Ever since I first laid eyes on Ryuga Gotoku, I knew I had to have it. It looked to be the closest I would ever come to playing a new Shenmue, and when it was first announced that it would hit North America, I was excited and also a bit scared. Here's a game that I placed on a very high pedestal with very little to go on, and with it actually coming out here, I knew I'd have to play it at some point. With that comes the realization that the game I'd envisioned could easily be too lofty for anyone to achieve - especially on the PS2's now-limited hardware. As time went on, I decided it would be best to view this game as a faster-paced Shenmue, since that would offer the most fair comparison, and I was looking for more of a Shenmue-esque experience in this game anyway since it's made by Sega.
Yakuza's story begins with Kazama Kiryu taking the heat for his friend Nishiki's killing of their Oyabun for attempting to have his way with Kazama‘s girlfriend Yumi. After ten years in prison, Kazama is anxious to find out what he's missed since the death of his boss. He is blamed by everyone for the death of his Oyabun, and is surprised to see how advanced technology is now. Detective Date, the cop who interrogated him during the Oyabun murder investigation soon befriends him. Date devoted his whole life to Kazama's case, knowing inside that he was covering for the actions of someone else and stopping at nothing to find out the truth. Unfortunately, this devotion ends up costing Date his job, wife, and relationship with his daughter. An old friend of Kazama and Yumi, Reina sets him up with a hideout in her bar. Soon thereafter, she'll allow Haruka, a seemingly orphaned girl saved by Kazama, to stay in the bar. Throughout the entire game, we're shown what makes the characters tick. Kazama is constantly trying to do the right thing to help someone else, and it makes us sympathetic to his plight.
He had nothing but good intentions when he took the blame for Nishiki's actions, then he gets blamed for it by everyone in town, and yet he never lashes out at people for their harsh accusations. He understands why they're being made, and just moves on. The depth in just his character is something I haven't seen much of in games, and that kind of depth is seen in many of them. An entire chapter is devoted to side characters like Date, and that's something you rarely see in a game. Normally, side characters exist with maybe a few lines explaining who they are, but here they all have dimension to them, and feel like real people as a result.
That sense of reality is furthered when you are given the opportunity to explore the town. This part of the game is very much like Shenmue - where you have a set area you can explore, and you're given a great deal of optional activities while running around town. You can go to a Sega arcade and play with a claw machine (and unfortunately lacking any classic Sega games), play some slots (complete with Daisuke Jigen's hat and gun on the reels) or go to a batting cage. If you're feeling up to it, you can even visit massage parlors or porn DVD shops. If you feel like fighting, random strangers will confront you on the street. Getting drunk in a bar increases these odds, and it's often funny to see folks think they can beat you up when drunk only to find out that you're one tough drunk, and they're no match for you. Later in the game, you'll be able to play a variety of games in a casino, participate in underground fighting tournaments, and make use of higher-class massage parlors.
Throughout the game, you can solve side missions that either involve random people in the street or more side characters from main missions whose plots you can wrap up by helping them out. I greatly admire the integration of main mission characters into the side ones. It's another example of adding depth to the characters when most games (including my beloved Shenmue) would just brush them off and never mention them again.
Many of the characters come to life due to the voice acting. While many are disappointed by the use of conventional English to convey Yakuza dialogue, I'm not bothered by it. I'm a little disappointed that the original Japanese language track wasn't included, but thanks to the superb work of the cast, I'll let it slide for now and hope that they include it in the sequel, should it receive a U.S. release. Unlike Shenmue, which featured Batman-level stilted and awkward dialogue, the discussions here actually sound like something you'd hear on the streets (albeit with a lot more needless swearing). It's another feature that adds an air of reality to the events of the game, and I appreciate hearing dialogue in a game that doesn't insult the intelligence of the player. Mark Hammill, Rachel Leigh Cook, and especially Darryl Kurrylo (as Kazama) deserve a lot of credit for fleshing out the characters with just their voices. Thanks to slight fluctuations in them, the characters express small amounts of fear at times that foreshadow things to come, and even something like hearing Kazama breathe heavily after a battle makes the game more immersive.
This high level of immersion has a price though, as the PS2 is clearly pushed past its limits with Yakuza's massive and intricately-detailed world. Loading times before battles and between streets greet players far too often. I found them to be a minor nuisance, but nothing that greatly took away from my enjoyment. With some battles, I actually came to like them since they gave me some time to plan out how I was going to massacre my opponents. Graphically speaking, the extensive use bloom lighting alongside highly-detailed structures and character models make the world come alive.
The models for major characters are all distinctive, with hairstyles and in some cases, tattoos easily visible. They're far more detailed than the ones in the Shenmue games, and clothing in particular look much more realistic here. Yakuza's models seem to be slightly smaller, but it's a worthy sacrifice since they look incredible. Animation is mostly realistic, but it does veer into the surreal when people go flying a few feet backwards from a punch. It's not that jarring, but it might take you by surprise when you first see it. The city itself features many visual flourishes in it that add to the sense of reality in Yakuza. Bloom lighting on sights and streets full of pedestrians add to the feeling that you're in a busy area, and lend even more excitement to the adventure.
Some issues did get in the way though, like camera and control problems. When running through town or participating in a battle, you only have the option of centering the camera behind Kazama, you can't move it around freely as in the Shenmues, where that option allowed you to see the environments from every angle near and far, and gain a level of familiarity and attachment to your surroundings. In battles (particularly multiple-opponent ones), this lack of camera control leads to you taking needless shots (a problem made especially annoying during boss battles). You also can't select which enemy you want to attack in battle, leaving you to attack the one you're facing.
The battle system also doesn't change your direction during a combo, leading you to punch and kick air for a while, and again leaving you open for attacks. This is probably the game's greatest problem, and the one that I most want to see rectified in the sequel. It makes battles feel clumsy, although there is a turn-around attack later in the game that helps remedy this, it doesn't make up for the problem entirely. When things work well, you can have a lot of fun with fighting - battles move at a faster clip than Shenmue's and allow you to make far better use of your surroundings. With a quick flick of the Triangle button when you‘re really pissed off, you can do a context-sensitive attack that can range from just a special attack with a weapon to a more elaborate attack that yields massive damage. Of those, none top throwing a foe face-first into a car, then stomping on his head with a violent kick.
The emotion and excitement through the game's battles and dramatic sequences are enhanced by Yakuza's music. Lots of quick, loud music is used during battles, while the use of slower music during emotional scenes makes you care more about the characters. A lot of smart musical choices were made here, and while I wouldn't call any of the songs gaming classics, they are fun to listen to during the game, and make me wish a Shenmue Box-esque mode was included where you could freely hear the music. Yakuza lacks a song that defines the experience like Shenmue's theme did, but it has a better variety of music that fits more of the action, so it ends up delivering a more complete audio experience.
Despite a few flaws, Yakuza is the most enjoyable game I've played all year. It's got a deep plot that keeps you guessing and features a deeper cast of fleshed-out characters than any other game I can recall. I came into this game expecting to just love the gameplay, and if the plot was good, fine. I left it loving the gameplay nearly as much as I'd hoped, and being blown away by the depth in the story. Sega invested $21 million into this game, and it was worth it. Yakuza oozes polish in nearly every area, and I hope that the sequel fixes the camera, targeting, and loading problems that prevent it from reaching its full potential. As it is, it's “just” the most immersive game released all year.