Review: Damn it feels good to be a yakuza.
10 billion yen is a lot of money. A quarter of that amount? is still a lot of money. A quarter of 10 billion yen is around 21 million US dollars, which is the reported budget for Yakuza. The Japanese novelist Hase Seishu wrote the story and there's Hollywood talent attached for the voices. The infamous Takashi Miike directed a prequel film. Quite a bit of production value for this gangster game from Sega. Of course, none of this matters if it plays terribly. So, what is it, a two-bit thug with delusions of grandeur or a hardass kumicho? Read on.
Kazuma Kiryu's a tough but relatively good-hearted yakuza. A reliable rock in the Dojima Family, he's on his way to higher things with the intention of starting his own yakuza family. Successful and respected? naturally it all goes to hell. His best friend Nishiki murders their boss, Sohei Dojima, to protect their friend Yumi, who loses her memory after witnessing the bloodshed. Kazuma, to honor his and Nishiki's brotherhood, takes the fall and lets them escape. Jailed and consequently exiled from the clan, he remains in the cooler for ten years. Ten years and then he's let out, only to face a world where much has changed. The power balance of the families has shifted, Nishiki's become vicious and driven for dominance, Yumi's gone missing, and the 10 billion yen that is the fortune of the Tojo Clan? Apparently stolen. And amidst all the shady business, a little girl named Haruka fits into the puzzle.
It sounds complicated but it's all easy to follow. Like Kazuma, you're out for answers and you'll fight your way to the truth. If anything, Yakuza has a rather conventional story and isn't ruthless enough, provided you've seen enough gangster-films or books. Nevertheless, Hase Seishu's plot serves its purpose well, as Kazuma is given plenty of reason to knock some heads around. Stoic and imposing, Kazuma, ?the Dragon of Dojima?, is, for lack of better words, a beast. As your stalwart avatar on the streets of Kabukicho, he may not say much, but he'll make up for it with his actions. Beating down entire street gangs speaks louder than words, no? It's unfortunate that not much of his past or even the past of others is developed much, but it's not that distracting. Well, there is Takashi Miike's film, which can be seen in original Japanese and subtitled on the Yakuza website, if you need background. The supporting cast, while more or less made up of stock characters, still manages to entertain. Is the fact that Haruka becomes a surrogate daughter a problem? It's balanced out by the encounters with the abusive and unhinged Majima. Something for everyone in the family!
Obviously this isn't a game for children. Oh sure, there's violence and sexual content throughout, but here's another kicker: there's a lot of profanity. It's a game about yakuza; would you expect any less? In a way, it's actually detrimental to the game, as you'll definitely hear ?fuck' or some variation of it in every other conversation. I'm not adverse to coarse language but it almost seems at times they just threw in ?fuck' to make things sound grittier. Why not something even more colorful or offensive, just to add more spice? Perhaps it is the fault of meanings and words getting lost in translation.
But there's one thing that can never get lost and that's the gratification of hard-hitting action. If you've played any beat ?em up, you'll be at home here. Pound buttons for combos or grab enemies and toss them around. For each successful hit, your ?heat' bar fills and when it reaches a certain point, you'll be allowed to perform destructive techniques. If you're able to keep on attacking and not let yourself be hit too much, your heat bar can stay constantly high. Since you're a hard-boiled yakuza and not a martial arts master, your style of fighting is much more... unrefined. Is it a beautiful dance of careful parrying and gauging the enemy's moves? No, it's umbrella-wielding, face-stomping brutality. Anything that looks like a weapon, chances are it is. That giant traffic cone? Use it. Don't think it's dishonorable either; the countless thugs you'll face will use them too. And when I say countless, I mean it. Each fight will eventually end up with Kazuma taking on at least six at a time. They'll swarm you, so you'll have to kick ass quick. It's a good thing that the more gangsters you straighten out, the more experience you'll get. Use said experience to strengthen your heat abilities, combo abilities, or overall health. Adding to the RPG feel is the fact that you don't simply fight any enemy on the street. Instead it's more of a random encounter sort of deal, as running around Kabukicho will gain the attention of hoods. You'll see them on-screen, so getting away isn't a problem as long as you're aware.
