See, here's the problem with both of the first two Yakuza games. They do some great things - the exhilaratingly over-the-top battles, the wealth of side-quests, etc. - but they're great things that are only great in short bursts. Drawn out over the course of a game that takes about 30 hours minimum to complete, they reverse in on themselves and just become annoying and tedious. The game starts out fun, but by the time you've trudged to the end, it feels more like a chore you're just trying to slog to the end of since you've sunk so many hours into it already.
First off, this is one of those sequels that was rushed out the door in record time, so they basically just recycled the engine and assets of the first game, cobbling together a new story in mostly old settings with mostly old characters (still mostly wearing their same old clothes from the first game.) While it does come across as lazy and a little disappointing, Kamurocho was a pretty good setting with a lot of possibilities, so revisiting it here isn't that bad ... plus, after a couple of chapters, the story starts jumping back and forth between Kamurocho and two new little neighborhoods in Osaka. So that's actually not one of the bigger knocks against the game.
As we start off, it's a year from the events of the first game. Main character Kazuma Kill You is living peacefully at the Sunshine Orphanage with adopted daughter Haruka, in retirement from the Yakuza life. He returns to Kamurocho for a funeral, however, and gets caught up in some New Beef between his old clan, the Tojo, and a rival clan from Osaka called the Omi. An attempt by Kazuma to travel to Osaka on the Tojo's behalf and make peace with the Omi leader leads to the sudden intervention of the Korean mafia and, long story short, a whole new game full of face-smashing and hostess-seducing.
There's lots of stuff to do, but the game centers around its street-brawl combat, which is kinda like River City Ransom or Streets of Rage brought to 3D. The combat engine, like most of the other game assets, is entirely copied and pasted from the first game, down to the kids in the FART hoodies that you keep fighting. However, to be fair, Sega has made some little tweaks to it to make it a bit improved over that of the first game. You can sorta-lock-on to an enemy with the R1 button now, which helps (but doesn't entirely prevent) the issue of Kazuma sliding past enemies while doing some overblown combo just because you tapped a couple of buttons too quickly. There's also a much wider range of moves available now, which you gradually learn by doing various side-quests and gaining EXP to level up throughout the game. And the biggest improvement is that the hefty load times prior to each battle have been cut down significantly here, making the game feel much more zippy on the whole.
There's a couple of major problems here that go beyond the nuts-and-bolts of the combat engine, though. One is that, as in the first game, Kazuma starts out with the power of Iron Man at his disposal, and the punks that idiotically pick fights with him constantly in the streets have zero hope of winning even if you bungle up combat and just button-mash randomly. So how does the game generate challenge during boss battle segments and such? Well, unfortunately, the primary way is to do it through simple cheapness. You'll cruise through too-easy combat for 90% of the game, suddenly slamming into a wall in the other 10% if you're not prepared. Usually you'll enter some sequence where the lead-up to a boss is forced fights with an absolute horde of cloned enemies rushing you in groups, and employing every cheeseball tactic under the sun. You attack one guy and he turtles constantly while his buddies hit you in the back and constantly spam grabs like a bunch of horny gay bears. There's a couple of super-speedy knife-throwers or gun-toters hiding at the edge of a crowd of mooks, who potshot you continually while the mooks keep you tied up with bullshit attacks and turtling. They have insanely long life bars and take insanely small amounts of damage compared to the rest of the game's enemies. So on and so forth.
QTEs have also been introduced to some of the battles here, and they are not handled well at all. Remember the awesome cinematic chase sequences in Shenmue 2 that revolved entirely around timed QTEs? Yeah, nothing like that is here, instead "QTE" usually means "suddenly during a fight, a guy you just knocked over will somehow vacuum you into a QTE cut scene where he's magically upright again and holding you in a full nelson, and you'll have to pound one button to get out of it to the point where you cause controller damage." The only timed button press sequences occur during a small handful of boss fights and they're bullshit. You'll be whupping the bosses ass in normal fighting, then they'll magically vaccuum you into a QTE scene somehow that is insanely demanding of crackerjack timing, and if you screw it up they chop off like half of your health bar automatically. Fuck off with this, Sega.
