When Yakuza (Japanese gangsters, gaijin) bring dishonor on themselves, they are expected to cut off one of their own fingers. You’d imagine that this is a big deal, since the Japanese are HUGE gamers owing to their astounding finger skills. A gamer without fingers, well, that’s kinda like a ballet dancer without toes. Hot.
Lucky for all those poor Japanese G’s out there who overcooked the tempura or broke the gang’s karaoke machine, Seg'a new beat-em-up, Yakuza
, doesn’t require a lot of fingers, though it does require sumo-like doses of patience. It’s a big-budget game with big-budget graphics and big-budget scope—but it pushes your aging PS2 to its limits, incurring frequent aggravating load times. And even though in almost all other respects Yakuza
feels like a deep game, it features embarrassingly shallow combat. To put that in perspective, it’s kind of like what Grand Theft Auto
would be if the driving sucked.
You play as Kazuma, a former Yakuza who spent the last ten years in prison. Upon getting out, you instantly jump back into the swing of things, involving yourself in a gang war and tracking down the mystery of your missing girlfriend and a missing ten billion Yen. Dark, gory, and occasionally lewd, the story takes so long to get going that by the time the plot bombshells go off, you’ve forgotten why you care.
You’ll never forget where you are though, as you’ll have many opportunities to explore the streets of Tokyo, encountering thugs and buying ramen. The city looks great—the streets are busy with pedestrians and the buildings are like kaleidoscopes of flashing billboards and glitzy lights. Beneath all the razzle-dazzle, though, it's no Liberty City
. While roaming, you cannot attack or drive or do anything besides look for people who want to talk to you and begin missions. It’s sort of like a giant, glimmering main menu in metropolitan drag.
To artificially encourage “roaming,” the game never misses an opportunity to send you walking to the other side of town. After enough torturous treks, you will eventually patronize a strip club or fight a bum, if only to take the edge off what will quickly seem like a lot of unrewarded postal work.
This wouldn’t be so bad if the combat had more meat than a California roll. When you get in a fight, the game switches to battle mode. Or, it might be more accurate to say that it switches from roaming mode to a load screen to battle mode. Random encounters are frequent, meaning that load times are frequent as well. Abusing the homeless has never been so frustrating.
But it’s still just as easy. The basic move you learn in the first minutes of the game will take you from start to finish, not only because it’s incredibly effective, but because there are no other combos in the game. By far the worst element of the combat, however, is your habit of facing away from attackers. Once you begin your one and only combo, you’ll continue attacking in whatever direction you were facing when you threw the first punch. Even worse, you can’t just press the analog stick in the other direction to turn around—you have to slowly rotate the stick. For all his quick moves, Kazuma turns slower than an eighteen-wheeler underwater.
When you’re finally able to land some punches, you HEAT meter fills up allowing you to unleash finishing moves with any of the many weapons scattered throughout each arena, or with your bare hands. Each weapon has its own finishing move animation, and that’s a good thing. But one imagines that the game would be much improved by trading in some weapons for some new enemies.
Bad guys come in three basic types. You have three basic attacks. Each type of bad guy has a secret weakness, but I’ll let you in on a secret. It’s one of your three basic attacks! Fast guys you dodge and hit. Blocking dudes you grab and hit. And fat guys you just hit. It’s a simple pattern that grows exceedingly tiresome after, oh, the first five hundred or so random battles.
When you aren’t engaged in your own version of Bumfights
, there are plenty of mostly boring ways to waste your time between or during missions. The choices of activities definitely err on the side of adult-oriented, and can generate a few laughs at the expense of what, to us westerners at least, are inexplicable sexual tastes
. One of the most fascinating businesses is the “hostess bar.” There, you pay to sit with a hostess, a kind of classy escort, buy her drinks and flirt. I had to check the internet to see if this was a real thing, and not only did I find out what it was, but how to do it
. Sayonara GR! Hellonara wealthy Japanese businessman!
Unfortunately, few of the mini-games, including the well-produced casino simulations, are any fun at all. If you think paying to flirt with a girl in real life is sad, you haven’t tried it in a video game.
That doesn’t mean, though, that the environments aren’t extremely ambient or that the hostesses aren’t professionally voiced. From an audio/video standpoint, Yakuza
is exceptionally well-produced. Although the cut-scenes are all use the in-game engine, the complicated facial expressions are shockingly intricate and colorful, while some of the floral tattoos look too good to be true. The music varies according to locale, but even the repetitive combat theme sounds like it was recorded with real instruments. The voice-actors, too, sound like real voice-actors. Little touches like these, as well as the giant story-line and plethora of mini-games go a long way to redeeming the cardinal sin of boring combat in a beat-em-up style game.
And they’d go even further if the battle mode arenas weren’t all pre-set stages, one for each district of the city. For all the flashy lights and expensive graphics, you never feel like you’re fighting in the same place you were just exploring. Yakuza has several RPG elements, but as with the canned arenas, fetch quests, and random encounters, they’re mostly bad ones.
The life of a Yakuza seems so cool because of its speed, violence and tattoos. Unfortunately, Sega’s game only gets the tattoos right. Load times slow things down, and long digressive missions and lame mini-games seem to prolong what should be a short, violent romp. With better combat and a snappier pace, Yakuza could have been one of the brightest games of the season. Instead, it’s just big, foreboding, and dull, more like a bouncer than a hitman.