Yakuza Review

In 2005, Sega released a game in Japan titled Ryu ga Gotoku (Like a Dragon). This action-adventure game was not only unusual in that it was about the Japanese crime underworld, but it was also a very expensive game to develop, costing an astounding 21 million dollars. The American version of this game, renamed Yakuza, has arrived on western shores, and we,ll shake down this game to see if it is a hit, or a game that needs to be on the mob,s hit list.

Ok, first things first. Many will equate Yakuza with Grand Theft Auto, and this is understandable. Both games have themes concerning the mob, both have similarities in gameplay, and both seem to have their basis in creating crime and havoc. While these points are well taken, and the similarities do exist, Yakuza operates on a much different level than the GTA series, and that difference comes primarily from the depth of the storyline and the RPG influences.

Yakuza is called an action-adventure title. While this is an acceptable classification, it’s really, upon closer inspection, an RPG action-adventure game. The elements of RPG are very evident in this title, and if you have played any of the Final Fantasy series or any other mainstream RPG title, you will immediately see the crossover influences from these games into Yakuza. This title is saturated with storyline, character development, plot twists and, of course, a battle system. Why make such a distinction about this title being more of an RPG rather than an action game? The reason lies with how you perceive this game, and this perception will either make it something you will want to play, or a title that will be left on the store shelf.

The game starts off with action and a cutscene that immediately brings you into the plot-Kazuma Kiryu, the most feared Yakuza member in the Dojima Clan, has done something, or appears to have done something so unthinkable, that he has not only been sent to prison for a 10-year stint for the alleged crime, but upon release from prison he is now a targeted and mistrusted member among his comrades.

The first thing that you,ll notice about this title is that it relies heavily-and I emphasize the word, heavily-upon plot development. Cutscenes are detailed with a good amount of dialogue which helps you to understand the motivations of each person or group of individuals. Your interactions with the various characters you run into during the game will also affect the direction of the plot. The Yakuza have had a reputation for not only being fierce crime figures, but also for being being generous to the down-and-outers of society. Yakuza legends also say that a good amount of the membership is from orphanages and destitute households. In the game, these points are played out with crucial emphasis on the duality of the personality of Kazuma Kiryu, "The Dragon of the Kojima Clan." He faces death squarely in the eye as he battles opponents, while still helping and protecting strangers. Most importantly, he helps a little orphaned girl, who plays an instrumental part in the unveiling of the plot.

Gameplay follows a chapter-by-chapter approach. The action takes place in the town of Kamurocho, and according to the game, it is a town "filled with ambition and violence." The city is divided into various districts, and you transverse the landscape in search of information, items, and objects in your quest to not only stay alive, but to solve the riddle of who is behind the theft of the Yakuza’s bank accounts. The chapters break down into many scenes, and each scene or mission requires you to use your wits and fighting abilities to complete the goals. While there are always main objectives to each chapter, there is a variety of sub-plots continually occurring during the course of any particular session.

For instance, you may be required to make a contact with an underground informant, but along the way to his location you are presented with numerous sidetracks and decisions to help people in need, visit hostess bars, take in a few rounds at the batting cage, or fight criminal scum of the city. But it takes some street smarts to survive, and people you help may not be so friendly. Those who seem to be on your side may turn out to be con-artists or backstabbers-in the literal sense. So while the game requires you to fulfill mission objectives, the game is also a test of your character-can you distinguish between the predators and those who truly need your help? These side trips can often take a great deal of your game time if you are not focused on your objectives, and it is up to you to go for the primary mission, or to get involved in these secondary aims. These side missions aren,t just to burn time, they actually add to the game,s overall appeal. This side mission aspect of the game is what makes Yakuza fun to play, because it pulls you so deeply into the plot that you,ll feel the drive to not only struggle to survive, but to also look out for the welfare of those around you, ala Robin Hood.

As far as the battle system of Yakuza is concerned, it works on a very simplistic level. As you defeat and vanquish your foes, you gain experience points, items and yen. Your fighting abilities and defensive powers are increased with the distribution of the experience points you earn. You can learn new moves, become more powerful in resisting attacks, or increase the life of your "heat gauge," in which you can dole out especially fierce attacks.

