YAKUZA / Sega / Playstation 2

When you read about Yakuza online, it usually doesn't take very long before you see it compared to Shenmue. Some people call it "Shenmue done right", while others feel it's not the same thing, but a good game in its own way. I don't agree with either of these positions.

If you're not familiar with Shenmue, it's another Sega game that came out for the Dreamcast. The main thing it is known for - aside from having an $80 million budget in 1999 - was immersing the player in an incredibly detailed rendition of Yokosuka, Japan. Yakuza makes the Kabukicho district of Tokyo its setting, and attempts to faithfully recreate it as well (if not as intricately, given a budget of only about $20 million.) The two games are also superficially similar in that they star a highly-skilled martial artist and make big street brawls a common occurence in the gameplay, as well as having a bit of a "sandbox" element allowing you to wander the game world freely and play a number of mini-games.

Beyond that, however, there's really not much common ground. Yakuza is more like River City Ransom brought to 3D, with some ideas from Grand Theft Auto, Shenmue and even "survival horror" games blended in. Moving around the game world reminds me more of Parasite Eve or Resident Evil: Code Veronica than anything else. The menus are straight-up early Resident Evil, down to the primitive clunkiness and annoying load times. With the game mostly taking place in the dark and the rain of the seedy part of Tokyo, the atmosphere and music remind me most strongly of Shadowrun. And the fighting is way more of a button-mashy brawl-a-thon like The Bouncer than the elegant, Virtua Fighter 3-based system that Shenmue employed. Honestly, I was surprised to read the game had a $20 million budget, because after playing it it seems like it had little more than $5 million at best. The game on the whole has a rough, unfinished feel, as if it was rushed out the door a good 3 to 6 months too early.

The game is set in 2005, as former Yakuza Kazuma Kiryu is released from prison. He went down for 10 years for taking the rap on a murder for a friend, who he came up the Yakuza ranks with. Unfortunately we soon find out that said friend is actually a Machiavellian schemer who orchestrated the whole thing so he could get Kazuma out of the way and become a family leader. An absolute shit ton of characters are introduced way too fast, there's a little girl who is the daughter of the sister of Kazuma's former girlfriend, somehow this little girl has the key to 10 billion yen that Kazuma's former girlfriend or her sister *might* have stolen from the Yakuza ... shit gets complicated quickly. Unfortunately, it's hard to give a damn about any of the characters, and the writer often doesn't seem to have a clear idea of where he's going with the narrative, kind of just tossing things in hodgepodge. As such the ongoing story and cut-scenes are mediocre at absolute best.

That's really not much of a knock against the game, however, since the selling point here is wandering about Tokyo's seedy side doing illicit stuff while making frequent stops to curb-stomp punks. You'll be forced to do a shit ton of fighting since the game employs a sort of "random battle" system. All sorts of antagonists are slouching about the streets, from Yakuza under orders to kill Kazuma on sight to random ruffians who just want to start shit for fun. The game is divided by the story into "chapters", and while it's possible to clear out all the punks temporarily, moving on to a new chapter seems to bring a fresh wave of them to the streets.

Combat isn't terrible, and has its moments, but really needed more work. I like the basic concept of the "street brawl" style and being able to grab all sorts of improvised weapons - bikes, electric street signs, even giant traffic cones are all fair game to pick up and swing around or smash over a downed foe. You also have a "heat" gauge which is similar to what's done in some 2D fighting games, it fills up as you successfully execute attacks and gives you a short window in which to execute a range of special moves. In some cases, this can involve interacting with the background, such as grabbing a guy and dragging him to a car hood to smash his face, or tossing him over a railing. And while this all can be quite fun and satisfying, I really thought combat on the whole was a bit of a drag, and by Chapter 10 (out of 13) it felt like a complete chore that I was just grinding through.

There's a number of problems with combat. The first is that there's no real challenge. Right from the beginning of the game, it seems like Kazuma is hiding Iron Man's power suit under his clothes or something. He just overwhelms the random street punks that keep attacking him, and they never turn out to be a real threat even in large groups. There's a handful of "boss battles" scattered throughout the game, and these guys are a little tougher, but it's usually more because they automatically dodge most attacks and have a long life bar to whittle down than that they actually stand a real chance of killing you. All enemies seem to use very similar AI routines and they're pretty simplistic. Kazuma's overpoweredness only gets worse as the game goes on, as you get experience for winning battles and continually upgrade his stats and moves. It's great that you keep getting new moves as the game wears on, such as a Giant Swing, but I can't remember ever seriously being at risk of losing a battle even once in this game. And there's really a pretty small sampling of enemies that you keep seeing over and over and over and over again.

The only challenge is in the frustration with the combat engine being rather slippery and janky. Enemies can lock onto Kazuma, but you don't have a similar system to focus in on them. I guess it's fortunate that Kazuma is so drastically overpowered, because if he wasn't, you'd be mincemeat in a hurry. You constantly find yourself going for a punch combo on enemies and sliding right past them, or grabbing the wrong guy out of a group (fat guys usually can't be thrown and fall on you), or just inexplicably turning away from a foe and launching into a combo that strikes nothing but air. It's also frustrating that Kazuma doesn't like to execute quick, simple strikes - he has to launch into some lengthy combo that leaves you vulnerable for a long time if it gets dodged or happens to slide past an enemy thanks to the janky engine. The camera is also usually pretty bad about keeping up with the action, and frequently works in the enemies favor by not actually showing any of them, especially inside of buildings. You're supposed to be able to re-center the camera at any time behind you by tapping L2, but in practice this often centers it only for a second then has it swing back to whatever shit angle it was just at, and inside buildings sometimes it simply stops working entirely. The camera is also a little wanting outside of battle, I kept wishing I could tap the (unused) right joystick to move it about a la Metal Gear Solid 3, but it stays fixed in frustrating positions much of the time.

