Release Date: 9/5/06
Sega seems to be having a pretty decent year and change so far; despite some stinkers here and there, they’ve been on the upswing with some solid titles as compared to the past couple of years. Between the above average Full Auto, the entertaining Condemned, and the incredibly solid Chromehounds, they’re starting to rebuild a reputation as a quality developer/publisher. Add to that the anticipated Phantasy Star Universe and the Sega Genesis Collection, and it’s looking to be a good time to be a Sega fan indeed.
And then there’s Yakuza. Developed internally, it looked to be one part Shenmue and one part Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance (or, alternatively, Spike-Out for those who would like to keep things consistent). I did a preview of it not too long ago, which only served to confirm that belief, and what I saw at that point was more than acceptable, and had me interested. Combine that with a storyline written by Seishu Hase (an award winning Japanese author, who also wrote “The City of Lost Souls” if you’ve seen it) and a noted emphasis on action and storytelling over spending hours meandering around doing nothing, and I was highly intrigued.
As an aside, there’s apparently a movie based on the game in the works in Japan. It’s set to be directed by one Takashi Miike (who directed “The City of Lost Souls”, among other movies; you may be noticing a pattern), which if you know who he is probably made you pop up Google for information. Here’s hoping it finds its way stateside; I for one would absolutely buy it in a second.
Point being, Yakuza has a weighty pedigree to live up to. Does it? Let’s find out.
You take on the role of Kazuma Kiryu, badass yakuza enforcer known as “The Dragon of the Dojima Clan”, largely because he can beat the holy hell out of anyone on Earth (or so we’re led to presume). Kazuma ends up going to jail after taking the rap for a crime he didn’t commit, and ten years later, he returns to the world to find that the affairs of the yakuza are far worse than when he left. From there, he’s dragged into a giant war involving his former “brother” and the girl he loves, while he tries to unravel the mysteries of what’s going on, as well as the matter of a stolen ten billion yen, and a little girl who seems to hold the key to everything.
The story is full of twists and turns, and works quite well overall. The characters develop nicely through the story and maintain motivations consistent with their personalities, and the payoffs to the various plot points are also well written and developed. There are the few odd clichÃƒÆ’Ã†’Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â©s here and there, but they work well enough.
The only real problems with the story, unfortunately, concern Kazuma and his group of friends. Kazuma, while represented as a complete and total badass, comes off as entirely too nice of a guy for someone in his line of work, and the members of his yakuza family also come off as largely nice guys, to the point where you start to wonder how the hell they’ve managed to survive so long by being so nice. Kazuma in general seems more realistic when he’s playing the honorable bad guy; responding to severe death threats with lines like “Bring that shit!” (which has become my new favorite phrase from a videogame, ever) suits him far better than playing nursemaid to a child or feeding a starving puppy. Basically, when he’s whipping ass and destroying everyone and thing he sees, Kazuma’s just naturally cool and likeable, but when he’s playing the good guy he seems less accustomed to it and it feels forced. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to seem, like some sort of forced atonement for his sins, but it just feels like poor scripting.
Aside from that, however, the story is absolutely awesome. You can totally relate to Kazuma, and mostly he comes off as cool as the storyline would like him to be. The bad guys do sufficiently hateful things that one can easily grow to hate them, and the various double-crosses and plot twists work perfectly fine and aren’t entirely easy to see coming, but aren’t insanely complex. The story ties itself up neatly enough in the end, leaving the gamer feeling satisfied with the conclusion, and agreeable with the plot, if not blown away by it. It’s not an epic or anything, but it’s very solid and well written, and does enough to keep you interested easily until the end.
Story Rating: 7/10
Yakuza is one of the more visually stylish titles to come out this year, mostly due to the environment itself. The game world takes great pains to look and feel like a cross between an urban slum and Las Vegas, and does so admirably. The world is constantly in motion and the look and feel is very lively, which helps to sell the presentation nicely. Character models also look good, though the difference between “important” characters and nobodies is noticeable, but not greatly. Kazuma in particular looks great, which is to be expected, but other important characters also look quite good, and most everyone animates well. Combat is animated especially well, and the various attacks convey pain at all points, especially Heat attacks (which not only animate like little cutscenes, but also look harsh; stomping in someone’s face is definitely cringe-worthy). The game also incorporates little visual touches (Haruka trips every once in a while, for instance, and characters visibly react when Kazuma knocks into them) that add to the presentation. There are some notable clipping issues, which are kind of to be expected, but beyond that, Yakuza is one of the better looking titles on the PS2, if not technically, then stylistically.
