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Yakuza 2
Graphics: 8.4
Gameplay: 7.9
Sound: 8.8
Control: 7.6
Replay Value: 8.2
Rating: 8.3
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Amusement Vision
Number Of Players: 1 Player

The original Yakuza was one of the most overlooked action titles for the PS2, and we’re going to chalk that up to timing. It came out just before the PlayStation 3 launch, so every last member of the media and much of the avid gaming world was caught up in the proceedings. However, those who did take a chance on the story-driven brawler, complete with a solid and intricate story revolving around the Japanese organized crime syndicate, came away mostly satisfied with the experience. Unfortunately, we in the U.S had to wait quite a long time to see the sequel – nearly two years – as fans in Japan are already anxiously anticipating the third entry in Sega’s successful series. And once again, a Yakuza game is facing relatively steep competition with next-gen software, but for a second straight time, it turns out to be another game that should certainly have your consideration for a purchase. At half the price of a PS3 game, Yakuza 2 is an excellent and entertaining (albeit somewhat flawed) option.

For a late PS2 game, this sequel holds up very well to graphical scrutiny. It’s certainly one of the best-looking titles of the last generation, as the atmosphere and environment stand out as major highlights. The cities are colorful, vibrant, and above all else, lively. Streams of people populate the streets – as they should – and there are dozens upon dozens of character models and animations, which add a great deal of flair to an already appealing background. Things aren’t quite as impressive when one gets up close and personal, but that’s to be expected. There’s some aliasing and flashing issues here and there (some of which caused by that troublesome camera, discussed below), and sometimes, the interior of those buildings aren’t as accomplished as the exteriors. But all in all, nobody is going to complain about the visuals in Yakuza 2, especially because they fit the gritty, hard-nosed style perfectly. Being anal isn’t required; it’s only necessary to know that while exploring this immersive, diverse environment, the player will always feel part of the experience. And of course, that’s paramount.

The sound excels thanks to excellent voice acting, an effective soundtrack, and the small, seemingly innocuous additions to the city that makes the background spring to life. That’s right, every once in a while, it’s the little things that elevate a certain category to another level, and you’ll understand that once you’ve spent some time navigating the crowded streets of Kamurocho. As this game relies heavily on a long, sweeping storyline, the dialogue and voice acting is absolutely critical, and although it’s in Japanese, we believe the actors are more than competent. Kazuma’s voiceover is wonderfully suited to that character, for example. The soundtrack dips a tad due to a lack of variety, especially during combat, but at least it picks up appropriately during intense encounters. There’s a lack of balance between the music and effects, too – the effects always seem to override the tracks – but then again, this is a brutal action game, and clear, gut-wrenching effects should be loud and in your face. In other words, it’s what we like to call a justifiable flaw. Anyway, the sound and graphics are both great, so let’s move on.

The gameplay is relatively straightforward, although the developers did embrace the concept of “more is better.” …well, to a point. We’ll get to that in just a minute, but let’s explain the basics before we get too specific- we’ve called this a “brawler,” and as those games really aren’t common these days, it’s difficult to compare Yakuza 2 to anything modern. However, perhaps it’s best to describe the fighting as most reminiscent of the Fighting Force games on the original PlayStation, while the storyline and exploration are closer to that of a last-generation Grand Theft Auto. Basically, you are in the midst of a jam-packed city (and you will visit multiple cities during the game), which boasts everything from restaurants to drugstores to nightclubs, and there’s hundreds of civilians to boot. You spend most all your time on foot (although you can take a Taxi to other sides of the city, if you choose), and you will wander through alleys, across bridges, and into any number of business establishments. No busting into residential homes, but that’s okay. There are plenty of places to visit.

You once again assume the role of Kazuma Kiryu, the main character of the original game, and this sequel is exactly that: a direct sequel. But if you didn’t get the chance to play the first Yakuza, you are allowed to reminisce at the start of your adventure, and you can see most all of the important highlights from the previous story. This time around, after deciding to retire from his lofty position in the underground organization, Kazuma has decided to retire from the tumultuous life. Great idea, but that doesn’t make for an interesting game, now does it? No, he’s dragged back into the depths of the Yakuza, and this time, foreign factions are posing all sorts of problems. The plot and script are quite impressive for a last-generation game, and it’s definitely a huge part of the experience. Kazuma is a bona fide bad-ass, but he has to work to unravel a delicate thread that lies beneath the Japanese underground and involves many key characters. The Tojo – Kiryu’s clan – is in danger, and on top of it all, the Korean mafia has suddenly reappeared and decided to make trouble for everyone.

