TGS '07: Sega's new Yakuza struts its stuff

Third game in series is set in 1605 feudal Japan, with players assuming the role of legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi's fictional alter ego.

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TOKYO--The past two years have been a busy but great success for Sega producer Toshihiro Nagoshi. His PlayStation 2 game Ryu Ga Gotoku, known as Yakuza in the West, depicted modern-day gangster life in Japan via a Grand Theft Auto-style open world. Some 10 months after the original became an immediate hit in December of 2005, a sequel, Ryu Ga Gotoku 2, arrived in Japan in October 2006. (The follow-up will be released as Yakuza 2 in North America next year.)

Given the short time span between the two releases, it wasn't completely surprising when Nagoshi announced during this week's Tokyo Game Show that another sequel would ship out less than a year after Ryu Ga Gotoku 2. However, fans were surprised to learn the "sequel," Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan! for the PlayStation 3, takes place 400 years in the past.

Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan! is set in 1605 feudal Japan, after decades of Samurai feuds were ended by the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate following the famous battle of Sekigahara. For the next two and a half centuries, Japan entered into a new period, where money was stronger than the sword. While the mercantile class rose to prominence, many Samurai became destitute, no longer able to translate their swordsmanship into a comfortable lifestyle.

Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan casts players as a masterless ronin named Kazumanosuke Kiryu, who is apparently a fictionalized alter ego of famed samurai Miyamoto Musashi. Kiryu lives a decadent life in Gion, the red-light district of the Shogunate's capital, Kyoto. Being a skilled swordsman and unrepentant lothario, Kiryu has found a perfect position working as the yojimbo (protector) for members of the Gion underworld. (In real life, Musashi, author of the Book of Five Rings, did no such thing.)

Known for his reputation to do any kind of job for money, Kiryu is one day approached by a little girl named Haruka, who asks Kiryu to kill someone for her. "Please kill Miyamoto Musashi," says the little girl, leaving Kiryu/Musashi speechless.

In order to foot the bill, the little girl sells herself to a whorehouse for a paltry sum and hands it over to Kiryu. The cash funds a new adventure for Kiryu, who retraces his steps to uncover a hidden conspiracy behind the battle of Sekigahara. Featuring real locations in Kyoto, the game boasts over 100 subplots and side missions outside the main storyline.

"We believe that we succeeded in bringing enjoyable modern-day drama in the form of [video game] entertainment with Ryu Ga Gotoku 1 and 2," said Nagoshi. "We wanted to create more drama tailored to the Japanese audience, so we decided to change the time period. It's a period where the Japanese people had their old authentic Japanese values. In a way, it almost felt natural when we threw in a character who's so manly that he seems a bit out of date in modern times."

Kiryu looks and sounds identical to the protagonist from two previous Yakuza installments, except now he has a samurai topknot and fights with a sword. "Kiryu Kazuma has a lot of potential," explained said Nagoshi. "By throwing him into a historical drama, we believe that we can create a new kind of a story that's different from anything in the past."

Nagoshi continued, "With the game changing into a historical drama, a lot of people are thinking that it's going to be a side story or a spin-off. But we're not trying to make a type of game that's got a different taste. We're making a completely new title, and in addition to making sure it's got very solid gameplay, we're also throwing in a lot of work towards the casting and other various details to make the game surpasses both the previous releases in the series."

Similarly to the previous two Yakuza titles, Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan! features numerous supporting characters that are modeled after big-name Japanese actors. Musashi's historical rival Sasaki Kojiro will be one of the key characters in the game, and he was shown in the beginning of footage Nagoshi screened to the audience. Kojiro is modeled after the young actor Shouta Matuda, whose late father was the model for the protagonist Yagyu Jubei in Capcom's Onimusha 2.

Aother actor with ties to Onimusha 2 is also playing a major role in the game. Naoto Takenaka, the movie director and actor who did the Japanese voice-overs for Onimusha 2's Jubei, appears in the game as Marume Nagayoshi, a Tokugawa clan vassal well trained in katana-based combat. It's said that Nagayoshi traveled around Japan to find the most skilled swordsmen during the war period, and he was responsible for recruiting Musashi into the battle of Sekigahara.

