The yakuza, Japan's mafia, have to be one of the last great untapped pop-culture goldmines here in the West. For all the countless movies and games we've seen romanticizing cowboys, the mob, samurai, and street gangs, for whatever reason, the Japanese take on organized crime has had relatively little exposure by comparison--even though yakuza stories can be filled with the same excitement and intensity. Thankfully, someone finally had the intestinal fortitude to make a slickly produced action adventure game focused on those honor-bound, finger-cutting, mean bastards with incredibly elaborate tattoos across their backs. Sega's new game, which was first released late last year in Japan, does a good job of depicting an appropriately over-the-top story about a former yakuza swept up in a huge conflict among warring crime families. The game also features some great-looking hand-to-hand combat sequences. But its complex storyline often stumbles, and the underlying gameplay ends up being simple and repetitive. Yakuza scores major points for its concept and can be an exciting ride, but it doesn't live up to its potential either conceptually or as a game.
In the game, you play as Kazuma Kiryu, a stone-cold, chiseled yakuza who's committed to honoring his boss (or "oyabun") as well as his brothers in crime. Early on in the game, he makes a profound decision to take the rap for one of his friend's crimes of passion. So he's locked away in prison for 10 years and disgracefully exiled from his yakuza clan. He finally gets out of the slam, looking no worse for wear, only to find that a lot has changed in the world of organized crime (plus, everyone got cell phones). There is a power struggle for the highest positions in the Tojo yakuza syndicate, and somehow, Kazuma gets swept into it. Thus, a complicated plot unfolds, involving a missing 10 billion yen, multiple feuding families and their allies, a washed-up detective trying to piece his life back together, a little girl looking for her mother, a voyeuristic underworld information dealer, and more.
The story of Yakuza was supervised by an acclaimed Japanese author, but frankly, apart from being convoluted and being about yakuza, it's not that special. The best that can be said about it is that the loose ends ultimately get tied up; while the sequences leading up to the very end of the game are ridiculous, the story ultimately ends well. The worst that can be said about it is that it repeatedly stoops to predictable clichés that undermine the authenticity and originality of the concept. Kazuma resorts to profanity on a few occasions, but for the most part, he's your prototypical hero taking on your prototypical villains. There's little to no moral ambiguity in the game, despite the setting of a seedy Tokyo district filled with clubs, dive bars, and porn shops. What's more, without spoiling anything, a great deal of the storyline revolves around Kazuma looking after a 9-year-old girl, so this seemingly gritty tale winds up being filled with lots of attempts at tender moments that usually fall flat and really take the edge off of this game. It doesn't help that Yakuza is filled with spotty English-language voice performances for characters still lip-synching to the original Japanese language track, which, unfortunately, was cut from this release. Yet in spite of all this, Yakuza's story is still the driving force behind the entire game, and it gives itself enough time to develop its major characters and present a variety of unpredictable twists.
From a gameplay standpoint, this is your basic, fairly linear action adventure game. Don't let the modern trappings and the round minimap in the corner of the screen fool you into thinking this is a Japanese take on Grand Theft Auto; Yakuza has much more in common with other Japanese action adventure series, like Onimusha or Resident Evil. It's ironic that a game taking place in a modern, real-world setting, with no real fantasy or horror elements to speak of, can somehow seem so much more original conceptually than similar games filled with made-up monsters. However, one of the disappointing things about Yakuza is that the game takes place almost exclusively in one small Japanese district. What you do is you run around from point A to point B, often getting into fistfights along the way. Once you get past how beautiful the crowded, neon-lit streets of Tokyo look in this game, you'll find it at least slightly tedious to trudge from one bar to the next, delivering this item to that character. In some of the game's chapters, it's possible to take some time out from the main story missions to undertake some side missions--but these too invariably involve running somewhere, finding something, and beating some guys up.
Interestingly, there's very little gunplay in Yakuza, but there's an awful lot of pure brawling. It's implied early on that Kazuma is morally opposed to killing people (as opposed to knocking them senseless), and most of the thugs you'll be fighting won't be using guns, either. Guns do figure prominently in some of the game's cutscenes, though during battle, gun-toting enemies merely chip away at your health like everyone else... They're just annoyingly difficult to get close to. There are plenty of other, more common weapons in the game, from golf clubs to crates to steel pipes to wooden practice swords. All weapons quickly break after a few successful attacks, but they can give you a significant advantage while they last, and they add a much-needed bit of variety to all the fighting.