Graphics Rating: 8/10
The music in Yakuza is largely either dramatic pieces (for cutscenes, usually) or harder rock tracks (for fights), but there are also all sorts of other background pieces that go all over the place (dance tracks in the strip club, for instance, or the entirely TOO HAPPY “Don Quixote” theme song). All in all, the music is damn good, and those involved should be proud of this accomplishment. The tracks are lively and work very well, and I’m actively interested in hunting down an OST (if one is ever released, which so far one has not been). Yes, I enjoy the music that much.
The voice acting is also pleasantly surprising, in that it isn’t bad. Kazuma in particular is quite well performed, and the voice has an appropriate hard edge, tough as nails sound to it (without falling into the “Solid Snake” stereotype), but other actors do a good job as well. Regarding the celebrity voices, most of them are quite solid, though Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor from Smallville) has his down moments, and Eliza Dushku (Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) sounds consistently bored (though that’s how she usually sounds, to be fair). Mark Hamill, however, absolutely rocks, and it’s a dirty shame that he gets so few lines to say. Also, by and large, everyone in the game sounds really silly saying Japanese words, largely because they pronounce them in a not entirely correct manner. I think Yakuza would have benefited from a Japanese language track (if possible), but as it is it’s still pretty good.
As you walk around the city, you’ll also hear various ambient voices and such in addition to the standard speech, and those are (for some odd reason) still in Japanese. I can also understand why that was done (partly because it still fits the game fine, and partly because it’s cheaper), but it still seems silly. Shopkeepers and vendors also speak Japanese, which is just as silly, but less understandable in context. It’s not hateful or anything, but it’s weird and probably should have been re-dubbed before release. And as for the sound effects, well, smacking the crap out of someone sounds spot-on, and the various ambient sounds of the city come off nicely and do a lot for the product.
Overall, Yakuza sounds great. The mix of Japanese and English voices is a little odd, and some of the voices aren’t the best, but the awesome music and great sound effects combined with the good voice performances far outweigh the negatives, and make for a great aural experience.
Sound Rating: 8/10
For those that have played Shenmue, the basic concepts behind Yakuza’s gameplay will feel familiar, but for those who are unfamiliar with the game, some explaining is in order. The game basically works as a combination adventure game – beat-em-up, where you’ll be asked to go from point to point, taking on missions and such, and beating the crap out of those who get in your way. The adventuring part of the game works well enough; basically, you maneuver Kazuma around the city to get to wherever you need to go. You’re provided a map in the corner of the screen which shows, roughly, where you are and where your destination (if any) is, or an arrow pointing to it if it’s not on the visible map. You can move the map in the corner around to see other locations on it with the right stick, which might seem odd until you’re informed that the game uses a fixed camera for adventuring. That you can manipulate the map from the gameplay interface is nice, but the locked camera angles can often be quite terrible, and the normal map is only a button press away. Moving around the game world is a snap, for the most part, but when the camera angle switches, it can often switch in such a way that it totally screws up your perspective (though whatever direction you’re holding remains “forward” so you don’t end up getting stuck in a loading loop). Overall, though, not much is asked of you from this mode, and you can locate most everything you need to find, so it’s overall not too bad.