Repetetive, problematic combat and an annoying camera system are my two weightiest complaints with this game, but there's a few other problems. One is that the game seems to have Tourette's. In a game like San Andreas, frequent swearing was totally fitting to the setting and was implemented well, in a fairly real-sounding way. Unfortunately, Yakuza follows Sega's tradition of doing terrible English voice work, and the characters sound like 12 year old suburban white kids trying to sound "gangsta." It's pathetic and silly most of the time, and whoever translated the text seemed to be going right along with it as well.

There's also a mix of mini-games and places you can visit, but they mostly aren't that interesting. There's a couple of casinos where you can play blackjack, roulette and baccarat, but it seems like the odds are heavily weighted against you unless you use one of the limited amount of items that allow you to cheat. There's a batting cage where you simply press the X button at the right time to hit a pitch - it quickly gets tedious and the rewards are crappy. The only one that's mildly interesting is a mini "dating sim" that consists of going to "hostess bars" to romance the hostesses there. Basically this consists of guessing what food, drinks and gifts they like, as well as what responses they want to hear to conversation. There's a bit of challenge here in figuring out their personality from what they say, but in the end these are too easy like the rest of the game and something that you end up blowing through pretty quickly once you have the money for it. Also no Hot Coffee antics, sorry pixel pervs, once you've romanced them to the max and completed their little side-quest you just get a 3 second fade out accompanied by some weird music.

So what that leaves, when you're not watching fairly lengthy cut-scenes or repetitively beating up the same guy in the FART hoodie over and over, is buying shit. Sega really went out of their way to get into advertising "tie-ups" with a lot of different companies, so that actual products are on the menu at bars, you see actual chain stores like Don Quijote in the game, and ads for products like Suntory Boss Coffee are everywhere. I guess it adds to the immersion factor, but there's little point to consuming this stuff other than restoring health (and no point to drinking whatsoever unless you want to handicap Kazuma in battle or something.) What I find really interesting about all this is speculating about whether or not the Yaks have actual money flowing through Sega to promote this game. Sammy took over Sega nearly a decade ago now, and Sammy's fortunes were built almost entirely on building Pachinko tables, an industry known to be almost completely controlled by the Yakuza. Now, when this topic comes up in forums, fans of the game always dismissively seem to start defending it in a knee-jerk way, usually with the argument that "Why would the Yakuza pay for a game where the Yakuza are antagonists and that portrays a lot of Yakuza as awful people." Well, it's the same reason that the nobility in Shakespeare's time loved his plays about the nobility being a bunch of bastards and killing each other off - in the end, the "good nobility" always replaces the "bad nobility", thus cementing the idea of rule by the nobility as inevitable. The game makes the Yakuza seem like an inevitable and all-powerful presence that can't really be challenged unless you've got Iron Man armor, so you might as well cheer for the "good guys" (who made their fortunes by shaking merchants down and dealing drugs the same way the "bad guys" did, only that's kept off camera and unmentioned for the "good guys.") And look at what the game gives you for options to spend your "free time" - it nearly all involves blowing money on stuff the Yaks are either known to control, or probably have a strong investment in - hostess bars, gambling, strip clubs, drinking, Club Sega (>_>). And why does Club Sega have nothing but an annoying "UFO Catcher" game to play? Where's the classic arcade games?

Final complaint from the complaint department - load times. You get stopped by a punk while walking around, the game takes 5-10 seconds to load into the battle screen, you mop up, the game takes 5-10 seconds to load back into the regular game world, run farther down the street and the process repeats itself yet again. In the battle-heavy areas you spend a frustrating amount of time sitting around waiting for the game to get its shit together. It's nearly as bad as playing an RPG at times.

So after all that, what is there to like about the game? While you can't really interact with or inspect the backgrounds the way you can in Shenmue, the game still looks very sharp and detailed and there's a good sense of immersion in the environment. The sound work (aside from the English voice acting) is very solid and the soundtrack is a peppy and memorable mix of jazz, rock and dance music, with especially good battle themes. I liked the middle part of the game best - from about chapters 4 to 9 - where just about all the game areas were unlocked and you had enough money and items to roam about Doing What You Want 'Cause A Kazuma Is Free. There's tons of little side missions to stumble upon while just wandering the streets, and while it largely just leads back to more brawls against non-challenging punks, I always enjoy exploring environments like this just for its own sake if nothing else. It's an interesting look at a place I may well never go to. I like the concept, I like the sense of style, and the game has enough promise (and does enough right) that I'll certainly check out Yakuza 2 and 3 at some point to see if they smoothed out the rough edges and built upon the potential. I see why people love this game despite the glaring flaws - it reminds you of the old pre-Sammy Sega, the company that wasn't afraid to make quirky, experimental, sometimes downright weird games that are tailored to gamers. Unfortunately I just can't give this first entry a pass when I found the game tedious, frustrating and choppy more often than not. It's still far from a bad game, but don't pay any inflated second-hand prices for it.

Videos :

* Gameplay Video
* Movie trailer
* Get fon-kay

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