Normally, we don’t spent that much time talking about the story, but we’re trying to convey the importance of the plot. It’s as important to these games as it is in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, and no, that’s not an exaggeration. Thankfully, the story is told very well, and with good pacing, so you never feel as if they’re beating you over the head with too many cut-scenes in a row. And when it does come down to bared fists, the high-impact action the original game introduced returns in all its bone-crunching glory. It’s about the same mechanic with a few relatively simple twists: you can string together punches and kicks, grab and throw foes, and even pick up any number of objects to use as weapons. You can also equip Kazuma with up to three special and defensive items (such as an Iron Breastplate to stop bullets or Steel Shin Guards to stop enemies from tripping you), and you can select a weapon as well. Weapons can be whatever you pick up, find, or buy, and they range widely from bowling balls to samurai swords. They can only be used a certain number of times, though, so it’s a good idea to save them for the more challenging encounters.

Now, you can either enter a fighting stance with the R1 button or simply dash about throwing punches. It may sound more beneficial to use the fighting stance, but that’s not always the case. In the stance, you can block with the L1 button or dodge about quickly by pressing the X button, but this leaves you open to attack from behind, and most all of your battles will be fought against multiple enemies. And because you can quickly break off an combo chain and attack behind you when not in your stance, you’ll soon start using that stance only when fighting one-on-one boss battles. At that point, though, it becomes almost essential. You need to keep facing the enemy; running around isn’t a good plan, especially when the camera starts going nutty on you. The good news is that the combat is both accessible and satisfying (get into HEAT mode and unleash a devastating attack!), but the bad news is that there are several major problems. First of all, you will see button prompts to avoid an enemy attack at certain times; like pressing the X button as fast as you can to stop a big dude from tossing your ass.

But this is one of the biggest issues we had with the fighting: it’s very, very difficult to get this done. You have very little time to react, and you can never seem to press the required button fast enough. Furthermore, it’s often tough to see exactly when we can execute a special HEAT maneuver, as the little “Press Triangle” prompt at the top of the screen isn’t anywhere near visible enough, especially when you’re in the thick of battle. It’s also somewhat frustrating to be stuck executing the same set of hand-to-hand combos throughout the entire game, despite the fact you can unlock new abilities by spending experience points. Sure, you can add another chance to block (hit L1 again quickly if an enemy breaks your block), and your throws can suddenly send other enemies sprawling, but it’s all basically the same deal. This constitutes one of the two significant downfalls in the game, although we should mention the difficulty, which tends to spike erratically at strange times throughout the game. Sometimes, we just felt overmatched, and it started to happen a lot towards the end.

We said “one of two,” and the other is the problematic camera. It’s somewhere in between free and fixed; depending on the situation, you might be able to rotate the camera manually. But even when you can, it’s slow and cumbersome, and the screen can even shake like mad when it won’t let you move the camera in a certain direction. At about the 10-hour mark, you have to face a very tough opponent in an enclosed area and we spent half our time fighting blind…it was by far the most irritating aspect of the quest. The camera continues to be an issue throughout, but at the very least, you should be able to deal with its eccentricity, and it doesn’t cripple the action. On top of which, while the aforementioned repetition and simplicity of the combat isn’t what we were looking for in this sequel, one fact remains: smashing a punk’s head into a wall and following it up with a knee to the back of that battered head never…gets…old. Besides, we do get a little added diversity with the many weapons; brandishing a sword is nothing like baring a pair of brass knuckles.

There’s more in the way of optional depth as well. You can now become the manager of multiple nightclubs around town, chat up the hostesses (and hand out expensive gifts in the process), and try to find all the locker keys spread around the city. Opening up the lockers in each city gives you extra items and equipment, and there are even side-quests to undertake. You can help out citizens in distress – there’s even one disgruntled ex-employee who you catch trying to set his former employer’s building on fire – sample as many different dishes in the restaurants as possible (they restore health and give you experience the first time you eat them), and have some fun at the batting cages and arcades. These are the kinds of extras that can keep you playing for quite some time, and that’s a definite bonus. We just wish there was a more effective way of managing the items you acquire; you can only carry a certain number, and you can only store extras at your hideout or in an Item Box. The only problem is, you only have one hideout per city and Item Boxes are few and far between. Even worse, there’s no way to remotely send an item you’re carrying to storage, which got to be a huge hassle.

But in the end, Yakuza 2 is a highly entertaining experience from start to finish. The story really drives the game forward extremely well, and it’s helped along by good pacing, top-notch voice acting, and a complex script that will throw you for a loop several times along the way. The action is a little bare-bones but it’s still as satisfying as ever, and we liked the new weapons and other pieces of equipment that were available to us. We occasionally felt overmatched but if you die three times, you’ll be asked to switch to Easy, which isn’t an altogether unattractive option. The camera can be a serious problem, though, and the combat system could’ve used a few tweaks to keep it fresh and less repetitive. Even so, most will want to see the story through to the end, and the interesting characters, seriously brutal fighting, lively and realistic cities, and enticing atmosphere add to the appeal. Overall, Yakuza 2 isn’t perfect and there are significant drawbacks, but it’s still a great effort that’s worthy of your attention. You won’t find much better for only $30.

9/30/2008   Ben Dutka