The Yakuza have been the subject of countless films both in the West and in Japan, but they have only appeared as your typical ‘bad guys’ in many of the games that are covered by the consoles such as the Xbox’s Wreckless: The Yakuza Missions. Sega’s Yakuza seeks to change that by giving players a cinematic, action packed adventure casting them as one of the infamous gangsters on a quest for personal honor. It might not be Shenmue III, but it’s still a thrilling, brutal, if not somewhat flawed, ride into a vision of the criminal underground of Japan.
Yakuza was shaken down on the PS2.
The story of Yakuza is the story of Kazuma Kiryu, the “Dragon of the Dojima Family”, so named not only because of the tattoo on his back but for his legendary skills as an enforcer. As the game begins, he helps another yakuza that is working under him, Shinji, to collect on a debt which gets the player used to the fighting system. As a reward, Kazuma is told that he will get to keep half of the substantial money owed, enough to start his own family. With the blessing of the Fuma Oyabun, head of the Fuma family, to do just that, everything seems to be going fine and to celebrate his good fortune, he heads over to the local bar where he meets up with longtime friends, Nishiki and Yumi.
Yumi heads home and everything seems to be fine, but Nishiki gets word that she was kidnapped by thugs working for the Dojima right off from the street. In a blind rage, Nishiki goes to rescue her. The Oyabun of Dojima, the boss of Kamzuma’s family, is known for ‘collecting’ young girls to hold ‘special’ parties with and Nishiki calls Kazuma who is still at the bar. Kazuma tries to tell him to wait until he arrives, but when he finally does, Nishiki had already done the unthinkable: Dojima Oyabun lies dead on the floor with Nishiki’s bullets in him. Yumi is in a panic and Kazuma decides to protect them both by taking the blame on himself when the police arrive.
Ten years pass and Kazuma is finally released on parole. But a lot has happened since he had protected his friends. Yumi had disappeared shortly after that night and Nishiki is now a powerful figure with his own family. And then there’s the question of ten billion yen that had recently gone missing from the Tojo Clan’s vault. The Tojo Clan is the largest Yakuza syndicate in the city to which families such as Nishiki’s and Fuma’s belong to, and now they want answers as to where their money went…answers that tie in with a little girl that may hold the key to everything.
Fans of Sega’s Shenmue series will probably see this game as a spiritual successor in many ways, not the least of which is because of the detailed city and backdrop that much of the action takes place around, but that’s where the similarities end. Instead of a young, idealistic man looking to avenge his father, Yakuza casts you in the role of hardened Kazuma Kiryu as he walks the streets of Kamurocho, a fictional collection of alleyways, streets, shops, and seedy bars somewhere in Tokyo lit up at night like a Christmas tree by the neon glow of the 21st century. It’s also not Grand Theft Auto in the streets as you can’t beat up just anyone. Kazuma isn’t your typical gangster thug who steals bikes and shoots people for looking at him funny, although he’ll run into people that want to.
The fighting system is set up like a 3D brawler, as you punch and kick your way through the thugs, hoodlums, and occasional drunken salaryman that may run into Kazuma as he explores the city, fighting them on street corners surrounded by crowds, inside abandoned buildings, and even rooftop chases. The system isn’t overly complicated and with some practice, easy to get used to, with Kazuma automatically following foes with his fists and feet making it easy for button mashers. The focus-lock that Kazuma can also use is not as good as it sounds as it becomes all too easy for him to face the wrong way after a string of moves, requiring you to turn him around before he’s blindsided by an enemy he suddenly can’t see. The camera also requires constant tweaking in order to keep your foes in view and while it isn’t frustrating to work with, it can be annoying when you need to adjust it in the middle of a melee. A press of a button snaps it back to view whatever is in front of Kazuma most of the time, but don’t expect it to stay that way. If you can get used to these shortcomings, though, Yakuza‘s combat can be a satisfyingly brutal melee as your foes cough up blood when defeated or bleed into a pool while lying on the pavement.
Kazuma even has a “Heat” gage that, while filled, acts like adrenaline temporarily giving his hits more power and allowing him to use “special” moves at certain moments, such as driving the head of someone into a wall or stomping a heel into their face while on the ground for added pain. Ryu from Shenmue would punch and kick his foes into submission. Kazuma will kick in faces, gut punch, and use whatever is handy from bikes to hotel signs to demolish the bones of whatever poor fool stands in his way.
But don’t expect your enemies to simply lie there and take what he has to dish out. Although the foes in the beginning are pushovers, later in the game they’ll start using a variety of their own moves and styles. Soon, Kazuma will be facing yakuza who fight as boxers, are skilled in muay thai, or even use guns and swords to take him down. They’ll also try and crowd him. There’s no temporary invincibility here if you get hit or thrown which can make it somewhat cheap for the AI to get in some shots that you simply can’t defend against in time. Fortunately, and you can pummel your foes in much the same way, leveling the playing field. And although the AI loves to gang up on Kazuma, he can still get around them and even use the playing field to his advantage, luring them through a narrow alley, attacking from behind a bar, or from around a table that he might suddenly pick up and whip at them. Or he might use the weapons they drop after being thrown or stomped on.
