Yakuza Review (PS2)

Gang wars, sharp suits, hostess bars and neon lights – right from the start, it’s obvious that Yakuza has the atmosphere down, but is it enough to rescue the game from its repetitive brawling?

Engage in cage matches for money and glory Kazuma’s special moves tend to leave a lasting impact

Previews of Yakuza were pretty misleading; the early reports on the game, from Toshihiro Nagoshi, producer of the ‘Super Monkey Ball’ series, all seemed to suggest that the free roaming nature and underground gang war theme meant that this was Japan’s answer to Grand Theft Auto. In actual fact, the game has far more in common with NES beat ‘em up River City Ransom.

Sure, the storyline is little more advanced and mature, but the compelling RPG-like ability to improve your health and techniques is all there, as are the shops. Of course, so are the fights, complete with the familiar ability to pick up and use items from the street against your opponents – from rubbish bins and lead pipes, to neon signs and portable gas stoves.

The game is set in the fictional Tokyo district of Kamura-cho, where Kazuma Kiryu, the game’s titular gangster, is falsely convicted for the murder of the head of his clan. Following his release, ten years later, he becomes caught up in trying to track down 10 billion yen that has gone missing from his now estranged clan, and must figure out how his ex-best friend and ex-girlfriend are involved.

It’s an engaging storyline, and one that benefits from Japanese crime author Hase Seishu’s familiarity with the subject matter. While there’s a few pacing issues that highlight Seishu’s inexperience with the medium, there’s enough plot twists and appealing characterisation to keep interest levels high right throughout the game.

Yakuza’s Tokyo is a neon wasteland of adult bookstores and seedy bars Even six on one won’t stop Kazuma

That’s more than can be said about the voice acting, unfortunately. What starts off as being a reasonably unimpressive dubbing job quickly becomes irritatingly sub-standard. Not only is the lip syncing horrific, but a good deal of the acting is lifeless too. There’s some fine work from experienced gaming voice actors like Mark Hamill, but it’s safe to say that others, like Eliza Dushku and Rachael Leigh Cook should probably stick to a medium they’re better at.

Perhaps the real question is why Sega didn’t actually opt to include the Japanese voice over in the game as an optional extra. For a title that makes such a point of its Japanese authenticity, it seems odd to Westernise the game in such a major fashion.

Yakuza’s main problem is with its fight scenes, though. For a game that relies so heavily on fighting, there’s a distinct lack of polish. While there is an impressive focus in terms of environmental interactivity, the fact that fights trigger a change of location not dissimilar to that of an RPG make it seem too contrived. It’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re fighting in arenas, even when you are fighting on the street, simply because the area you’re given is so limited in size.

Even worse is the loading time that must be endured upon entering into any fight scene, which lasts for around 20 seconds at a time. That may not seem like much, but a simple walk from one side of Kamura-cho to the other – something that happens quite a bit while chasing up leads on the missing 10 billion yen – will often mean fighting up to ten battles, and the wait for the action to begin quickly grows tiresome.

For all its problems, Yakuza is still oddly compelling. Most of this is attributable to the game’s setting, with convenience stores, restaurants, nightclubs and hostess bars all gloriously rendered and totally interactive – the hostess wooing side-missions are interesting, to say the least, as is the particularly memorable strip club task which sees you attacked by a shotgun wielding transvestite.

It’s immensely convincing and enormously enjoyable simply to walk around Kamura-cho, and it’s here that the game really excels. Try heading into one of the district’s arcades, and playing the UFO skill machine in order to win a soft toy to court your hostess love interest, or just head into the batting cages to practice your baseball swing. It may not be as large as Grand Theft Auto’s San Andreas, but the game’s small area actually gives a feeling of impressive completeness, almost like everything that made it into the game did so because it enhances the overall mood.

Graphically, the game’s environments are stunning; a shining neon example of what late generation PlayStation 2 games should be like. Character animation and emotion in cut scenes is a little less impressive, but it still seems obvious that this was where most of Yakuza’s US$21 million budget was spent.

Kamura-cho district is full of memorable characters Kazuma’s imposing figure makes for some interesting characterisation

It’s often irritatingly flawed, but the gripping storyline makes it worth the time it will take to finish. If you can see through its faults and appreciate the atmosphere, Yakuza is a particularly solid action adventure title.

Top Game Moment:
Mastering the UFO skill tester game in the Sega arcade.

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