Combat, however, is where the game shines, so long as you can adjust to it. You’re given two attack buttons (a light strike and a heavy strike), from which you can string various attacks and combos, and a grapple which you can use to toss enemies around. You can also pick up various things in the environment or equip weapons from your inventory to deal added damage in battle if you wish. You’re also provided a block and a dodge, which not only provide more depth to the combat, but also keep you from catching a beatdown. Best of all, though, you’re provided a special move meter (known as the Heat meter) for the purposes of performing special attacks. Basically, as you kick ass, the bar goes up; as you remain stationary or get whipped, the bar goes down (in Easy, though, this is less the case, as the bar never decreases unless you’re attacked). The idea is to keep the bar full until you’re ready to use it, at which time you’ll unleash an unholy ass-kicking upon enemies. In the beginning of the game, your ability to do so (or for that matter, to do much of anything) is limited, but as you progress, you’ll earn experience from battles that you can put into leveling up Kazuma, which upgrade your health, damage dealt, etc. as well as teaching you additional combos and attacks. This not only keeps combat fresh, but also makes the battles themselves more interesting; running at a foe, dropkicking him across the screen, then following up by stomping him square in the face is just awesome (within the context of the game), and it only gets better from there.
The various enemies you’ll encounter aren’t super-intelligent or anything, but they’ll put up a decent challenge. Most of your challenge will come from dealing with the volume of enemies rather than the difficulty of them, though in battles where a boss is present, beating the boss ends the battle, which is kind of lame, though it does help if you’re getting destroyed. You can also buy and find various healing items and foods to keep your health in good shape. Speaking of buying stuff, you earn yen throughout the course of the game, either by beating the crap out of enemies or by undertaking missions (which can also impart experience). The yen can be used to buy various items and weapons, as well as to play one of the various minigames the game has to offer.
And therein lies the beauty of Yakuza: there’s a ton of stuff to do beyond the various storyline missions. You can go to the batting cages and hit some homeruns, play the crane game at the Sega Arcade, play around in multiple different casinos, or go to hostess bars and hit on the girls, among other things. The first three concepts, I imagine, you can draw your own conclusions, but the hostess bars are an entirely different animal altogether. For those that know Japanese culture, you already know about these sorts of bars, but for those that don’t, hostess bars are essentially the equivalent of “fake date” bars; you pick a hostess, then sit down with her, chit-chat, and try to convince her she should really want to sleep with you while she tries to convince you to spend lots of money on her. So, it’s like real dating, only less complex. The hostess bars in Yakuza act like mini dating simulators; you ask the right questions and give the right gifts to get the girls to fall for Kazuma. Why he’d be interested in doing such a thing when he’s trying to find his girlfriend is beyond me, but he HAS been in prison ten years, so I imagine he’s lonely.
So, yeah. The game is a lot of fun, and plays pretty well. Are there complaints? Of course. The game seems to load entirely too often, especially since you can get into random encounters with enemies on the street (much like in RPG’s), which just causes even MORE loading. As noted above, the static camera angles during adventure mode are kind of disagreeable, though not to the point of being offensive. Combat, fun though it is, can get repetitive after a while. Perhaps the largest complaint I can make, though, is the combat system itself, fun though it is, isn’t terribly intuitive. Instead of being given a strong lock-on for combat, you’re instead given a soft lock-on that breaks very easily, often leaving you punching air. The reason for this is because of the dodge mechanic, and how the mechanic works, and it’s fairly easy to get used to, but you will find yourself having to reposition yourself for combat on more than a few occasions, which will probably make or break the experience for most players.
Overall, though, Yakuza is a strong, solid, fun to play title that manages to overcome its shortcomings nicely. It’s not incredibly intuitive, mind you, but between the fun-if-slightly broken combat, volume of random stuff to do, and strong leveling mechanics, it’s a hell of a good time. It’s not perfect, but few games are, and thankfully, what Yakuza does wrong is far overshadowed by what it does right.
Control/Gameplay Rating: 7/10
Beating the game unlocks a couple of challenge modes, which offer additional things to do and a greater challenge, which is pretty cool. The game itself also offers all sorts of things to come back to after completed, including the various mini-games, missions that you might have missed, hostesses left un-wooed, and even a hidden boss fight. There are plenty of reasons to play through Yakuza again, and about the only thing I see missing are additional modes of difficulty and, perhaps, some of those awesome Sega arcade classics one could find in Shenmue (I mean, criminy, there’s a Sega arcade RIGHT THERE). Still, you’ll definitely want to come back to Yakuza, if only to do everything you missed doing the first time around.
