They're mostly designed as throwaway extras, but the game still does a handsome job in whatever it tackles, with simple, intuitive mechanics built into every one of its mini-games, and it also manages to infuse inadvertent humour when you least expect it. Kiryu's steely expression as he casts his rod out to sea, or his impassioned karaoke performances, are sure to be the stuff of gaming legend, while his furious attempts to blog the 'revelations' he discovers via his cameraphone repeatedly drive home the game's adorable lack of self-awareness.
In the main missions, meanwhile, there's a notable attempt to improve the sense of variety. Rather than cram in one linear brawl after another until the inevitable boss encounter, greater attention has been paid to the game's pacing. The emphasis on character development during each of the dozen chapters is particularly noticeable, with numerous missions devoted entirely to dramas at the orphanage, while other sections task you with fleeing from or chasing after assailants rather than battering them into submission. While it's true that certain sections outstay their welcome, this unhurried ebb and flow is something you grow to appreciate.
Inevitably, combat still provides the main thrust of the gameplay, and a few tweaks have also found their way into the otherwise-familiar melee fighting system. A few more Heat moves have been included, while the ability to craft and repair your own weapons helps give you the edge during the really intense encounters. Although at its heart, Yakuza 3 is still the same uncompromisingly brutal mix of punches, kicks, grabs and blocks it always was, with a basic RPG-style experience system underpinning the level and variation of attacks.
Although this brand of uber-violence can be supremely satisfying when it's at its most bone-crunchingly brutal, it's not without its foibles. Despite being wonderfully accessible, you tend to get inexplicably locked between opponents' attacks, which still rankles, and fight strategy is limited, mostly boiling down to mashing buttons until you can unleash one of the gratuitous head-smashing Heat moves (although there's still nothing quite like throwing a bicycle at a downed opponent and then jumping full-force at their face).
The problem isn't so much the combat itself, but that Yakuza 3 doesn't know when to leave you alone. Being spammed with random brawls when you're trying to get from A to B is tedious, and if there was a means of switching them off it would be a more pleasurable game to play in general. It's not as if the game's exactly lacking for combat anyway, and with all the extra distractions that have been added the chances are you'll be caught out more than ever by pointless random battles.
What's really likely to irk fans though is SEGA's decision to chop parts from the Western release entirely. Having already admitted that you'll no longer be able to groom hostesses in cabaret bars, it's irritating to discover that you can't engage in the hilarious erotic massage mini-game either, where Kiryu has to keep his rising excitement under control while images of scantily clad ladies waft past.
The omission of Mahjong, Shogi Chess, and the Answer X Answer trivia game is hardly a big loss, but it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially given that both previous Yakuza games were translated without ditching any of the more obscure elements of Japanese culture. Maybe poor sales figures in the West for both titles convinced SEGA that it wasn't worth the additional effort.
Still, in SEGA's defence, it has got a point when says there's enough great content to satisfy Western audiences. Even playing through the main missions will take a minimum of 15 hours, while the addition of around 100 side quests easily doubles that tally. Factor in the innumerable additional challenges, and the free DLC bundled with the game, and it will be hard to feel short-changed.
For a game that could well have been overlooked for a Western release entirely, the removal of a few minor elements, while frustrating, is a small price to pay. What remains is a relentlessly enjoyable action-RPG, which offers a unique insight into Japanese culture despite its exaggerations. The Western version of Yakuza 3 might have suffered a few heartbreaking cuts, but it's still intriguing at every turn and shouldn't be missed.
8 / 10