Ryu ga Gotoku Import Hands-On

We get our hands dirty with Sega's newly released yakuza epic. Is it really Japan's answer to Grand Theft Auto?

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We've been eagerly anticipating Ryu ga Gotoku ever since we first learned that Sega was working on a game about Japanese crime syndicates earlier this year. Exclusively available for the PlayStation 2, Ryu ga Gotoku features a lavish presentation that beautifully renders the busy streets of modern Japan, not to mention some brutal hand-to-hand combat. This is a crime epic in which players assume the role of Kiryu Kazuma, a soft-spoken but tough and intimidating yakuza (a Japanese mafioso) who's back on the scene after a long hiatus. As Kiryu, you're free to explore Japan's night life, engaging in some side missions to earn a little extra cash while also taking on story missions. The impressive cinematic cutscenes are lengthy and frequent, at least early on, and the combat is good-looking and exciting. In short, we like what we've seen so far.

The Grand Theft Auto influence on Ryu ga Gotoku is apparent. It's a game about a modern life of crime, and it seems to set you loose in an open-ended cityscape where you're free to do whatever you like. There's a GTA-style onscreen map to help guide you to your next objective. But the similarities seem to end right about there. For one thing, Ryu ga Gotoku has you hoofing it around on foot rather than mostly by automobile, and for another, hand-to-hand combat seems to be the order of the day, rather than GTA-style shootings.

Kiryu Kazuma sports the slicked-back hair, white suit, and flared collar that's as much of a dead giveaway for a yazuka as a full-body dragon tattoo.
Kiryu Kazuma sports the slicked-back hair, white suit, and flared collar that's as much of a dead giveaway for a yazuka as a full-body dragon tattoo.

We also quickly noticed that you can't just start trouble in the middle of a busy street. You can't lash out and attack anyone you please. You must instead provoke a fight through dialogue, at which point the game briefly loads up a combat scenario (so the combat and exploration aren't seamless). There are a variety of optional side missions and other diversions for you to mess around with. You can buy stuff from local convenience stores, and the manual also reveals minigames involving UFO-catcher arcade machines, batting cages, slot machines and various other casino games, and even massage parlors. No, we haven't tried the massage parlors yet. We'll get back on that right away.

Ryu ga Gotoku's gameplay generally seems to involve trekking from place to place and getting into fights. Not bad at all. The brawler-style combat feels pretty good overall. The opening scene teaches you the ropes of how to beat the stuffing out of any would-be opponents in a sequence that has Mr. Kazuma apparently extorting money from an elderly businessman. Fed up with the threats, the businessman brandishes a golf club, and that's when the fur starts flying. The game tasks you with practicing all your basic combat moves against this dude and his cohorts, who basically just stand there looking kind of pathetic as you thrash them with vicious-looking punches and kicks.

Pulling punches isn't an option in Ryu ga Gotoku, which features some decidedly brutal fistfights.
Pulling punches isn't an option in Ryu ga Gotoku, which features some decidedly brutal fistfights.

Expect dirty street fighting rather than the finesse of trained martial arts. Kiryu throws everything into his punches and doesn't hesitate to stomp opponents when they're down. Likewise, you can pick up tons of different objects in the environment and use them as weapons. Garbage cans, signs, baseball bats, microphone stands, and bicycles are just a few of the toys we've had fun playing with thus far. Most weapons break after a few good hits, but the extra damage they inflict make them a good option. Kiryu can also grab his opponents and throw them into their buddies, and he can even pull off devastating special attacks that involve using parts of the environment--for example, slamming the opponent hard against a wall or flat against a table.

Ryu ga Gotoku's got style in spades, and it clearly derives its look from classic yakuza films, like Kinji Fukasaku's definitive Battles Without Honor and Humanity. Major characters are introduced with brief still-frame images, and there is no skimping on depictions of graphic violence. In fact, the game's packaging features a warning label in Japanese and English: "This article contains material which may offend and may not be distributed, circulated, sold, hired, given, lent, shown played or projected to a person under the age of 18 years." Pretty strict, huh?

Honestly, though, Ryu ga Gotoku's level of violence hasn't struck us as being particularly extreme so far, though we're glad to see Sega on a roll (hot on the heels of Condemned: Criminal Origins) with another game that lets you literally knock people's teeth out. At any rate, it's clear that a lot of attention went into the cinematic cutscenes, which feature lifelike animations and highly detailed characters. Between the cutscenes and the rain-soaked, neon-lit streets of Japan, this is one good-looking PS2 game.

Can you think of another game that has depicted modern Japan with so much vibrant color?
Can you think of another game that has depicted modern Japan with so much vibrant color?

We haven't gotten far enough into Ryu ga Gotoku to get a sense of its scope or length, but any game that shows someone getting stabbed in the hand by a fork in a prison cafeteria in the first 30 minutes is A-OK in our book. Yet the gritty content doesn't seem gratuitous, and the storyline seems highly complex, as it quickly introduces many key characters and intense conflicts. The game apparently features some high-profile voice talent, as well as contributions from an award-winning Japanese novelist. So it seems like Sega pulled out all the stops to make Ryu ga Gotoku an eye-catching, memorable experience.

There are no plans as yet for a North American release, and the abundance of Japanese dialogue means it wouldn't be a trivial matter to translate the game into English. And who's to say whether North America is ready for a game about Japanese mobsters? We sure as hell are, though. Take a look at some of our images and videos to get a sense of the game for yourself, and stay tuned for more information.

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