Replayability Rating: 8/10
The game defaults to Normal difficulty, which keeps things strongly challenging from start to finish, as the enemies consistently level along with Kazuma. There’s also an easy difficulty available (in much the same fashion as Devil May Cry; die too many times and the game will offer this to you) for casual gamers, which is always good to see. The default difficulty is plenty challenging without being cheap, though experienced gamers (or fans of Beatdown and/or Spike-Out) should have little trouble with the game, and there doesn’t appear to be any difficulty settings higher than Normal. It’s still a solidly balanced game, but for seasoned hardcore gamers it might prove a touch too easy, though still amusing.
Balance Rating: 7/10
Yakuza feels a lot like Shenmue with an organized crime setting and a more user-friendly presentation. That’s by no means a bad thing, but it’s not a terribly innovative concept. Still, Yakuza manages to feel different enough (due in large part to the presentation of the concept) that it feels somewhat unique. If you’ve never played either Shenmue title, you’ll find the game to be more conceptually original, but even if you have, what’s familiar here is mostly regulated to the aforementioned titles, so it’s not like you’ve seen it running around in every game from the past three years.
Originality Rating: 6/10
Yakuza is incredibly fun and entertaining throughout the ten-ish hours you’ll spend playing it, and even if the gameplay wears on you, the story is strong enough to convince you to keep coming back. The amount of things you can do with the title is great, and while it’s nowhere on par with something like GTA, for instance, going to the batting cage and smacking a few homers out, gambling, and hostess dates can easily keep things fresh if you’re tired of dealing with the story at that moment. All told, Yakuza is a lot of fun, and should easily hold your interest until the end of the game, if not longer.
Addictiveness Rating: 8/10
9. APPEAL FACTOR
It’s hard to say if Yakuza will appeal to you or not. If you’re interested in Japanese culture and the yakuza in general, you should already own this, but if not, you’ll be left wondering why everyone calls Kazuma “Aniki” or what the hell an Oyabun is. If you liked Shenmue, Yakuza’s effectively the spiritual successor to that title, so you’ll have a lot to love; if not, you might enjoy what’s done here, but you might not. If you’re a Sega fan, you’ll be thrilled with Yakuza, but with the good to terrible ratio Sega’s had over the years, you might be burned too badly to want to give them another shot. If you like 3D beat-em-ups, you’ll find a lot to love here; if not, you’ll be turned off. If you have no idea if any of this applies to you, then I don’t know what to tell you; Yakuza’s a good game, but it’s hard to know if it will appeal to you, though I’m betting it just might.
Appeal Rating: 6/10
Yakuza is pretty much about its presentation. That’s not to say it isn’t full of substance (it is), but it’s mostly focused on conveying the style over anything else. That is by no means a bad thing, honestly; the style here is rich and well implemented, and if you’re into the concept, you’ll be pleased with the results. The problem is that if you’re not, the flaws in the game come to the surface much more readily. Yakuza is, among other things, designed as a cinematic experience, and if you’re okay with that, you’ll find this game to be a great addition to your game library. If not, it’ll be going back to the game store.
Still, it’s great to see Sega doing something besides pissing all over their legacies and releasing crappy Sammy games. Yakuza is definitely an apology of sorts for the past few years, and it’s absolutely an awesome game. To be honest, it’s pretty much the best game I’ve played on the PS2 this year (though what that says about the games I’ve bought this year might say something bad about me…), and one of the best PS2 games available to date. It’s not GOTY, but if someone were to nominate it as such, I wouldn’t question their sanity. It’s not perfect, but it is pretty good.
Miscellaneous Rating: 8/10
Overall Score: 7.3/10
Final Score: 7.5 (GOOD).
Short Attention Span Summary
Yakuza is one of the better games to come out this year, period. A solid and engaging storyline, likeable characters, fun gameplay and an abundance of stuff to do combine to make this one of the more exciting games available. Some camera and gameplay issues keep it from being a true classic, and the amount of loading the game does becomes tiresome after a while, but if you can look past that, you’ll find yourself playing one of the best games Sega’s made in years.