enix has always been known for its amazing CGI cut scenes, and current technology allows the entire game to look like a movie.
OK, so it looks great, and the gameplay system's interesting and challenging, so what's wrong? One word: pacing. The Final Fantasy series has never been the most open-ended, but XIII takes all pretenses of an open world away, and instead gives you a very linear adventure where it feels like the training wheels don't come off until you're close to halfway through the game. And that's the Final Fantasy XIII experience in a nutshell; it takes a long-haul commitment to truly understand how great the game is.
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