An RPG experience system has also been added, allowing Kazuma to earn and then spend the points earned on one of three core areas: his Soul, which can improve his “Heat” ability; Technique which allows him to learn more devastating moves ranging from simple kick combos to harrowing punching combos that culminate in back crushing spine benders over his knee; and his Strength which improves his health and his, well, strength among other abilities. By the end of the game, Kazuma’s skills made every encounter into a Van Damme-sized Bloodsport melee.
There’s also a lot to do outside of the main story. As Kazuma wanders Kamurocho, he’ll also run into opportunities to help people and participate in side jobs that can grab him more experience and cash to spend in stores to buy food for healing or goods for later use…such as weapons…and improve his skills. He’ll also have hideouts where he can heal up, save the game if he isn’t near a phone, or store extra items in a chest. There are also a few mini-games that Kazuma will eventually open up from a batting cage where he can test his homerun skills to hidden gambling parlors that he can use to earn points towards special prizes (sorry, no pachinko). Hostess bars are found everywhere allowing him to spend time with someone special and shower her with gifts and drink, perhaps even finding a way into their heart. And then there are the strip clubs. Yakuza doesn’t shy away from much.
Toshihiro Nagoshi and his team have invested quite a bit of research into lending an air of authenticity to what the player encounters in the title, not only in what they see around Kamurocho but with the yakuza themselves, turning it into a hard boiled crime drama that takes the player through a whirlwind tour of the seedy backrooms found within Japan’s notorious criminal underground. The story is fashioned much like several yakuza films of the past in casting Kazuma Kiryu as a noble yakuza on a personal quest for redemption, penned by award-winning novelist, Seishu Hase. It’s a raw experience on the surface in terms of its explicit brutality as well as the coarse language. Depending on what the player wants to do and how far they want to explore Kamurocho itself, the adventure can last more than fifteen to twenty hours spread over several chapters. When it’s finished, there are a few extras unlocked including an option to explore Kamurocho and its side quests without worrying about the story.
There’s also the feeling that it misses out on an opportunity to delve into some of the more exotic, and surprising, aspects described by what has been written by the yakuza. You won’t see any finger cutting here such as what audiences had seen in Black Rain, for example, but there’s still more than enough here to make it stand out such as the elaborate tattoos that a few of the characters display. It’s a romanticized, action packed vision, focusing almost entirely on action and highly stylized substance to deliver its unique presentation. There’s an interesting dichotomy at work here that touches upon Kazuma as the last of a dying breed of chivalrous gangster versus the ruthless arrogance of new blood that forgoes the traditions of the past, and Yakuza excels when it explores this side of its story. But out on the streets where much of the action will take place, this experience falls short.
The language of the game is filled with enough F-bombs to make Tony Montana from Scarface look like a grade schooler trying to act like a badass. It not only earns its Mature label in terms of what it says, but also in the subject matter. Bars where you can get drunk, hostesses that you can seduce through an elaborate and dialog heavy mini-game, and societal taboos and innuendo fill the narrative as Kazuma walks through the dark shadows of the underworld to find the truth and to save the lives of those he cares for. The monsters in the game aren’t only in the thugs that Kazuma will face, but in the situations that he will be forced to deal with and help others get through as he travels through Kamurocho.
And it was all re-recorded in English. While this is understandable because of the huge amount of spoken dialog that is in the game not only within the cut scenes but the general language of the night life within Kamurocho, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. Fortunately, the voice acting isn’t too bad especially with an all star cast forming the backbone for many of the lead characters such as Mark Hamill as the slightly crazed Goro Majima and Michael Madsen as the gravelly voiced Shimano, but some of the language now sounds as if it were scripted by Hollywood without any of the exotic flavor.
This is most obvious in how the language greets Kazuma in the streets whenever he runs into a random group of thugs intent on ruining his suit and why the experience there probably feels lifted out from your random Inner City Streets USA. It simply feels out of place with the main story. Whether it is because of how it sounds translated into English or because they just pick a fight with Kazuma in the middle of the street, some of what the hoodlums and other people on the street simply say or subtitle on the screen to Kazuma are so over-the-top that they almost work against the polished, twisting, narrative as they complain about his ‘wack face’ or yell ‘What the f**k!’ as a random greeting before explaining their need to make him ‘kneel and apologize’ for no real apparent reason other than to throw down. If Kamurocho is this dangerous, it’s a wonder anyone can be found in the streets walking around at night. It may be because everyone knows Kazuma is in town and they want a piece of him or it owes something to the wild style of the gameplay, but a lot of these random encounters just seem like they were coming out from left field. There are a few moments in the game where Kazuma tears it up in out-of-the-way places where some people don’t take too kindly to his poking around and it works there, but one would think that anyone looking for Kazuma would be a lot more low key than to come out and fight a guy in the middle of a Christmas rush.
