There's something alluring about the notion of a criminal with a conscience and a deep-seated sense of honor, who swears oaths of loyalty to a clan and who would sacrifice his life for what he believes in. Yakuza 2 taps into this allure with good results, providing a brutal, brawl-focused adventure whose action is intertwined with a melodramatic tale populated by morally complicated cops and criminals both noble and despicable, set in a lively rendition of contemporary urban Japan.
The story centers around Kazuma Kiryu, the hero of Yakuza. A familiarity with the events of the first game definitely helps in following the story here, but you don't need to have played it to jump into this one. Early on, the game gives you the option of having Kazuma recall in detail the events depicted in the original game. At the end of Yakuza, Kazuma tried to leave his life with the titular criminal organization behind him. But, of course, it isn't long before he finds himself swept back into it, trying to protect his former clan, the Tojo clan, from both internal and external threats, while a Korean mafia group plots to take revenge for a wrong the Tojo clan committed 26 years ago.
Intense emotions are par for the course here, as the game tells its tale of violent feuds, long-held grudges, betrayals, and vengeance. Don't think that means this is a gritty, realistic story, though. Calling this an accurate portrayal of yakuza life would be like calling Metal Gear Solid an honest look into the work of a stealth operative. The story starts out somewhere in the realm of wildly implausible and moves to utterly ludicrous before the end. But if you can accept its excesses and just go along for the ride, you'll find a crime opera that is as entertaining as it is outrageous. It's a good thing, too, because you'll spend a fair amount of your time with Yakuza 2 watching its frequent, sometimes lengthy cutscenes.
It's fitting that the story is so outrageous, because the action is every bit its match in that department. Yakuza 2 has a few of the trappings of an open-world adventure game, but this is first and foremost a brawler, and a very good one. Kazuma is one tough dude, and he takes guff from nobody. People constantly try to give him guff, and receive savage beatings for their trouble. The brawling action here is accessible and straightforward; you unleash a variety of combos with the square and triangle buttons, grab your enemies with the circle button, and dash out of the way with the X button. It's simple without being shallow, and it all feels right. Kazuma's blows are powerful and satisfying, and although the garden-variety thugs you fight throughout most of the game don't pose much challenge, clobbering them is still a constant source of fun.
The most enjoyable aspect of the fighting system is the heat mode. You build up your heat gauge by dealing damage to your opponents while avoiding damage yourself. Once the gauge reaches a certain point, Kazuma becomes engulfed in a blue flame and can unleash special attacks. These can involve dragging an opponent over to a wall and crushing his face against it or making creative, violent use of any of the knives, swords, signs, stoves, stun guns, ottomans, and numerous other items you find lying around during battle. The heat attacks are wonderfully brutal, and because the heat gauge is easy to fill up, you'll be unleashing these powerful moves constantly.
As you punch your way through the thugs who populate the game's three neighborhoods, you'll earn experience points, which you can spend to expand your repertoire of moves or to improve your existing ones, as well as to do things like extend your health bar. The frequent development of Kazuma's abilities helps keep the action feeling fresh throughout. And while most of the people you encounter are just fodder for your fists, there are a good number of knock-down, drag-out boss fights. These can be tough, but they're not unfair. However, if you find yourself hitting a wall during any encounter, the game will give you the option to temporarily set the difficulty to easy, which is a nice way to avoid getting stuck on one particular brawl.