Not without its charms
It’s refreshing to see a Japanese role playing game with ambition, whatever the result, because that’s what Yakuza is. To take the stale components of an aging genre and reinterpret them is an act to be applauded- the gameplay progression, combat, setting and direction all altered to the point that one could mistake the title to have more in common with Grand Theft Auto. Yet in many ways Yakuza represents ’s take on such an experience, despite the genre disparity.
The caveat, however, is the want to appreciate that ambition. While Yakuza stems from a solid idea and succeeds in several areas, the overall package is let down by its technical shortcomings. The degree to which the game actually fares lies directly with your willingness to tolerate its shaky framework- and it is rewarding.
Exploring the seedy underworld of ’s organised crime is what Yakuza nails from the get go. The red light district of Kabukichō is large enough to provide scale yet small enough to be true to life on limited hardware, and one of the best examples of the developer achieving a balance between their vision and their technical ability. Crowds are numerous and flowing; neon covers the streets with a convincing city glow; convenience stores, bars and strip clubs litter the sidewalks. It’s a compelling locale for Kazuma Kiryu’s return from a ten year sentence, entering a society that moved on since his incarceration.
Kazuma’s story is the reason to play this game. The politics of the Japanese underworld are told without dilution or pity, his infiltration into a brutal way of life providing intriguing material. With no overly saccharine support character to mellow the mood the connection between the characters comes across as more genuine. Even nine year old Haruki is handled appropriately, who otherwise could have ruined a major plot thread. As strong as the script is, it’s the camera that really shows maturity in the presentation of the story, emulating a solid crime drama during the numerous cutscenes.
The localisation is the unfortunate negative to Yakuza’s story. Despite boasting several big acting names on the box, it means nothing if the utilisation of such talent is botched. Many lines are only partially recorded, with the end product spliced together for a delivery you’d expect out of MacInTalk. It really hurts otherwise decent dialogue, though some characters suffer more than others. And while your mileage may vary, the constant desire of the cast to say the word ‘fuck’ tires before long.
Where Yakuza’s presentation falters the most is where you actually get to play it- most notably the combat system. The many encounters you’ll be forced into during your time on the streets (and you’ll be sick of them before long) use a clunky 3D fighting engine with little of merit. While being stuck with a limited combo system and repetitive thugs to beat up on, the camera demands complete control for the adjustments it can’t make itself- without being able to use the second analog stick, no less. Having just one button to click it behind you often leads to it looking in the complete opposite direction you’re attempting to fight in, and as opponents grow more numerous, its problems multiply. Even the lock on system will decide to up and leave half the time you’re relying on it to dodge a hefty metal pipe or flying fist. The only true saving grace is the option to lower the difficulty if the various clans manage to repeatedly pummel you through some cheap loophole.
There’s little variety in the things you’ll be doing through the progression of the game if you choose to ignore the various side quests available throughout town. While most consist of mundane fetch errands, a few relate themselves to the supporting cast you meet in the main story. These share the same attention to detail as the mandatory missions, and the character arcs they contain make them well worth taking the time to stray from the beaten path, as well as some extra items to help in the main quest. Despite being far in between, they really help flesh out the world and its overall progression.
To truly appreciate Yakuza is to endure it, for better or worse. There is reward to be had in living in the world it presents rather than just run past it, despite the frustrations and hardships it presents. Its authenticity helps the characters and their demons live beyond the duration of the game, and that definitely bodes well for its upcoming sequel.