Preview: Yakuza (PS2)

Publisher: Sega / Developer: Sega / Genre: Action-Adventure, Beat ’em Up / Release Date: 09/01/06

As the lifestyle of the Mafioso is glorified in American cinema, so is the Yakuza lifestyle glorified in Japanese cinema. The wild and fast living, expensive suits and pretty girls mixed in with beating the holy hell out of anyone who doesn’t give you your proper respect seems to resonate with many moviegoers, and with good reason: power equals badass. In the world of videogames, however, only in the past few years have we begun to see the spotlight shine on such concepts. Grand Theft Auto 3 opened the door to the idea of the gang/mafia/yakuza/triad lifestyle, and in the past several years, we’ve seen plenty of these concepts dumped into whatever the hot new title is supposed to be. Gang warfare? See San Andreas. 80’s mafia action? Vice City, with Scarface coming soon as well. Taking over the mob? GTA 3, Vice City, and Beatdown: Fists of Vengance all gave that their own personal spin. Old-time Mafia warfare? See The Godfather. Unfortunately, the Yakuza/Triad end of things hasn’t really seen much love from the gaming community, but Sega of all people is seeking to rectify that with Yakuza, which is due to hit stores in September. Seeking to combine the gameplay elements of Shenmue with the style of GTA, Yakuza is certainly an ambitious undertaking, especially considering the present public perception of the company in question. Can Sega pull it off?

If the demo I played is any indication, the answer is a mostly confident yes.

The basic premise is simple enough: Your character, Kazuma, has been in jail for ten years because he took the rap for a crime he didn’t commit (whacking the head of the Dojima clan). Upon getting out, he finds out that the organization he belonged to no longer welcomes him, and after a few twists and turns (none of which were really represented from what I saw), he’s on the long and lonely path of revenge, Yakuza style. The plot doesn’t seem to be anything we haven’t seen before, but it’s the gameplay that’ll bring you into Yakuza, not the plot, from what’s on display here.

The gameplay in Yakuza seems to revolve around two elements: navigating the city, taking on missions, talking to folks, etc… and making things stop living with your fist. And feet, if needed. And, um, bats and boxes and stuff… you get the point. Anyway, the “adventure” elements, as we’ll call them, are pretty solid at first glance. You navigate through the city, talk to people, get and accomplish missions, the usual, all in standard GTA style. The only unique element on display in this part of the game is the distinct lack of cars. It seems as though your various missions throughout the course of the game will be accomplished largely on foot (which makes sense, seeing as how Japan is so over-populated that most people there don’t really drive, anyway). This may change further into the game, but at this point, it’s an interesting dynamic that helps to differentiate Yakuza from the games it will most likely end up being compared to.

The other part, the combat, is where the game really shines. Alright, before we go any further, it needs to be noted now: there appears to be no lock-on targeting as of this point in the game. For about the first ten minutes, this feels like a distinct hindrance, but once you get used to it, it’s not a big deal. And thank God for that; the combat is a hell of a lot of fun. Fans of Beatdown or Final Fight: Streetwise will find something to love here, and if you were a fan of Shenmue, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye out. Kazuma has a solid, if unspectacular, variety of moves available to him, and while I’d expect that he will learn a great deal more moves throughout the course of the retail product, what really makes the fighting fun isn’t the variety, but the impact. Whipping the crap out of rival gang members and such is a great deal of fun, simply because of how the fighting is treated. Every hit sounds and looks painful, even the most basic punches. Sega’s time with Shenmue paid off, as they’ve really learned how to deliver a visceral fighting experience. The combat also feels rather intuitive; two buttons manage your strikes, while a third manages grapples and the acquisition of weaponry from the area. When you’ve grappled an opponent, you can whip up on them, toss them, or, if you have enough special energy, smash them into a wall and stomp their face in. It’s not exactly overly gruesome or anything, but it definitely feels right, and frankly, that’s what matters most. Aside from the lack of lock-on targeting, the only other issue I found with the combat is that the camera isn’t terribly intelligent, but with over a month until release, hopefully something will be done to fix that. I never died because of a bad camera angle, mind you, but some work could definitely stand to be done to improve the camera.

But there’s a lot more to do besides whip ass and wander around. Aside from various mini-games, ranging from casino games to batting practice to screwing around in a Sega arcade, you can also try your hand at romance in the hostess clubs. Okay, real quick, the concept behind a hostess club is simple: it’s like a very personal strip club, only no one gets naked. Basically, you pay to spend time talking to a girl (or guy, but then it’s called a host club), and you spend money on her, buy her gifts, drinks and food, all for the purposes of just chatting her up. This is a real sort of club in Japan, and while I don’t understand the success of such a concept, it’s amusing to see such a thing incorporated into a video game. Basically, encounters between Kazuma and the various hostesses work thusly: you spend gaddoodles of cash on the girls while trying to woo them. No indication is given as to what sort of long-term effect having a hostess fall for you might be, but it’s certainly an interesting dynamic, and hey, for those of you who have been waiting for a dating sim forever, this might be something to amuse you in the meantime.

On the presentation level, Yakuza comes through pretty well. The various streets of Japan you traverse look convincing and appropriately ethnic, while maintaining the tacky neon look one might have come to expect. Characters look realistic while maintaining a slightly cartoony vibe, and they animate nicely. The music is appropriate as well, with rocking guitars striking up just before fight scenes that set the tone nicely. And ditto the voice-acting, though the demo has full Japanese voice-acting, and the final copy promises to be fully voiced in English (including such stars as Eliza Dushku and Michael Madsen). Hopefully Sega will see fit to include both audio tracks, as the Japanese voice acting is solid (even if I can’t understand it).

Bottom line, Sega looks to have a definite surprise hit on their hands with Yakuza. There are some minor issues from what I saw (again, the lock-on targeting, even if not required, is a strange omission), but if Sega can fix these small problems before the game goes gold, you would be well advised to check this out. For the first time in a while, it looks like we have a definite winner.