The main characters help flesh out the story as they’re introduced with flashy font and freeze framed faces and as soon as you dive back into it from having to do what you need to on the streets, Yakuza redeems itself. A rogue’s gallery of characters have their own agendas and each of them have a part to play in the conspiracy that lies behind that missing ten billion yen. Although the pacing can feel slow in the first few chapters, it accelerates into blinding chaos by the time you reach the last act. It marches through the narrative created by Toshihiro Nagochi and Seishu Hase with a kind of film-like quality that carries itself through betrayal, honor, assassinations, self sacrifice, and redemption and continues to easily be what Yakuza does best.
Neon Night Life
As for the rest of Yakuza‘s world, its filled with a lot of great detail but the PS2 is clearly showing its age. The neon signs and the sheer diversity of Kamurocho is shown off everywhere that Kazuma can look. The streets are filled with people that react to being bumped into, stores with detailed interiors, and street toughs looking to make a name for themselves by beating the ass of an ‘old man’. Much of it looks good, but some of the textures can be pretty bland. Being based on the real world, you’ll also find a little product placement to lend an additional level of authenticity to the title such as beer from Suntory that you can buy or a Don Quixote storefront filled with aisles covered in banners and music to magazines from Sabra. This kind of detail also extends to the characters that Kazuma runs into, from the youth gangs that are looking to make names for themselves to the flashy dress and wide swagger of other yakuza that control the streets. The animation work gives Kazuma’s moves a devastating impact and many of the fights simply look great because of this. The other characters that he fights also look decent enough especially when Kazuma sends a fist into their guts or when they come at him with a flying bicycle kick.
Storefront sounds fill the night air and the murmur of the crowd follow Kazuma throughout the streets and alleys of Kamurocho. The music is a stylized flavor of rock and synth and fits in for the most part and it isn’t bad. It’s not entirely great, either, but it does what it needs to do to keep the action exciting and the story moving along.
As great as the story is in Yakuza, the road to get to its most exciting climax can get tedious. The RPG experience system allows players to improve Kazuma’s abilities and it can also drag the pace of the game down. Until you get several chapters into it, the streets of Kamurocho can be pretty sparse when it comes to finding people to fight and earn experience. Even when they fill up with opportunities to crush faces and smash the guts of whoever gets in Kazuma’s way, some of the requirements for raising the level of his core abilities are so high that fighting all of the thugs in the city for money and points can get extremely repetitive despite how fun the combat can be. The meat of most of the experience that Kazuma will get in the game are found in the story missions and the side jobs that he can do which is probably what some players, like me, will probably get around to doing when they get tired of running around aimlessly. Unfortunately, dealing with the streets and looking for fights to get into are part of what the player will need to do to earn some money early on.
It also doesn’t help that most of the weapons in the game seem to be made of pinata paper. Most of these have only a few uses before they break no matter what they are. Yakuza took this to ridiculous levels with some items, including swords that shatter after some use no matter how expensive they might be. Fortunately, Kazuma’s fists are always available and that seems to be what the game wants you to rely on.
This is probably the part of the game that will either bore players or pull them in and keep them excited enough to reach the surprising ending. That, and the massive amount of running that Kazuma will be doing in the game. There are taxis available at the extreme sides of the map, but you’ll be doing so much running here that you’ll be surprised that Kazuma isn’t wearing Nikes to keep in shape while breaking people in half. It’s really too bad that the repetitive combat in the streets can put you to sleep once you have Kazuma at a certain level of lethality which, coupled with the running around, may keep some players from seeing the best that the story has to offer if they get too bored to continue. I wished that there was an enemy yakuza hideout or safehouse scattered here and there that Kazuma could simply raid for the experience, such as in EA’s The Godfather.
There’s also an in game journal that Kazuma can use to keep up with family affiliations, major characters in the story, and the missions that he may have picked up. But while the affiliations and the background information provided are pretty interesting reads to keep you up to date with what’s happened with the story, the mission journal was probably the most useless in-game journal I’ve ever seen. It lists the missions that you take by their title, which can mean nothing to you if you’ve forgotten who or what gave it to you. Although the main map will show you where you need to go for your major objectives and any side objectives that you might have active, if you had a side quest started up by someone that was left open, you’re better off taking your own notes.
Dressed to Kick Everyone in the Face
Yakuza is a flamboyant take on the underground of Japan featuring a chivalrous street samurai living by his own code of honor and respect in a world torn apart by the greed and loss of tradition among his former comrades. The story is a unique, over-the-top criminal drama that manages to tell itself despite the title’s other shortcomings, although it feels as if it had lost some of its exotic flavor in the translation. The pitiless, blood splattered melee, is something out of a martial arts Hong Kong potboiler and while it can be exciting, it can also get repetitive as you walk the streets of Kamurocho. But the story manages to pull you back into what makes Yakuza such a unique experience. It’s not for everyone, but for the curious that have had fond memories of Shenmue or may be looking for an action packed adventure that delves into the dark shadows of Tokyo’s streets, Yakuza should be able to step up to the challenge with all of its digits intact.
– World 1-1