People have been expecting big things from Yakuza since its Japanese release over a year ago. Hailed by overeager fans as a return to form for a Sega struggling to maintain the strong brand identity it had as a console manufacturer, Yakuza is generally perceived as the love child of Grand Theft Auto and Shenmue. Surely to the disappointment of many salivating fans, Sega's latest is none of the things we've come to expect. Luckily, it's an excellent experience all the same.
Even the story isn't what you'd likely expect from a game about the East's most notorious criminal organization. You might anticipate a classic gangster drama, but Yakuza's narrative owes more to the hardboiled pulp novels of Cain and Chandler than the films of Scorsese and Coppola. It's a thick, twisting story of mystery, mistaken identity, double crosses, triple crosses, and moral ambiguity. The protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, is a stoic badass with a heart of gold and fists of steel that would be right at home with some of Dashiell Hammet's gangland heroes.
Perhaps just as surprising is the fact that, after the first chapter of the story, Kazuma is no longer a member of the Yakuza. At the story's onset he is a young go-getter, rising in the ranks and about to start his own crime family. When his best friend kills their Oyabun (the head of a Yakuza family), Kazuma agrees to take the fall. He's sentenced to 10 years in prison and exiled from his Yakuza brothers. When he's set free, he finds that his girlfriend has been missing for nearly a decade, his best friend has become a ruthless leader bent on taking over the clan, and 10 billion yen has gone missing from the clan's vault, resulting in a civil war between the Yakuza families. Kazuma, working with the detective that sent him away (of all people) sets out to unravel a truth far more complicated than he could have realized.
But underneath the thick story lie some fast paced fisticuffs reminiscent of the classic beat-'em-ups that littered the arcades in the early 90s. The meat of the gameplay is good, old fashioned hand-to-hand brawling, and there's a constant need to throw down. Nearly all problems in Yakuza's world are solved by pummeling someone into submission. Pretty much anything not nailed down can be used as a weapon, too, and it's immensely satisfying to take someone out with a table or a bicycle. As in its old arcade ancestors, weapons don't last long. You can get a dozen blows in before your implement breaks if you're lucky, and guns generally only allow a single shot before they're expended. Punches, kicks, and throws are the staple of combat, and the violence that ensues is very rewarding. The targeting isn't perfect, particularly when enemies cluster up together, but you learn to deal with as the game goes on.
Amidst the next-gen tide, PS2 games have never looked uglier, but Yakuza really stands out as one of the best looking games on the system.
You can also level up your stats and learn new moves. Every fight yields experience points, as do the game's many side quests. This allows you power up you soul, technique, and body stats, which also unlock various combat maneuvers. You can also take on an apprenticeship to learn even more effective ways to beat the snot out of others. This progression lends a bit of an RPG feel, which goes hand in hand with the game's adventure structure.
You're given a fairly small, but very detailed district of Tokyo to stomp around. You can eat at restaurants, drink at bars, shop at the various stores, visit strip clubs, and even romance women at the local hostess bars. This generally involves a lot of sweet talk and gift giving culminating in some crisis involving beating the crap out of someone. This will be followed by some steamy implied sex and an ample experience reward. Apparently banging the local bar employees is worth a lot more than beating up thugs. Although the main progression of the game is pretty linear, there are plenty of side quests, which illuminate the story in interesting ways, or reward you with goodies or experience. To cement the RPG feel even more, you'll even have to contend with random battles while roaming the streets. In classic tradition, this will mean leaving the overhead map and entering a separate battle mode, followed by a reward of cash and experience points.
All of this is brought together in a slick package. Amidst the next-gen tide, PS2 games have never looked uglier, but Yakuza really stands out as one of the best looking games on the system. The characters are detailed and their animations look excellent. The attention to realism in the city itself is pretty extraordinary, too. While it never reaches the amount of fine-brush detail seen in Shenmue, there's tons to see and do in the small stomping ground the game allots. There's a great deal of cinematic flair, impeded slightly by the localization, featuring a script awkwardly crammed with more foul language than even the seediest gangster would muster, and a mixed bag of voice acting. While a less liberal script and the option for Japanese voices might added a touch of authenticity, Sega of America's translation proves adequate enough.
So it might not have the adventure of Shenmue, nor the open-endedness, guns, and cars of GTA. Yeah, it doesn't really let you live out your gangster fantasies. But it's hard to complain about such a damned fine brawler, with a top-notch story to back it up. It's more of a River City Ransom meets Miller's Crossing than anything appearances might lead you to believe, but it's a remarkably polished game that does its thing quite well. It might, even still, fall short of being the return to Sega's glory days that some have hoped, but it's their best game in a couple of years, and a must-buy for anyone that knows what they're getting into.