Let's get something important regarding Yakuza 2 out of the way immediately: if English is your native language, then this game was not designed for you. As the very title Yakuza 2 implies, the game is a very Japanese experience from start to finish. It may be a tale of gangster politics, but it is much more than a transplant of Japanese characters onto some Godfather copycat. The yakuza act and operate differently compared to their casa nostra counterparts and it shows in Yakuza 2 in spades. Outside mere text translation and English subtitles, Sega has otherwise left its linguistic and cultural roots intact. This is overall for the better, for if further steps had been taken, the game would have likely lost a lot of its soul. It's proudly a Japanese game and isn't afraid to show its heritage at all. The end result is a compelling game if you're willing to go outside of your cultural comfort zone, but nonetheless something which is not without flaws. You'll definitely be asked to take the good along with the bad when it comes to this game, even if you're well-versed in the underlying culture already.
Yakuza 2 places you in the shoes of Kazuma Kiryu, an ex-yakuza who is trying to come to terms with his own past and create a normal life for himself. Unfortunately for him, he gets caught up in yakuza politics once more and hesitantly rejoins his former ranks for the duration of the game. It turns out that forming a truce with more powerful rivals isn't an easy proposition and Kazuma is brought in to help clean up the mess before its gets so bloody that all hope is lost. Thankfully, this is all possible to understand without having previously played the first game. Yakuza 2's story stands alone, but for those who want background information on some of the major returning characters' histories, the game quickly recaps the events of the prequel to bring one up to speed. This is all really good, as it allows both series veterans and newcomers alike to enjoy the very entertaining spectacle which the game has to behold on an equal footing.
As a game which is quasi-inside the Shenmue school of storytelling, this also means that the tale is the prime motivator for playing the game from start to finish. While the plot itself is well-told and is consistent about incorporating new twists, the main stars of the show are really the characters themselves. A diverse and developed bunch, the numerous players in Yakuza 2's story always do a good job with making sure things never get especially dull. You'll come to love some and hate others and the game does so deliberately; these characters, by their very natures and actions, are meant to str some sort of emotion out of you so you don't remain neutral about them. The overall standout is the protagonist himself, though, Kazuma. Although he comes to the aid of his yakuza brethren due to familial bonding, he always makes it apparent that, given other viable opportunities to solve the issues at hand, he would rather not lend his fists again. He's a guy who knows first hand the results of enacting violence as a solution and while he's not an outright pacifist, the consequences of being forced to fight brutally always weigh on his mind. It's a characterization that contributes greatly to the story's quality, as it compels you to be reflective and understand that Kazuma is not just another testosterone-filled, generic game protagonist made solely to act as your avatar, but a guy with a conscience. He can be a brute, but not ever because he wants to be one and that very human hesitation goes a long way to making him a very relateable character despite his background.
This is not to say that Yakuza 2's other departments are lacking, however. To compliment the story is a fairly well-realized fighting system that you'll learn quickly enough. Accessible, yet nuanced, Yakuza 2's fighting compliments the brutal nature of Kazuma's work well. Indeed, like conventional fighting games, you can fill up what's called a "Heat meter" that lets you unleash especially harsh-looking attacks on your foes. The difference, however, lies in how they're executed; Yakuza 2's special attacks are reliant upon on either the environment around you or any improvised weapons you have on hand. For example, if there's a neon sign outside of a nearby business, you can grab it and thrust it on top of an opponent's head, an action which is as damaging as it looks. You'll also gain experience points at a decent clip when you defeat foes, which can then be applied to different types of upgrades. The battles themselves aren't usually that difficult on the default level, so it isn't hard to develop Kazuma and his repertoire of skills. If you do play on normal, however, and keep dying repeatedly on important story sequences, the game will ask if you want to temporarily downgrade to easy after every two deaths, a perk which is nice but never necessary so long as you keep trying different strategies. Still, the important thing to note about all of this is that the fighting itself is simple to execute. This also means that battles can break down into simple button mashing fests and in turn slowly become dull, but Yakuza 2 throws in enough special story-related fights to make sure that the combat never stays dull for too long and loses all of its charm.
