Review by sfcalimari
"Whoa, an action game with an actual decent story?"
Yakuza's gameplay is kind of hard to describe, I suppose you could say it's like a beat-em-up like Final Fight mixed with some GTA-style free-roaming (though without cars), along with some rpg-style aspects.
The game takes place for the most part in a Japanese neighborhood (obviously Tokyo's Shinjuku area) which is portrayed quite realistically. You can wander around all you want, and there are a variety of stores you can visit, like pawn shops, bars, ramen shops, and so on. The city very much feels alive, with colorful neon displays everywhere, a constant urban hum, and crowds of people wandering around or standing around hanging out. The city really has a great atmosphere that feels truly real and lived-in, much more than almost any other game I've ever played. It's too bad you can't leave this one neighborhood.
For the most part, though, you'll need to complete different story missions to advance the plot. Long cut-scenes, which are generally interesting and worth watching (but sometimes a bit tedious), play frequently during these missions. Generally you will be told to meet someone or pick up an item, then get into a fight with some enemies. Beat them, and the story moves on a bit.
Combat in this game is somewhat odd because it is separated from the rest of the game. As you wander through the city, enemy thugs will randomly appear and challenge you to a fight; it's rather reminiscent of a turn-based RPG game where you'll be wandering around a map and enemies randomly attack you. After a loading screen announcing your opponent, you'll fight the enemies in 3rd person view, in a rather small and constrained area. Beat them, and you go back to wandering around the street. It's not like most other brawlers where you explore and fight in the same environment. During story missions, you generally are also forced to fight enemies in small areas, though there are a few where you move through a building fighting enemies and roaming around. Overall the action has a nice feel to it, though I don't see why they didn't integrate the fighting and free-roam parts rather than separating them. The constant load times before fights can really get annoying, and defeating some weak enemies takes less time than the loading screen before the fight!
Besides the main story and the free-roam, you can also complete different side-missions that generally involve finding a specific person and then being asked to defeat a bad guy or retrieve a lost item, though these side-missions take many forms. They aren't necessary to complete, though they are generally pretty entertaining and give you something extra to do, as well as extra money and experience; and if you complete all 72 side-missions you can fight a special opponent.
Lastly, you have a leveling-up system. By defeating enemies or completing side-missions, you gain experience points, which can be used to raise your levels. You have soul, mind and body, and raising them gives you different new attributes, such as new attacks or a larger health bar. It's a nice feature that adds a bit more of an rpg feel to the game.
Considering how much money was supposedly spent on this game, and how late in the PS2's life it was released, the graphics really could have been better. Most everything looks nice and clean, and there is kind of a nice clean-lined SNES feel to the menus, and the city certainly looks cool, but it's a bit of a downer to realize how mushy most of the npc's wandering around the city look. The cut-scenes are decent but look rather dated, and characters' arms and hands often look really unrealistic, and faces often look just plain weird. Another issue is that in the free-roam part of the city, every time you move from one area to the next the framerate drops dramatically while the next section loads up, which is kind of annoying and seems like it could have been fixed.
The controls and fighting system in the game are kind of the weakest part of the game. The combat system generally feels pretty clunky because when you start a combo, you can't really stop it, and you can't change direction in the middle of it, causing you to punch at air if your enemy moves position, which is often. This is quite frustrating, as is the inconsistent lock-on system. During battles you generally automatically lock-on to a nearby enemy, and you can control the lock a bit by holding down R1 to strafe-walk, but often the system gets confused, especially when several enemies gang up on you. Also frustrating is how frequently you get knocked onto the ground, and then 5 or 6 enemies will spam you with attacks before you can even get back on your feet (which takes forever). Generally the combat in the game is not terribly difficult, and most of the challenge comes from the often-frustrating controls, which isn't a good sign.
You can however unlock special moves, either by gaining experience or by undergoing training. These moves generally make combat less frustrating and more fluid because they allow you to hit enemies behind you, or quickly knock enemies over so you can take revenge by spamming them. Most of the best moves aren't available until late in the game, though, long after you've suffered numerous deaths-by-spam.
All that said, once you get used to the combat system, it can usually be quite fun and satisfying. You have a "heat gauge" that fills up as you land hits on enemies, and when it is full you can perform special moves that have a cool little cut-scene, such as smashing an enemy against a wall or smashing a bicycle down on an enemy.
Lastly, I really found myself annoyed with the camera in the game, so beware. When you are running around the free-roam part of the city the camera is static and can't be controlled, and when you run from one block to the next the camera angle shifts dramatically, causing some confusion as to which direction you are headed in. In other areas or during fighting scenes, you can control the camera by pressing L2 to center it in the direction you are facing, but it constantly gets blocked by walls or auto-corrects itself wildly, causing you to walk in the wrong direction or to get spammed by some enemies you can't even see.
I am not the sort of gamer who plays games for their stories, because honestly the stories of most video games are pretty lame and badly told. However, I was pretty impressed by the depth of Yakuza's story, as well as by the way it is told. Apparently a Japanese novelist was hired to develop the game's plot, and I guess it paid off, because I really found myself drawn into the game's world, as if I were watching a movie or reading a good novel or manga.
I won't really spoil the plot at all, but it really does give you a glimpse into the world of the Yakuza (or at least into the way it is portrayed fictionally in Japan), and develops the characters enough that you usually end up caring about them.
The plot kind of veers too much at times into the gossipy internal politics of the Yakuza, and much of the plot gets sunk into "annoying small tagalong child syndrome" territory, although in the end the characters are not nearly as annoying as those of, say, Onimusha 3. But despite these faults I found that overall the game is very much worth playing to see the story play out and to see what happens to all the characters. Yakuza is definitely the most cinematic game I've played in a long time.
When you are wandering around the city, there is always a constant murmur of street noise, and people call out to one another in Japanese (which is kind of weird considering that when you talk to people, everything is in English); the background noise really helps to deepen the game's realistic atmosphere.
There is some music in the game, most notably during fight scenes. The music is okay but not great, and early on it the game the same rather annoying track plays every time you get into a fight, which is about every 2 minutes.
The voice-over work, which is important in a game this cinematic, is mostly good but not perfect, and characters' voices steer too often towards being corny. My biggest complaint is the ridiculous amount of accents in the game; sometimes it's like you're in New York City or something. Some characters have southern accents, one sounds like Humphrey Bogart, and several street punks sound like gangsta refugees from San Andreas or something. There should have been a Japanese audio with English subtitles option. The English voice-overs in Yakuza are pretty decent, and better than a lot of other games, but I wish they had left out the maddening variety of inappropriate and corny-sounding accents.
Basically, this game is a must-play. I don't think that everyone would like this game, but I can see it being loved by fans of Metal Gear Solid, the Legend of Zelda, Final Fight, or other series. I have never seen a game that portrays a city so atmospherically; the unnamed neighborhood in Yakuza puts San Andreas to shame. And the storyline of the game, as I said, is definitely both better told and more interesting than that of any other video game I can think of.
As I've noted, the game isn't without its flaws, but for the most part the few bad aspects are more than outweighed by the delightful story and the (usually) fun action.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 11/17/06
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