As satisfying as the combat is, there are problems that are prevalent in many brawlers as well. First up: the camera's an annoyance. With the amount of enemies you're up against, it's hard to see all except the ones in front of you. You'll also have to adjust the camera manually with the R2 button, but that only makes your view centered. Luckily there's a small map on the bottom of the screen, letting you know where your targets are. The second issue is the more aggravating one: there's no real lock-on system. There is one and it'll lock on to an enemy, only to fail if the enemy dodges. You'll just continue to punch into thin air while the rest of the enemies get free hits. Kind of forces you to fight more carefully, as opposed to mashing the attack buttons. It's all still good fun if you enjoy brawlers and can get past the control problems. It'll only prove to be a real headache when dealing with bosses, since the game's easy to pick up. Also, defeat doesn't always set you totally back; you can replay bosses if need be. In fact, if you die too much, there's the option of putting the game into easy mode.
That's how it plays; how does it look? It's the closest most of us will get to the garish streets of Kabukicho, which have been recreated quite faithfully by the Sega team, now with sun, moon, rain, and snow. Sadly, only Kabukicho can be really explored; looks like the rest of Japan will have to wait. The primary characters look and move naturally, which is all I can ask for. It shouldn't be any surprise that the many pedestrians that fill up Kabukicho are plain and non-descript. It seems like if they tried to fancy up Yakuza any further, the hits to the loading times would become even worse. And they're plentiful and long as they are already. I mean, even the change of the camera angle can cause the game to stall for a few seconds. You'll also be bound to notice people popping in and out of the distance as you run along. Speaking of running, the in-game run movement seems odd and slow. I only mention this because you're going to be running around a lot. Ain't no cars in Kabukicho!
You'll be running to the sound of the crowd bustling, going to hostess bars and restaurants, mainly because the music's pretty low-key. This completely changes once you get into combat, because it spirals up into music compelling you to smash some yakuza's head into a vending machine. Hey, he was getting all up in my face, saying things that'd make babies cry, so he deserved it. Thankfully the voicework for Yakuza isn't criminal, since it's entirely in English. Yes, it avoided the deathtrap of any game with voices, but it'll still outrage purists since there's no Japanese language track. It'd be most preferable to have the game in original Japanese? it's like hearing a non-German Das Boot. Alas, perhaps the phobia of subtitles has made its mark here. Nonetheless, the English voicework remains excellent for the most part, with seasoned names such as Mark Hamill, Rachel Leigh Cook, and Cam Clarke. For those who like Hollywood celebrities in the mix, there's Eliza Dushku, Michael Madsen, and Michael Rosenbaum.
Yakuza's more than just the whole savage organized crime life. You'll be given the chance to explore the streets of Kabukicho and do a variety of things, almost making this a spiritual successor to Sega's previous free-roaming series Shenmue. However, the activities you do aren't necessary, but instead more of a diversion from the main plot. Search out hidden stores and gambling parlors, play ball at the batting cages, become the underground fighting champion. Visit strip clubs that have no nudity. Become ?acquainted' with the girls of the hostess clubs. Aside from giving you experience, all these sidequests give you a break from all the frenzy. If there's one thing I find strange, it's the inclusion of the hostess clubs. Those in themselves are a sort of simplified dating sim, but within the constraints of the story, they don't quite fit in. After all, if Kazuma has feelings for Yumi, why the devil would he be cozying up to some random girl? Even if you do skip that one ?mini-game', the rest can keep you preoccupied. It's the main story that'll keep you drawn in. After beating the game, you can replay practically everything with the ?Premium Box'. All in all, you're looking at around 20 hours worth of fun and excitement.