Fighting moves are not very hard to learn as it uses primarily the square, triangle and circle buttons. Different fighting moves and combos are achieved by mixing up the button presses. Your arsenal of fighting moves include kicks, throws, hand-to-hand combat, and devastating special attacks. While the fighting isn,t particularly complex, it’s still a satisfying experience every time you thrash your opponent and the scene goes into slo-mo. The challenges you encounter happen throughout the city and serve as a way to not only generate income, but also gives you needed experience points by which you can level up your character. You also have the option to equip your character with a selection of weapons, which can be located throughout the game. These weapons are attained in secret armories, purchased from seedy individuals, or bought from your local neighborhood stores. Your health is restored by buying and eating food such as rice balls, stews, sandwiches or consuming heath drinks. You are limited to a certain amount of items which you can carry, as well as only three weapons at a time. Weapons may have the ability to ground and pound your enemies, but they have a limited lifespan.

The immediate environment can assist you in winning your battles. Items such as rocks, shipping crates, wooden boards, pipes, bicycles and other objects can be thrown or used to pummel your foes into the ground. It seems as though you have been targeted by every punk and malcontent in the city, and for you, unfortunately, this means they all want a piece of you. Usually, upon beating the crap out of your opponents, your former foes give tribute to you in the form of a cash payout. They bow to your superiority, make their apologies and offer you cash as atonement for their trespasses. Not a bad deal at all for smashing your attackers into the pavement.

Your saves in the game are done at various telephone booths or telephone stations, and prove to be quite a challenge in finding, as there spots are spread out throughout the city, and this may be too much for some. You,ll find yourself constantly running from place to place in order to accomplish your goals, and as a result, will test your patience to the highest level. But the city is so alive with things to explore, that this aspect of Yakuza may be a non-issue as you visit and rummage through the town,s inner core. There are also three taxis in the game to expedite your travels, but these are also spread out, and you,ll have to run to find these as well. There is a problem with the onscreen radar, and your physical orientation to the locations. As you approach an intersection, the camera moves to another viewpoint, and may skip for a split second. This caused me to lose my bearings and direction several times throughout the game, and I found myself constantly moving back into a street-which I was trying to leave-to re-orient myself. It took a little doing, but I finally got used to the system.

The graphics in the game are good, with a big emphasis on the nightlife look of the city. The town appears as if it never shuts down with the flashing neon lights, shops and constant motion of everyone in the streets. It is here, in the streets, where you,ll get a feel for a crowded cosmopolitan city. There are all sorts of stores, gambling sites, bars and human riff-raff lining the sidewalks. The art direction and attention to detail really help towards creating the impression of a big Japanese city. It was entertaining to walk into authentic Japanese fast food establishments, drug stores, bargain basement shops and other local places. The main drags were well-lit and teeming with people and flashing lights, while the seedier side of the city was grimy, dark and loaded with punks out to rob-or hurt-you.

Most of us are familiar with the swearing aspect present in many "M" rated games. In Yakuza, they have taken this aspect and have seemed to go over the top with it. Dirty mouthed punks, Yakuza members, and rival gangs will pepper you with the crème of the crop in swear words. This aspect of the game may bother even the most seasoned of gamers. While the "F-bombs" were flying freely and frequently during the game, I had to turn the sound down because some of the family didn,t want to hear all the colorful words.

It,s usually hard to find good voice talent for games-the talent, and I use this term loosely, is often campy, dull, or transparently bad. In Yakuza, the production team has assembled a stellar cast that not only does justice to the deep characters in the title, but they actually enhance and add to the believability of the script. Of course, as mentioned previously, there was a lot of over-the-top swearing. Then again, perhaps this is authentic to the way Yakuza members speak. Often when playing Yakuza, you’ll see similarities to Japanese crime films, which is one thing Sega was aiming to accomplish.

The replay value of the game can be considered in league with a good book. After you finish the novel, you stash it away on the shelf, but as with all good novels you are likely to return for a second read, because it was so captivating the first time around. Likewise, gamers who enjoy a finely constructed plot with memorable characters will also give Yakuza another whirl at a later time. Since this game is primarily driven by the story, pure action fans may find the pace too slow for their tastes to play through more than once.

Yakuza is an odd mix of brilliant story-telling with a few slight technical flaws, mostly with the camera. You,ll find yourself immersed in the characters, and if this were a book, it would qualify as a page turner. But, the game also has its share of defects. Gamers may become frustrated at the time it takes to travel throughout the city, framerates are jittery at times, and save areas are sometimes too far and too few. In spite of these shortcomings, the tremendous work on the plot of the game is where this title shines. Along with the involving story comes a fighting system may be a little too rudimentary for some, but still adds a good touch to the overall experience of the game. Upon coming against a foe, Kazuma utters, "It,s your bad luck that you ran into me." However, if you,re a gamer on the hunt for a great story and lots of free roaming and exploration, your luck will definitely be good if you run into Yakuza.


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Author: GamerNode Staff View all posts by

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