One of the remarkable scenes in Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan!'s TGS trailer was of an unnamed mysterious monk who stopped a sword by grabbing the blade with just two fingers and tossing it away. Very little is known about the monk other than his un-monklike appetite for alcohol and women. The monk is played by veteran actor Hiroki Matukata, who's known for his roles in samurai dramas and yakuza films.

Other characters shown in the footage included Yoshioka Seijurou (played by Masaya Katou), the master of the Yoshioka Dojo which is Kyoto's top swordsman school; Gion Touji (played by Takashi Tsukamoto), a young but skilled instructor of the Yoshioka Dojo whose actions are shrouded in mystery; and Itoh, Kiryu's best friend who works as the yojimbo for Gion's largest shop, Tsuruya. While Itoh helps out Kiryu and gives him much advice, it's said that he also has a secretive past.

Though her name wasn't mentioned, the heroine, who appeared to be a geisha, was shown in the Yakuza 3 trailer. She apparently knew Kiryu back from when he first set foot in Gion, as she was heard saying, "The first time you came here, you were just a samurai that didn't know left from right."

Last but not least, Majima Goro (we're not sure of what he'll be named in this game, though), who's often called the most eccentric character in the Yakuza series, was another character that we spotted in the trailer. Wearing an eye patch as usual, he was seen fighting Kiryu, laughing hysterically, kicking him, and swinging around a chained sickle.

"We have a cast that's spectacular enough to even make a motion picture," boasted Nagoshi. "It was extremely hard [to get all the actors], but there were more than just one or two people who loved the Ryu Ga Gotoku series and wanted to take a part in it, and we were very honored. We've digitized their facial expressions, so it's as though the actors are actually appearing in the game."

Visitors to Nagoshi's presentation were shown several minutes of in-game footage. It followed Kiryu as he walked down the streets of Kyoto, went into shops, talked with a woman in a hostess bar, and dashed through crowds both during the day and at night. The quality of the graphics looked similar to the trailer, and many small details made the game's setting feel authentic and lively. People were seen not just on the street, but also eating and drinking inside shops. Some minigames were also shown, such as dice betting, turtle track racing, and Shougi (Japanese chess).

Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan!'s combat will come in two distinct flavors. Inside Gion, swords aren't allowed in the area, so fights are all done fist-to-fist, very much like in previous installments of Yakuza. Outside of Gion, Kiryu shows his other face as Miyamoto Musashi and uses three forms of sword fighting to take out his opponents: single-sword style, double-sword style, and large-sword style. Single-sword style is said to be a powerful fighting form that's good for offence. Double-sword style, which Miyamoto Musashi is famous for, is said to have a wide range of attack and is also good for combos. The large-sword style is good for powerful single hits, but is the slowest form of the three.

The "Heat Action" system seen in the previous installments of the Yakuza series is back in Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan! In one example, we saw Kiryu guarding the enemy's sword with his own blades, swiveling around to absorb the shock, and stabbing the enemy while facing backward. In another scene, he swung a club at an enemy, made him fly into the air, and then grabbed his collar to slam him back on the ground.

In Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan!, Kiryu acquires his special moves via the new "inspiration system." After witnessing events such as a farmer getting hit by an ox and flying into the air, or a dog jumping, Kiryu will suddenly crouch down to the ground and draw a piece of Japanese-style calligraphy representing each new move.

"We wanted to add some fun when you're looking around. For example, you could look at a dog having fun with its owner, or something happening in the sky, and discover things that inspire new moves," said Kagoshi.

Although it wasn't explained in any detail, the footage also showed a scene where Kiryu sat under a waterfall to rid himself of his earthly desires. The camera zoomed into Kiryu's face and changed into a minigame-like screen with a girl in a red bondage costume and a pink meter on the right side. The screen changed back to Kiryu, who suddenly opens up his eyes, and looks upwards into the sky as though he's attained enlightenment.

Sega's official site also gives some additional details on Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan! According to the site, Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan! adopts a new system where there are various ways of making Kiryu stronger. All sorts of actions taken by Kiryu will increase his fundamental strength, and he can acquire new skills by meeting masters and going into training. The numerous swords that Kiryu acquires throughout the game can also be powered up by going to blacksmiths.

In closing, Kagoshi said that Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan! "is slated for a spring 2008 release and development is going smoothly."

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