This game freaking rules! It's the bastard child of Shenmue, GTA and River City Ransom - complete with buying wacky food at restaurants for healing, XP, and getting armor & stuff at pawn shops. I couldn't stop cackling like a madman at the first stage ("VS. Peace Finance President!") where you have to shake down a fat balding loanshark with a golf club, and his goons are all surrounding you yelling "you wanna go **** Bring it on, **** Finish him!" And then you're beating the living crap out of them, slamming their heads into lockers, breaking potted plants and golf clubs over them and busting their spines over desks.
The main character is a one-liner machine who's the biggest fucking badass ever - like, imagine if Ryo spent all of Shenmue walking around Yokosuka getting wasted and passing out in bars, picking up hoes, and telling everyone he met to STFU and calling them retards. Kazuma would make Solid Snake and Master Chief cry. You can really get into the game.
There are so many interesting touches - like if you wander around drunk it's actually a powerup; your spirit meter starts off maxed out when you get into a fight, and your encounter rate goes up because everyone figures you're easy pickings.
You go into strip clubs and hostess bars and try and mack the chicks who work there. They all have their own personalities and respond to different things - some girls like it when you talk dirty, some get turned on when you order the Cristal, etc. Actual dialogue exchange: Girl: Oh, I can't drink too much, I start acting like a little girl!
Kazuma: I like that! Here!
Girl: If I dressed up for you, which costume would you most like me to wear?
The ones that like you send you text messages full of cute Japanese girl emoticons >^_^< and talk like airheads, it's pretty funny. PROTIP: Always equip the pimp bracelet when trying to pick up women.
It's got tons of Shenmue type side quests / games, you can basically just wander around the city for hours doing nothing - trying to get a home run high score in the batting cage, getting wasted, getting into fights, gambling, taking care of a puppy (in place of Shenmue's kitty), trying to rent DD Nurses: Horny Hospital from the porn shop, etc.
The story and setting are pretty cool - it's not the Godfather or anything, but it keeps you engaged. Fortunately Kazuma's one of those thug-with-a-heart-of-gold types (he somehow manages to kick the entire Japanese underworld's ass without killing anyone) so it never feels too dirty / cold / callous like a lot of games of this type.
There's no singing in the convenience stores, but there is a general store type place with a theme song. It has nothing on the legendary Tomato convenience or Welcome to Pizza though. But you can read bikini idol magazines on the magazine rack, so it's a fair trade.
The environment really shines. You can go in real shops, and buy real stuff that they actually have in Japan (Amino Shiki beverages, Suntory whisky). I went to one of the Club Sega arcades and played the UFO catcher, wonder if you can play classic Sega games in the other arcades.
One of the best parts about the game is that there is no damned clock. Events are ordered, rather than occurring at a certain time. There are optional side things to do, but the main storyline just happens one after the other, so you are never left with 8 game clock hours to piss away.
The battle system is kind of clunky until you figure out the dodging tricks, and the lock on doesn't work all that well. And it isn't as bloody or open ended as GTA - you aren't gunning down old ladies or anything, and you don't interact with your environment as much - the Game Informer review literally criticized the game for not being GTA in Tokyo - wtf? There are also jarring load times before each fight. But those are the only annoyances of any note..
The biggest tip for fighting is to always try to go one on one, and use specials as much as you can, cause the ennemies pretty much rape you when they surround you. Each weapon in the game has a certain number of uses and if you're still holding a weapon when you win a fight, you keep it for the next one. It seems each weapon has a special move, but you need to be in the right position. Since you have a limited inventory, you store stuff in your hideout or in boxes located throughout the game (like Resident Evil). The fighting system really disapoints when you're fighting bosses, but random encounters are easy. The Power Ups you get from spending experience points are really good.
The voice acting isn't nearly as bad as people made it out to be. The story is so good that you won't really care anyway. Plus is has Mark Hamil calling you a motherfucker, which redeems the rest of the voice acting.
The combat in the game improves as you gain levels and learn more varied moves. If you're just mashing his longest string over & over again you're going to get worked. You have to set them up with shorter strings, position yourself to pull off the heat moves, and most importantly master the shift system to keep getting behind your opponent. That said, I don't think the fighting system is a monument to design greatness, or even the game's main appeal.
If you don't like the setting, you don't like the badass factor, you don't like some of the best visuals on PS2 with some amazing setpieces or the number of design elements taken from Shenmue except with you beating thugs up for money instead of lifting crates, then yeah, I guess it may not work for you.
Basically, it comes down to this - do sidequests like this sound cool to you?:
You're walking down the street and a hot woman runs up and hides behind you. A drunken salaryman is staggering after her trying to grope her, saying she's his. You argue with the guy, tell him to **** off and he gets lost. As a reward she offers to buy you a drink, and takes you to a bar she knows. As she drinks, she starts coming on to you more heavily, saying how horny she is and how she wants to sleep with you. The two of you keep drinking, you're choosing various ways to hit on her, the bartender keeps serving up whiskey as the background gets blurrier. Suddenly, Kazuma passes out on the bar. You wake up lying in the middle of the street, and your money's gone. The salaryman from before staggers by, laughing at you because you've been had.
So now you have to find the **** again. When you track her down she swears it's not her fault and the bar owner forces her to do it. You threaten her so she takes you back to where the bar was. You walk in, the rather large bartender plays dumb and starts joking about how you just had too much to drink and he doesn't know anything about your money. Kazuma tells him he's fucked with the wrong guy, and since you've just taken out a funeral filled with an entire mob you know this punk is about to get a stool shoved up his nose. The bartender's goons walk out of the back, telling you to get the **** out. Fight scene ensues, skulls get smashed. After getting his ass whipped bartender offers back your money and then some. Of course, if you decide that's not good enough you can threaten him again and get info out of him about an underground casino, too. You walk back out into the night richer than you were before, manhood restored.
So if scenes like that don't sound appealling, then I guess you can go back to finding the magic crystal in Tales of Prosaica or whatever. For my part, I think it's a pretty cool twist on the action rpg and I'm enjoying it.
- - - reviews - - -
About the generally lukewarm "official" reviews it's been receiving, I put it down to idiocy. I was reading one somewhere that said that all the game is is a series of story sequences and walking around between battles. I'd bet $100 that same jackass gave some Final Fantasy, which can be described exactly using those same words, a 9+.
It's the same forest-for-the-trees school of reviewing that garnered middling reviews for UG&G & Rez - it's like they start out with a 10, dock the game a point for every thing they think it did wrong, then adjust for moneyhats. That's how homegenous EA sports games walk away with 8s - even if there's no inspiration to the game whatsoever and it's been recycled through god knows how many incarnations, if there's no huge glaring error they can't see where to dock it even though it's pablum.
But the reviews haven't been that average across the board - the Japanese press loved it, IGN & 1up liked it, and on GAF they're spazzing over it and calling it GOTY. I think it's one of those games that the reviewing community will miss the boat on, but will be talked about for a long time. I bet the buzz will build and the already announced sequel gets more favourable reviews.
Anyway, forget review outlets and their relativistic numbers, I rate this game: Awesome / 10. It's a badass spiritual successor to Shenmue and one of those games where you just want to hang out in its world and do stuff, and I feel genuinely motivated to do everything rather than just power through to the ending like an awful lot of blockbuster type games. Absolutely worth full price.