I was about two hours into the opening chapters of Yakuza 3 when I started to realise I was going to have to play a few rounds of golf if I wanted to get any further.
Up until this point, things had been a little too straightforward: I'd wandered around in Tokyo a bit, I'd watched a lot of cut-scenes, had plenty of conversations to page through, and I'd even had a fight with a charming idiot on top of a floodlit skyscraper. Suddenly I found myself tasked with earning the confidence of a local sports-mad councilman, and then there I was at the golf course, selecting putters, taking into account the wind shear and trying to perfect my swing.
In between the three or four holes SEGA wants you to play, there's a little bit of plot to unfold, as reformed Yakuza Kiryu Kazuma chats with the councillor about young people today and how they play too many videogames, while obliquely discussing a land deal that threatens his way of life. In between the plot unfolding, however, there's quite a bit of a fairly serious golf game to play as you calculate the lay of the green, get to grips with the power meter, and try to stay out of the rough.
It's not going to win any awards - unless there's a category for "best golf game unexpectedly inserted into a violent RPG" included in end of the year round-ups - but it's slick stuff, and in the quirky wholeheartedness with which SEGA's underworld adventure throws itself into capturing the feel of Tiger Woods, you can see why people often refer to this series as the spiritual successor to Shenmue.
Golfing aside, the opening of Yakuza 3 is a slow burn, and a deeply enjoyable one. There's a lot of story to get through in the largely non-interactive first 45 minutes, and a lot of back-story to catch up on if you missed the first two games or are recovering from amnesia (luckily, there are stylish précis of the previous titles tucked away on a menu somewhere). Even once you're properly back in control of things, there's still a lot of chatting to be done with almost everyone you encounter.
But the long and the short of it is actually pretty simple. Kazuma has left the world of crime largely behind him, and he and sweet little Haruka have started a new life in Okinawa - which, with its radiant sands, green grass and dipping palms, looks a lot like the Greenhill Zone following a chequer-endectomy.
Kazuma and Haruka are running an orphanage, and, as is the way with such things, the orphanage is threatened with closure by a corrupt land deal. I don't want to get too far into the realm of spoilers, but if you're buying Yakuza 3 because you think it's going to be a great orphanage management game, you're probably going to be disappointed.
Except that, for the first few hours, before the action leans back towards the Tokyo streets the series is famous for, it is an orphanage management game. And it is, by and large, a pretty great one. Kazuma, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt and some truly ill-considered white slacks, spends his days chopping onions for dinner, lecturing the children on the meaning of family and the basics of good manners (you might want to take notes - his stuff on conflict resolution is particularly good). Only occasionally does he head off into the nearby city to smash people around the head with bicycles.
SEGA's establishing a delicate pace with these opening scenes - somewhat more insistent than the studious plod of the Persona games, perhaps - and there's a real sense of a slice of life, albeit a fairly saccharine one, being expertly shaped for the world of videogames.
In between local rumblings of violent wrongdoings in town, you really will have to get into the rhythm of the kids' days, helping them out with poignant childhood problems like stolen money, bullying, and whether or not to beat a stray dog (do it, naturally), and it's strangely addictive stuff. One quest has so much backtracking in the space of two minutes that it's almost a parody of the form, but for the most part Yakuza 3 keeps you on your toes, and proves itself as comfortable with domestic duties as it is with the brawling.
Cor, it's still brilliant at the brawling though, and once the game returns to a more familiar pace you're left to enjoy the old-school pleasures of punching, kicking and kneeing people into shop windows. The lock-on might be wobbly and combos may start off in a fairly simplistic manner, but there's plenty of opportunity for showboating as street crowds gather to cheer you on, strikes connect with a screen-shaking intensity, and blood splatters all over the sidewalk.
At heart, these are random battles - even if in Yakuza 3 you don't even have to dip into a separate instance anymore - but they feel like events in a way random battles rarely do. They're rowdy, brutal and stylish: once you start levelling up and unlocking different heat actions, you can pull off some truly horrific finishers, and even before that there's a unique delight to be found in shattering a restaurant menu hording over somebody's shoulders while, nearby, a granny gives you a thumbs-up.
And when the story finally gets cooking, it unfolds with the low-key style of the first two games. The framing of cut-scenes is understated but cool, the threat of nasty violence hangs in the air at every moment, and everyone you meet is either a badass or a pathetic snivelling fraud about to get shown up for pretending to be a badass.
With its ebb and flow of dialogue, exploration and punching people in the nuts, three games in, the central premise of Yakuza still seems like such a good idea. An RPG with a modern setting, and a nice brawler wedged in the middle: decent characters, a dizzying plot, and endless mini-game distractions.
It remains a Japanophile's dream, too. Just wandering around Kazuma's orphanage with its sliding doors, tatami mats and odd light fixtures, and a kitchen filled with brightly-coloured plastic utensils, feels like the best kind of cultural nosing around, while the bright banners and shuttered storefronts of downtown Okinawa and Tokyo convey a sense of place every bit as exciting as Hyrule.
And, ultimately, we're lucky to be getting it, given the generally limp sales of the original games. The days of big-name voice-overs may be gone, and the next-gen polish may be limited to nice skin textures and subtle animation tweaks, but Yakuza 3 still feels like an event release. It's not going to trouble Final Fantasy XIII too much in the sales stakes, but as a serious RPG that blazes its own trail, it's likely to acquit itself with honour - on and off the links.
Yakuza 3 is due out exclusively for PS3 on 12th March.