In addition to the many combat sequences that take place as part of the main story, you'll run into role-playing game-style random enemy encounters while running around, minding your own business on the streets. Street thugs and good-for-nothing yakuza will chase you down, cuss you out, and attack you in groups. After a while, the frequency of these random attacks becomes both annoying and somewhat absurd; it's as if Kazuma is the world's most picked-on man. You'd think such a powerful fistfighter wouldn't be getting himself into so many fistfights, but hey, this wouldn't be much of a game if all you did was go to beef-bowl stands and gelato shops. Combat mostly involves using a small number of effective combinations and grapples for stunning and knocking down enemies, then dishing out more damage while your foes are flat on their backs. Since Kazuma is almost always alone and will almost always be outnumbered by about six to one, you need to be careful of getting surrounded and overwhelmed. But most any given foe, except for some of the game's fast and fairly tough boss opponents, are little match for Kazuma in a one-on-one battle.
The best thing about the combat is how brutal a lot of the moves look. After successfully landing a few hits, Kazuma gets engulfed in an aura called "heat mode," which lets him use more-powerful attacks that will often finish off the unlucky opponent on the receiving end. Kazuma's a soft-spoken guy, but when it comes to fighting, he won't hesitate to slam his enemies headfirst into walls, stomp their heads into the turf, smash bicycles into them, run them through with knives, or just get on top of them and start punching them in the face over and over. Since these special moves play out like little cutscenes, one of the advantages of using them is that they safeguard against you getting blindsided. You also earn a lot more experience points for defeating foes with these types of moves, so a lot of the combat revolves around trying to stay in heat mode as much as possible.
The experience system is simple but interesting enough to help keep you motivated to continue beating people up throughout the game. You have three different statistics you can power up that grant you new and better fighting moves, more health, and so on. Each upgrade to a given stat gets substantially more expensive than the last, so you'll wind up putting points into all three. The system is well balanced such that you'll be getting close to maxing out Kazuma's abilities right toward the end of the game, which takes a good 10 or 12 hours the first time through. Despite this, and even though the brawling action looks great and has a terrific feel to it, there's too little variety in the types of enemies you'll face, who can all be defeated by exploiting their simple attack patterns. The camera angles during combat can also be somewhat frustrating, and though the stylish versus screens that crop up before each fight are very cool on the first dozen or so occasions, they're used to mask fairly lengthy loading times that ultimately drag down the pacing.
There are also some minigames in Yakuza, including a coin-operated UFO catcher, an underground boxing circuit, a homerun derby at the batting cages, a casino with blackjack, roulette, and baccarat, and hostess minibars where you get to try to chat up pretty girls (you're dying to know more about the UFO catcher, right?). The hostess minibars turn Yakuza into a very basic dating sim; you sit down and start wining and dining a talkative girl whose job is to show lonely Japanese guys like you a good time. You get to order food and drinks and give her gifts while trying to tell her what she wants to hear when she occasionally asks you questions. But, perhaps like the real thing, none of it really goes anywhere. What's more, since the game's storyline is filled with urgency more often than not, there never seems like a good reason to go out of your way to do any of this stuff, or even to do the game's optional side missions. It's extra content to play with, to be sure, but it doesn't succeed at making Yakuza's world feel more realistic or vibrant. Since you're almost always stuck in that same little district and can't do basic city-life things like drive cars or ride bicycles, the game never gives you the impression that you're in a fully realized city.
It sure looks like one, though. The jam-packed streets of modern Tokyo are rendered believably, and the character models and animations look great for the most part. Support for widescreen displays further enhances what's a visually impressive PS2 game. The combat sequences are also exciting to watch, though as good as the attack animations look, they soon get repetitive. The audio in Yakuza unfortunately doesn't fare as well as the visuals. The game uses ambient background noises in very short, noticeable loops, which are annoyingly disruptive. There's disappointingly little music in the game, too, though what's there is solid. Most battles open with one of several different guitar or bass riffs, which really helps get you pumped for the fight, so it's too bad the game didn't do more with its soundtrack. As mentioned, the English voice acting is decent but not great. It's got a few noteworthy performances from guys like Mark Hamill and Michael Madsen, and Kazuma's voice fits him well. But the voice actors seem like they're trying harder to match their dialogue to the Japanese lip synching, rather than give a natural delivery. Note that while there's certainly enough blood and violence in the game to justify the M for Mature rating, there's a huge amount of profanity in the dialogue as well. Most of it seems appropriate in context.
Yakuza is a commendable effort that doesn't quite coalesce into a completely satisfying experience. In the end, the simple and repetitive action would be easier to enjoy if the game's story were more focused and less contrived. Even so, and in spite of the English voice work, the distinctively Japanese setting and style of the game come across effectively and provocatively more often than not. Don't expect a one-of-a-kind gameplay experience from Yakuza, but the game captures enough cinematic drama and violence surrounding Japan's notorious organized crime families to be worthwhile.