As if to further remind people of its roots in the Shenmue games, Yakuza 2's battles also incorporate quick time events. These are probably the only really poor portions of the game's fighting, as they simply don't tend to give you enough reaction time to know when they're coming and then to know which button presses to go for accordingly. Sometimes they're optional and just require mashing the same button for a few seconds for extra damage, but more often than not, when they're used in story sequences, they happen without warning and it's usually just one button press at a time. Given that the window of opportunity to hit the right button is usually tiny, this means a lot of mistakes are usually made which then leads to Kazuma taking damage. Some areas are especially heavy in using these sorts of quick time events, meaning that too many mistakes can lead to Kazuma dying and repeating the whole thing all over again with the same health as before. The quick time events can be overcome with perserverance, but they're also nothing short of sheer aggravation and do nothing but make the case against their inclusion in games as a feature.
Fighting isn't all that there is to do in Yakuza 2, though. Since much of the game revolves around having Kazuma roam around different city environments, you can also have him partake in a number of different side activities. The urban environments all have their own nooks and crannies and exploring them can be rewarding. Look hard enough and you might find mahjong parlors, cabaret bars, Sega-branded arcades, and more, all within walking distance and all of which give you different things to do. The quality of the activities themselves can vary, especially since the major ones are usually minigame-oriented and their presentation is very modest and meant to only be functional. But the sheer diversity and number of side quests and other things to pursue during the game's down times means that you'll probably find something that entertains you. It's even very possible that you might not find everything that the game's settings have to offer; there really is that much to take in during your time as Kazuma.
The winding nature of the cityscapes is unfortunately not always to your benefit, however. When you actually need to explore the different areas to complete story-related objectives, the vastness can make things frustrating. While more often than not you'll get specific markers on your minimap telling you where you need to go, there are instances where you are purposely not given those and told to find the next area on your own. During those times, running around the cities can be a serious exercise in tediousness and if you don't consult a guide beforehand to figure out where you need to go, it can feel like sheer dumb luck when you actually stumble into the right place. This is made all the more irksome when you have AI companions tagging along, too, as they lag behind Kazuma very easily when he starts running. Although they always catch up to him in-between load screens when the game needs to load up another portion of a city, hearing them say things repeatedly like "Chotto matte!" (Wait up!) in the meantime doesn't really help the situation at all.
On the technical front, Yakuza 2 does a respectable job. Graphically, the game looks good for something on the PS2, although there are some noticeable hiccups which can occur if you start nitpicking specific things. Thankfully, the issues usually aren't that blatant and can be overlooked pretty easily since they never go extremely awry. The in-game cutscenes are what really matter anyway, as they employ very impressive attention to detail in the animation. Characters move very naturally and there's even a liberal amount of lip-syncing used when voice acting appears. The quality of the lip movements themselves are so good that they make even a lot of today's games on more powerful consoles look like slackers in that area. Speaking of the voice acting, that's also the one aspect of the game's sound design that really matters. The sound effects and music are all perfectly serviceable, but the voice acting is the thing to really pay attention to when playing Yakuza 2. Sega listened when fan's decried the original game's English voice acting in its respective localization job, so this time around they left the Japanese vocals intact and it works greatly to the game's benefit. A game about something as intrinsically Japanese as the yakuza really needs its native language to realize the story to its fullest potential and the actors all do a great job at making it happen. Every actor hits the mark spot one hundred percent of the time and they do just as much work as the script at making the characters seem alive and individually unique. These are people who know what they're doing and they help you ease into the twenty-hour ride for an overall smooth experience during story sequences.
At its core, however, your enjoyment of Yakuza 2 is relative to how much of its Japanese nature you're willing to go along with. The game has its problems, certainly, but they're not enough to remotely break it at all. The bottom line is just that Yakuza 2 is a Japanese game, through and through, and it's not simply in terms of its gameplay design philosophies. The text may be in English, but that's about the most that's immediately accessible to those playing the game outside its homeland. If you think you know enough about authentic Japanese culture (read: non-otaku material), then you're in for a worthwhile ride. But if you believe that culturally you're just not up to snuff enough to appreciate its nuances, then you can safely pass on Yakuza 2. It's unabashed Japanese nature is the game's greatest strength, but it's also the largest hurdle that has to be overcome in order to enjoy it. Yakuza 2 just wasn't designed for you personally, for better and for worse.