Instead of taking the time to make a refined fighting engine, the Yakuza team just settled for a simplistic one that centers around the cheap gratification of doing hyper-violent moves to weak punks who are easy to push around. But then when they had to generate a challenging opponent, they had no idea how to do that in a skillful way, so they just crank up the life bars, defense and cheesy tactics. This is the second game in a row that they've done this. The relatively miniscule improvements to battle control don't go nearly far enough to cover for the fact that the underlying dynamics are pretty terrible.
Aside from the vicarious manliness of watching punks get their teeth knocked out of their head in slow-mo zoom-ins, the other main appeal of the game (at least to the West) is the recreation of a modern Japanese setting that many people won't ever actually get to visit. Yakuza 2 gives you all of this that the first game did, and more. In addition to the batting cage mini-game of the first game, there's now also bowling and a golf driving range. You can still gamble at underground casinos, but there's now also mahjong and shogi parlors (if you have any idea at all how to play.) The hostess bars are back with even more ladies of the evening to seduce (10 to the first game's 6.) There's even a side mission where Kazuma has to switch sides and work as a host for a while, and later in the game you get a nghtclub to run and make decisions about managing. And the astounding level of "tie-ups" continue here, where tons of alcohol and snack products from real-life Japan are available for virtual purchase, this time with a little ad-copy blurb for them delivered by the character serving them to you. Is it like visiting Japan? ... probably not, but fans of engrossing virtual worlds will find it quite interesting to explore all the same.
At least for a little while. As with combat, the non-combat aspects of the game are initially engaging, but dull rapidly with time. The golf, bowling and batting games are just annoyingly finicky and demanding at the higher levels. Gambling is still nearly impossible to win without a cheating item used first, and while the game does gamely attempt to explain shogi and mahjong to you with in-game rulebooks for each, likely they're both going to be too complicated for anyone not already versed in them to even bother learning (fortunately neither is mandatory to completing the main story, though there's a point where you'll be asked to play Shogi but given the option to pay 80k in yen instead to get out of it.) The host/hostess aspect is an interesting little mini-dating-sim at first, but quickly falls into a plodding routine, particularly if you seduced the ladies of the first game (it's a nearly identical experience here, down to the E-for-Everyone-rated payoff.) The nightclub management devolves into a boring grind of simply making decor decisions and bribing your hostesses to actually do their jobs properly once every so often. And the Club Sega arcades again miss an opportunity to let you play classic arcade games a la Shenmue, instead giving you only the same tedious UFO Crane game from the first one, and some crap parody of Virtua Fighter called YF6 that sucks balls.
One thing that did improve is the story. The first game brought in a professional novel writer who clearly had no idea how to write for a video game and delivered a confusing, sometimes sleep-inducing mess. The story here is on the level of a B-rated Asian crime picture, but at least it's engaging and more tightly focused, and has some decent new characters. I was actually interested to see the story through in this one, where in the first game it was just a muddled semi-comprehensible vehicle to deliver us from one punk-bashing orgy to the next. Some of the cutscenes drag on a little too long, but they're skippable with the start button when they get a little overly windy.
Unfortunately, as with the first game, the weakest part of the game is the end stretch. By the time the final chapter rolls around, you're sick to death of fighting, mini-games, speed-seducing and the whole nine. So the final boss battle is a grueling string of cheap bullshit enemies punctuated by lke three cheap bullshit bosses with no chance to heal or replenish your inventory. Honestly, I tried it once, got like 1/3 through the whole sequence, said "fuck this", and watched the rest on Youtube. Nothing kills a game's score around here like being playable up until the very end then suddenly jagging to ridiculous difficulty just for the final encounter.
Yakuza has so much potential, but with entry #2 it still just isn't quite there yet. I haven't played the PS3 incarnations as of this writing, I'll give those a chance at some point, and I get the feeling they'll really help as Yak 2 is a massive game in terms of data and the PS2 sounds like it's about to choke to death quite frequently while playing it. But as-is this one just hits too many of the same sour notes that the previous one did, and has a really rushed feel.
* Gameplay Video