This review is going to contain some spoilers for the game. I’m going to try to refrain from spoiling the biggest plot twists in the game, but I’m going to give you a heads up anyway, as well as putting the biggest spoilers below the cut.
One of my favorite gangster movies is Gangster No. 1, in part because it’s so different, from most gangster films – it is, to a certain extent, a tragedy, almost a Greek Tragedy, but not quite. Close though. Part of why I like it is the character arc of the main character, Gangster 55, played by Malcolm McDowell. The character starts out a small-time gangster, and is taken under the wing of Freddy Mays, who is, basically, captain of an organized crime family. 55 eventually becomes jealous of Mays success, both in organized crime, and in normal life, in that he’s got a woman who loves him. This jealousy leads 55 to kill Mays greatest rival, frame Mays, and then try to take Mays woman – which he fails at. Ultimately, he’s still empty, though he denies it. Much later, 55’s mentor, Mays comes out of prison, and all 55’s resentment and hatred, which he thought he’d resolved so long ago, comes back.
This character arc is, in Yakuza, the character arc of Akira Nishiki, the best friend of the protagonist – except instead of killing his mentor, and big brother – not in the genetic sense, but – the Japanese pronoun would be aniki. Anyway, Nishiki kills their collective boss, in the Yakuza, or Oyabun – Dojima. Our hero, Kiryu Kazuma takes the fall for Nishiki to have him and their mutual childhood friend, Yumi from backlash from the Yakuza, and goes to jail. Nishiki rises to power in the Tojo clan – the Yakuza organization they’re all part of, getting his own family – something that Kazuma was about to get before he went in the clink – but it’s not enough. He doesn’t get Kazuma’s woman, and he finds himself empty, unsatisfied with his success. Then, 10 years later, Kazuma comes out of prison, and all that resentment comes back.
However, in Yakuza, the story is, as mentioned before, not that of Nishiki, but that of Kazuma. The person on the receiving end of that resentment, jealousy, and loathing. The story, ultimately told, is a sort of Noir Tragedy, as Kazuma tries to put his life back together after getting out of prison, and finding out what happened to his friends, while forces he can’t understand attack him, and friends both old and new. If there were more guns in this game it’d be a Heroic Bloodshed Blood Opera along the lines of John Woo’s films. But it’s in Japan – in Tokyo, guns are hard to come by, so knives, swords, miscellaneous improvised weapons and martial arts take the place of gunplay. Oh, and it’s not a brawler – though at first glance it could be – it’s an RPG. Or, rather, it’s an RPG with the trappings of a brawler.
I must admit that I don’t beat RPGs often. The length is, in part, the problem. I sit, and play the game for the while, then life gets in the way, and I have to come back later. I basically beat this game in a weekend, in about 20 hours of gameplay, give or take. I didn’t beat all the side missions, and I didn’t max out my character entirely, but I got close – I had one attribute maxed out, and had enough XP to finish maxing out a second. The game is really mangable like that – you don’t have to do all the side quests to get the ultimate weapon, or to get extra XP to level up the character enough to make some of the main boss fights easier. You can go straight through the game, and you’ll still get your character leveled up to complete the game, as well as blundering into some of the side quests to get you additional XP, and to get you the cash to buy additional healing items more easily than “grinding” random encounters – which, by the way, is another thing I never felt like I needed to do.
So, that said, let’s talk about the combat. As I mentioned earlier, the combat is very much like a brawler – a very old school brawler. You use canned combo moves to take out your opponents, blocking as necessary, as well as using a sidestep ability that you can use your XP to learn to move out the way of attacks. There are weapons you can get, either from vendors, off of your enemies, or that you can pick up in the enviroment and then use – but they have a limited number of hits you get – once those are gone, the weapon breaks, like in Streets of Rage or Final Fight. You can also pause the game and equp weapons and defensive items from your invantory, or use healing items you picked up or purchased earlier. You can also learn various special attacks, from a slam against a wall or desk, a brutal stomp to the head, to various weapons special attacks as well (which vary based on the weapon used). However, combat’s biggest fault is no lock-on targeting. You can pull off a combo on an enemy, have the enemy block the attack and, due to eccentricities of the enviroment) end up getting carried past the opponent, and end up having to spend several seconds re-orientating yourself so you’re facing your target again. Similarly, in battles against several opponants (which are the norm), after taking out an enemy, you may have to take a second to turn yourself around to face a new target, for which again, you’ll be completely open to attacks by your last target’s friends.
Camera control is limited. In the city enviroment (the game’s set in Kabukichō, with the name changed) – the closest this game gets to an “overworld map” – you have no camera control whatsoever, instead being stuck with a locked-on camera as you try to navigate your way through the city streets. In buildings, and in combat, on the other hand, you can press the L2 button to rotate the camera so it’s right behind you. That’s it. There are no other ways to adjust the camera. This becomes a not-insigificent problem in combat, where you enviromental objects can end up obscuring your view of who you’re fighting, and who is attacking you – particularly in 1-on-1 fights, where your opponent does a lot of side stepping.
I’ve already mentioned how I like the story, what about the acting? The game has a pretty good English dub – but that’s the only language option. The Japanese language audio track is not available. Normally, the dialog syncs very well, though there are some moments at the end of the game with some extremely major lip flap. Almost Old-chop-socky/Godzilla-movie level lip-flap. The cast though is fairly well chosen, with a mix of big names as Michael Madsen as Tojo Clan captain Futo Shimano, and Elisa Dushku as Yumi – the hero’s aforementioned childhood friend and sweetheart, as well as veteran voice actors as Rachel Leigh Cook as Reina, who runs the bar that serves as your base early on, and excellent performances by Mark Hamill as Goro Majima – the sadistic, brutal, cyclopedian (he’s lost an eye) leader of the Majima family (who reminds me of Kenpachi Zaraki), and Dwight Shultz as Kage – Alpha and Omega of informants and information brokers.
Overall, if you can find this game, and you’ve got a PS2 or backwards compatible PS3, get it. A story that is definitely not standard RPG fare – with a story that’s pure noir (straight noir would be an oxymoron) for those who can’t stand the standard JRPG stories, brawler combat done almost-right dished out in reasonable servings for those who don’t like combat turn-based, this game is, beyond a doubt, one of the hidden treasures of the PS2’s library. There is a sequel out in the US, which does not have an English Dub. I have not played that yet, but I’ll try to hunt down a copy – as I’m certainly going to want more of this. There is a 3rd game due to come out in Japan for the PS3 – no word yet on a US release.
Here’s a link to buy Yakuza for the PS2.