There's something alluring about the notion of a criminal with a conscience and a deep-seated sense of honor, who swears oaths of loyalty to a clan and who would sacrifice his life for what he believes in. Yakuza 2 taps into this allure with good results, providing a brutal, brawl-focused adventure whose action is intertwined with a melodramatic tale populated by morally complicated cops and criminals both noble and despicable, set in a lively rendition of contemporary urban Japan.
The story centers around Kazuma Kiryu, the hero of Yakuza. A familiarity with the events of the first game definitely helps in following the story here, but you don't need to have played it to jump into this one. Early on, the game gives you the option of having Kazuma recall in detail the events depicted in the original game. At the end of Yakuza, Kazuma tried to leave his life with the titular criminal organization behind him. But, of course, it isn't long before he finds himself swept back into it, trying to protect his former clan, the Tojo clan, from both internal and external threats, while a Korean mafia group plots to take revenge for a wrong the Tojo clan committed 26 years ago.
Intense emotions are par for the course here, as the game tells its tale of violent feuds, long-held grudges, betrayals, and vengeance. Don't think that means this is a gritty, realistic story, though. Calling this an accurate portrayal of yakuza life would be like calling Metal Gear Solid an honest look into the work of a stealth operative. The story starts out somewhere in the realm of wildly implausible and moves to utterly ludicrous before the end. But if you can accept its excesses and just go along for the ride, you'll find a crime opera that is as entertaining as it is outrageous. It's a good thing, too, because you'll spend a fair amount of your time with Yakuza 2 watching its frequent, sometimes lengthy cutscenes.
It's fitting that the story is so outrageous, because the action is every bit its match in that department. Yakuza 2 has a few of the trappings of an open-world adventure game, but this is first and foremost a brawler, and a very good one. Kazuma is one tough dude, and he takes guff from nobody. People constantly try to give him guff, and receive savage beatings for their trouble. The brawling action here is accessible and straightforward; you unleash a variety of combos with the square and triangle buttons, grab your enemies with the circle button, and dash out of the way with the X button. It's simple without being shallow, and it all feels right. Kazuma's blows are powerful and satisfying, and although the garden-variety thugs you fight throughout most of the game don't pose much challenge, clobbering them is still a constant source of fun.
The most enjoyable aspect of the fighting system is the heat mode. You build up your heat gauge by dealing damage to your opponents while avoiding damage yourself. Once the gauge reaches a certain point, Kazuma becomes engulfed in a blue flame and can unleash special attacks. These can involve dragging an opponent over to a wall and crushing his face against it or making creative, violent use of any of the knives, swords, signs, stoves, stun guns, ottomans, and numerous other items you find lying around during battle. The heat attacks are wonderfully brutal, and because the heat gauge is easy to fill up, you'll be unleashing these powerful moves constantly.
As you punch your way through the thugs who populate the game's three neighborhoods, you'll earn experience points, which you can spend to expand your repertoire of moves or to improve your existing ones, as well as to do things like extend your health bar. The frequent development of Kazuma's abilities helps keep the action feeling fresh throughout. And while most of the people you encounter are just fodder for your fists, there are a good number of knock-down, drag-out boss fights. These can be tough, but they're not unfair. However, if you find yourself hitting a wall during any encounter, the game will give you the option to temporarily set the difficulty to easy, which is a nice way to avoid getting stuck on one particular brawl.
As good as it is, the fighting system does have its flaws. Kazuma can't run during fights, which can be problematic on occasion. Sure, he looks intimidating and unflappable walking toward his enemies in calm, measured strides, but there are times when you've got quite a bit of ground to cover or when your opponent is scurrying around like an overly caffeinated chimpanzee, and it would be such a help if Kazuma would just pick up the pace a bit. The game also makes frequent use of quick-time button-pressing events, which put a bit too much emphasis on the "quick." You often have very little time to react. When such an event occurs, say, during the last stage of a long and challenging boss battle, and failing results in your death, which means having to start the fight over again from the beginning, that's irritating.
There are a significant number of things to do in Yakuza 2 besides beat up well-dressed gangsters and young punks in hoodies that say FART on them, but most of that other stuff isn't nearly as compelling. You can hit the arcade and play with the UFO Catcher or try out an odd first-person fighting game. You can also hit the batting cages, driving range, or bowling alley, each of which involves a very simple minigame. You can play games like mahjong and the chesslike shogi, which are well done here but feel totally peripheral to the action. You can visit hostess clubs, where the game becomes a dull, simplistic dating sim of sorts in which you buy food and drink, give gifts, and try to respond to the questions your hostess asks with the answers she wants to hear. There are in-game rewards for putting time and effort into these and other pursuits, but they're not worth it, and you'll quickly be itching to get back to what the game does best: brawlin'. Still, there are a few nice touches to the game's open-world offerings. If you visit a bar and order a drink from the list of name brand beverages, the bartender will provide a vivid description of the drink's characteristics as well as offer up a fun fact or two about its history. There are also plenty of goofy but enjoyable side missions that you can undertake to help people throughout the game. These involve doing everything from helping a guy stanch his nosebleed to reuniting a comedy duo. All in a day's work for your friendly neighborhood yakuza.
Advancing through the game's 16 chapters frequently means running around one of the game's neighborhoods, talking to people and beating up those who get in your way. Sometimes it feels as if you can hardly run 10 feet without another goon getting in your face and starting a fight with you on the flimsiest of pretexts. It's absurd, and although fighting is the game's best aspect, the frequency of these random encounters can become something of a nuisance when you just want to move the story along. What's more annoying is the way the game will often give you no clear sense of where you need to go next to progress. Sometimes, the game puts a nice big waypoint at your destination, but with increasing frequency as the game progresses, you're left to just wander around the neighborhood until you find the right shop or the right person to speak with. These sections can drag the game's momentum to a screeching halt.
Yakuza 2 is a terrific-looking PlayStation 2 game. The glistening neon signs and bustling crowds make the detailed neighborhoods feel alive and authentic. Cutscenes are equally detailed, and the subtle displays of emotion that play across a character's face can speak volumes. There is also a strong sense of visual style to the game; fights take place in gorgeous, dramatic locations such as the courtyard of a clan estate where the moon reflects serenely on a pool of water, and an outdoor elevator that affords a breathtaking view of the glowing city below. The graphics occasionally reveal the limitations of the hardware--you'll see things like pedestrians popping in to the environments--but given how hard the game pushes the PS2, these issues are easily overlooked.
The highlight of the sound presentation is the superb voice acting. When the original Yakuza was released in the US, the Japanese voice cast was replaced with American celebrity talent. This time around, we get the original voice acting, and it's a tremendous improvement. If you positively can't stand reading subtitles, then you may be put out by this decision, but the performances are excellent across the board, with each voice fitting the character like a glove, and the intensity of the emotions they convey makes the story leap off the screen. There are other nice details as well, such as the sound of jingles playing in shops you pass. The music you hear throughout the game is an eclectic mix of upbeat jazz, hard rock, and other styles, and it's all good and suits the action well, but the game could have used more variety. You'll hear the same few tunes repeatedly throughout the battles.
Yakuza 2's main story will likely take most players roughly 20 hours to complete, though you could spend a great deal more time than that with the game if you seek out all the side quests. At heart, this is a simple but very satisfying brawler, but its vibrant environments and over-the-top story help to make it something more. Despite its flaws, Yakuza 2 is a compelling adventure through a fantastically exaggerated version of Japan's criminal underworld. And, like all good adventures, it has a scene where the hero fights two tigers with his bare hands.