Poor old Kazuma Kiryu hasn’t had the best luck of late. Feared by his enemies, respected by his peers and poised to start up his own Yakuza family, he took the fall for his best friend’s murder of one of Japan’s top gang bosses and was sent down for ten long years. Now, finally released from incarceration, every big- and small-time crook and thug in the Far East wants him dead, and there’s almost nowhere safe to hide. Furthermore, his childhood sweetheart has gone missing, his best friend has now become his greatest enemy and someone has stolen billions of yen from the Tojo Clan which threatens to destroy the organisation. It’s down to Kazuma – with the very small number of people he can trust – to find out what has happened to the people he cares for and get to the bottom of these events.
The game is extremely narrative-heavy, and you’ll rarely go a short while without seeing a beautifully presented cutscene. There is a large and varied cast with a typical assortment of dependable, reprehensible and morally ambiguous friends and foes. Many of the interactions take place through dialogue boxes only (there is almost as much reading here as your average JRPG), although pivotal and important developments are left to nicely animated sequences in the detailed in-game engine, with a few moments held back for intermittent FMV. Cutscenes and plot exposition are almost as abundant as the Metal Gear Solid games, although thankfully Yakuza never threatens to drown in its own pretentiousness like that series.
The combat is one of the most remarkable and enjoyable aspects of the game. Kazuma is a thoroughly hard bastard and a natural fighter, but he is a brawler – a street fighter. It’s a far cry from the balletic combat seen in Shenmue, because here the combat is intended to be gritty, effective and functional rather than ostentatious or aesthetically pleasing. That’s not to say it isn’t fun to watch though; smashing someone over the head with a neon sign or an unattended bicycle takes a long, long time before it starts feeling tiresome.
Kazuma’s collection of moves seems somewhat modest at first, but after a few hours you’ll earn enough experience to start to learn new moves and from there things steadily progress until you max his abilities out (which should take at least fifteen hours). Initially you start with a small variety of combos, but soon enough you can parry attacks, dodge enemies, throw them around and even drop-kick them. You also get a ‘Heat’ gauge, which charges as you land blows and once it’s almost full you can execute critical attacks. These vary depending on whether you have a weapon and if you’re near a context-sensitive point, so you might be stabbing someone with a knife, pounding their face in to a wall or just kicking them in the ribs when they’re down. The consistently excellent combat and solid collision detection create a brutal and enjoyable fighting engine which is arguably the game’s finest aspect.
The story is a labyrinthine tale of friendship, betrayal and redemption in the yakuza underworld. You’ll meet several dozen characters – some via fleeting encounters and others for the duration – and most have their own back-story and side plot, and it all adds to create a vast and cohesive network of believable people and comrades you actually care about. The narrative often descends into information gathering by following a trail of breadcrumbs, but then it’s an efficient system which has proved itself in countless RPGs. Cutscenes and plot progression are frequent enough to keep you interested but for the most part not too often to overwhelm and/or alienate.
The town of Kamurocho is an immersive and varied environment. The streets are teeming with people – the vast majority of which you cannot speak or interact with, and some are prone to disappearing when the frame rate struggles; however the scope nonetheless creates a convincing and unique illusion, particularly for the humble PS2. Scattered around the city are distractions including hostess bars, a batting cage, a fighting pit, an arcade, shops or even just somewhere you can go to drink a nice glass of whiskey or a cold beer. There is plenty to do and you can easily spend hours messing around with the distractions and mini-games which is definitely one of the game’s main charms.
Graphically, Yakuza is a strong effort which sits amongst the console’s more attractive games. The main cast character models and general lighting are particularly well done, although the environs and support characters are often a little bland – this is, however, an acceptable trade-off given the scope of the city location and the number of people on screen at once. Aurally, things are very good overall. There’s a selection of well-known voice talent, including the likes of Mark Hamill, Elisha Dushku and Michael Madsen, although while they all do a decent effort they are all eclipsed by newcomer Darryl Kurrylo putting in a great performance as Kazuma. The music is excellent and features an assortment of tunes for the various fights; each gang comes with its own tune, ranging from jazzy saxophone music through to guitar-rock. The aural presentation is the icing on a very well put-together package.
Yakuza sports many flaws of varying severity, however in the overall context of things the vast majority are easy to overlook. Chief among them is probably the game’s relatively slow beginning and that the combat can feel tiresome and repetitive over the first few hours. Once you are free to roam the city and get in fights at your leisure things become far more enjoyable and you’ll quickly begin to level up. There are also some punishing difficulty spikes – often in the form of a boss who is particularly agile or who has somewhat unfair moves which can’t be countered, blocked or interrupted (bosses or even regular foes toting guns are particularly galling). At least the game lets you downgrade to Easy if you die a few times; always a welcome addition, as seen in the likes of Onimusha and God of War. The camera can also be a big pain. It adopts surprisingly useful fixed points while you roam the streets, but in a fight it drops close behind Kazuma. The problem here being that it can’t usually keep up when you quickly change direction, sometimes leaving you punching thin air rather than the cluster of thugs nearby. You can manually centre it with L2, but you’re too busy trying to kick arse to think about this. Whilst we’re picking out faults, there’s perhaps a little too much loading, although to be fair it’s no worse than dozens of other PS2 games.
Yakuza is a superb game and a deft combination of genres and styles which evades pigeonholing. It is like a wonderful mixture of a JRPG and Shenmue; a title which on paper sounds a little hackneyed and elaborate, but in reality works very well thanks to endearing characterisation, a wonderful setting and excellent combat. If you like your games mature, your protagonists tough and your plotlines complex, you would be very wise to seek out this overlooked little gem.