The yakuza, Japan's mafia, have to be one of the last great untapped pop-culture goldmines here in the West. For all the countless movies and games we've seen romanticizing cowboys, the mob, samurai, and street gangs, for whatever reason, the Japanese take on organized crime has had relatively little exposure by comparison--even though yakuza stories can be filled with the same excitement and intensity. Thankfully, someone finally had the intestinal fortitude to make a slickly produced action adventure game focused on those honor-bound, finger-cutting, mean bastards with incredibly elaborate tattoos across their backs. Sega's new game, which was first released late last year in Japan, does a good job of depicting an appropriately over-the-top story about a former yakuza swept up in a huge conflict among warring crime families. The game also features some great-looking hand-to-hand combat sequences. But its complex storyline often stumbles, and the underlying gameplay ends up being simple and repetitive. Yakuza scores major points for its concept and can be an exciting ride, but it doesn't live up to its potential either conceptually or as a game.
Also known as the Dragon of Dojima, Kazuma Kiryu is a vicious fighter. And a yakuza with a heart of gold.
In the game, you play as Kazuma Kiryu, a stone-cold, chiseled yakuza who's committed to honoring his boss (or "oyabun") as well as his brothers in crime. Early on in the game, he makes a profound decision to take the rap for one of his friend's crimes of passion. So he's locked away in prison for 10 years and disgracefully exiled from his yakuza clan. He finally gets out of the slam, looking no worse for wear, only to find that a lot has changed in the world of organized crime (plus, everyone got cell phones). There is a power struggle for the highest positions in the Tojo yakuza syndicate, and somehow, Kazuma gets swept into it. Thus, a complicated plot unfolds, involving a missing 10 billion yen, multiple feuding families and their allies, a washed-up detective trying to piece his life back together, a little girl looking for her mother, a voyeuristic underworld information dealer, and more.
The story of Yakuza was supervised by an acclaimed Japanese author, but frankly, apart from being convoluted and being about yakuza, it's not that special. The best that can be said about it is that the loose ends ultimately get tied up; while the sequences leading up to the very end of the game are ridiculous, the story ultimately ends well. The worst that can be said about it is that it repeatedly stoops to predictable clichÃ©s that undermine the authenticity and originality of the concept. Kazuma resorts to profanity on a few occasions, but for the most part, he's your prototypical hero taking on your prototypical villains. There's little to no moral ambiguity in the game, despite the setting of a seedy Tokyo district filled with clubs, dive bars, and porn shops. What's more, without spoiling anything, a great deal of the storyline revolves around Kazuma looking after a 9-year-old girl, so this seemingly gritty tale winds up being filled with lots of attempts at tender moments that usually fall flat and really take the edge off of this game. It doesn't help that Yakuza is filled with spotty English-language voice performances for characters still lip-synching to the original Japanese language track, which, unfortunately, was cut from this release. Yet in spite of all this, Yakuza's story is still the driving force behind the entire game, and it gives itself enough time to develop its major characters and present a variety of unpredictable twists.
The streets of Tokyo are visually stunning, but they get old. You have to trek back and forth through a lot.
From a gameplay standpoint, this is your basic, fairly linear action adventure game. Don't let the modern trappings and the round minimap in the corner of the screen fool you into thinking this is a Japanese take on Grand Theft Auto; Yakuza has much more in common with other Japanese action adventure series, like Onimusha or Resident Evil. It's ironic that a game taking place in a modern, real-world setting, with no real fantasy or horror elements to speak of, can somehow seem so much more original conceptually than similar games filled with made-up monsters. However, one of the disappointing things about Yakuza is that the game takes place almost exclusively in one small Japanese district. What you do is you run around from point A to point B, often getting into fistfights along the way. Once you get past how beautiful the crowded, neon-lit streets of Tokyo look in this game, you'll find it at least slightly tedious to trudge from one bar to the next, delivering this item to that character. In some of the game's chapters, it's possible to take some time out from the main story missions to undertake some side missions--but these too invariably involve running somewhere, finding something, and beating some guys up.
Interestingly, there's very little gunplay in Yakuza, but there's an awful lot of pure brawling. It's implied early on that Kazuma is morally opposed to killing people (as opposed to knocking them senseless), and most of the thugs you'll be fighting won't be using guns, either. Guns do figure prominently in some of the game's cutscenes, though during battle, gun-toting enemies merely chip away at your health like everyone else... They're just annoyingly difficult to get close to. There are plenty of other, more common weapons in the game, from golf clubs to crates to steel pipes to wooden practice swords. All weapons quickly break after a few successful attacks, but they can give you a significant advantage while they last, and they add a much-needed bit of variety to all the fighting.
In addition to the many combat sequences that take place as part of the main story, you'll run into role-playing game-style random enemy encounters while running around, minding your own business on the streets. Street thugs and good-for-nothing yakuza will chase you down, cuss you out, and attack you in groups. After a while, the frequency of these random attacks becomes both annoying and somewhat absurd; it's as if Kazuma is the world's most picked-on man. You'd think such a powerful fistfighter wouldn't be getting himself into so many fistfights, but hey, this wouldn't be much of a game if all you did was go to beef-bowl stands and gelato shops. Combat mostly involves using a small number of effective combinations and grapples for stunning and knocking down enemies, then dishing out more damage while your foes are flat on their backs. Since Kazuma is almost always alone and will almost always be outnumbered by about six to one, you need to be careful of getting surrounded and overwhelmed. But most any given foe, except for some of the game's fast and fairly tough boss opponents, are little match for Kazuma in a one-on-one battle.