Yakuza Preview

We spend some time with an English-language version of Sega's upcoming criminal action game.

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Currently scheduled for release in September, Yakuza is a third-person action adventure game with a storyline that focuses on criminal organizations in the fictional town of Kamurocho. The game will see you assuming the role of Kazuma Kiryu, a disgraced former Yakuza member for whom the streets of the Shinjuku-inspired town are anything but friendly. We recently had an opportunity to spend some quality time with an English-language, work-in-progress version of the game, and we're pleased to report that even after being sent to prison for 10 years shortly after picking up the controller, we had a good time.

The early portion of the game, which takes the form of a tutorial that familiarizes you with the combat controls, tells the story of how Kazuma falls out of favor with the Yakuza. The game proper doesn't start until 10 years later, after Kazuma's experiences in the big house have been relayed to you via a single interactive fight sequence and a couple of quite uneventful cutscenes. The town that Kazuma returns to has changed a lot in the 10 years that he was locked up, but the construction of the Millennium Tower and the rapid growth of the cell-phone industry have done nothing to improve his standing with its crime bosses.

Some of the pedestrians will try to interact with you as you walk past them.
Some of the pedestrians will try to interact with you as you walk past them.

You'll be able to explore only a small area of Kamurocho at the start of the game, but as the storyline demands that you visit new locales, they'll become available for you to visit at any time. The town is quite impressive looking, and because there are always so many pedestrians milling about and talking to each other, you really feel like you're forcing your way through rush-hour crowds at times. A map in the corner of the screen does a good job of highlighting all of the buildings that you can go inside, and it also has an arrow pointing to your current objective whenever you're on a mission. Buildings that you can walk into in Yakuza include numerous stores and restaurants, where you can buy food and items that you need to complete side missions; a few hostess bars, where you can attempt to woo young ladies while watching your cash supply dwindle; and at least one safe house, where you'll regain health as you manage your items and save your game. Other locations of interest that we've found include a Club Sega arcade with a working UFO claw minigame and an underground casino, where you can win prizes playing roulette, blackjack, and baccarat.

Flirting, shopping, and gambling are all mildly entertaining ways to pass time in Yakuza, but hand-to-hand combat is what the game is all about, of course. Typically, the fights in the game pit you against small gangs of enemies rather than against individuals, and although most of the guys you'll be fighting aren't nearly as powerful as Kazuma, crowd control can definitely be a challenge. None of the enemies in Yakuza are shy about attacking you while you're fighting one of their colleagues, so however much you're enjoying the beating that you're giving someone, you'll need to keep one eye on the person's buddies. You'll also have little choice but to pay constant attention to the camera, which rarely positions itself well without help and often puts up as much of a fight as the various thugs and criminals that you're exchanging punches with.

Problematic camera aside, the controls that you'll be using when in combat are uncomplicated and make it extremely easy to perform powerful combos. Some of the combos are so effective that you can quite easily play through multiple encounters just using one of them repeatedly, but since the bosses in the game are much more varied and challenging, it's a good idea to practice all of the skills at your disposal. In addition to punches, kicks, and throws, you can perform blocks and evasive moves, and also pick up items to use as weapons. Every item used for combat in the game, regardless of whether it's an everyday item such as an umbrella or bicycle or a weapon like a sword or a knuckle duster, can only be used a limited number of times before it expires. As you progress through the game, you'll earn experience points by winning fights and completing missions, and these can be spent on improving one of three attributes for Kazuma, occasionally unlocking new moves and abilities in the process.

Random fight encounters are commonplace, but are rarely challenging.
Random fight encounters are commonplace, but are rarely challenging.

Although Yakuza's more interesting fights are generally those that relate to the main storyline, you have no choice but to become embroiled in role-playing-game-style random encounters as you walk around Kamurocho. Characters that you can choose to interact with in the town have small arrows over their heads to make them stand out from the crowd, but the numerous guys who want to pick a fight with you come out of nowhere. Before each of these fights, you'll be treated to a brief expletive-filled conversation that attempts to explain why you're being attacked in the middle of a crowded street. Popular reasons for starting a fight in Kamurocho include: wanting money, not liking the way someone looks, not liking the way someone looks at you, and not liking the way that someone doesn't look at you. What's really strange is that after winning a fight, you'll invariably get to see your attacker begging for mercy or apologizing very politely while giving you money or a gift. Quite why a gang of thugs would offer the guy who just beat them all senseless a bottle of perfume or a wad of Yen escapes us, but both of those things certainly come in handy when attempting to woo the aforementioned hostesses, even if we have no idea why it is that we're paying money to spend time with them right now.

Yakuza's strongest feature appears to be its storyline, which, around seven or eight hours into the game, has already taken some interesting twists and turns and introduced (and killed off) some quite intriguing characters. We'll say nothing more about the story at this point for fear of spoiling it, but we look forward to bringing you more information on the game soon.

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