Shenmue 3 may have bit the dust, but Sega still managed to deliver something that resembles a cross between Shenmue, Streets of Rage, and Indigo Prophecy. It's what happens when you combine a fairly straightforward beat ‘em up, the exploration and minor role-playing aspects of a GTA, and the finely-honed story of an adventure title. So if this idea intrigues you, prepare for a relatively unique experience.
This action/adventure title places you in the underground world of the infamous Japanese organized crime gang, embroils the main character in a sinister and deeply woven plot, and tosses you out on the streets after a 10-year prison term. A term, by the way, you didn't deserve but honorably chose. From that point on, you're forced to unravel the mysteries of those lost ten years, discovering things about your family - and your "family" - that you never knew before. It's dark, it's in your face, it's Yakuza.
We'll begin with the visuals, and while not groundbreaking, they're still quite good. The characters are well defined and designed, the detailing is well above average, and the coloring is vibrant and diverse. Best of all, though, is the city you explore throughout the course of the game. While not large, it's teeming with life and literally bursting with activity, so you're constantly immersed in the atmosphere. It's here where the game really shines, and allows you to overlook some of the more significant graphical imperfections.
The sound features solid voice-acting, a decent variety of battle soundtracks, the constant hum of big-city life, and crystal clear whacks, cracks, and thuds during combat. Things can get a bit muddled every once in a while, which can take away from the immersive experience, but all in all, the sound is pretty impressive. Combining the technical elements of Yakuza, we find a great effort from Sega. Not spectacular, but good stuff nonetheless.
The game focuses primarily on a cinematic approach to storytelling and a lot of fighting. We won't give away the story here (the aforementioned in the intro should be sufficient), but let's just say it's one of the better constructed storylines in recent memory. In terms of the combat, there are a few significant problems, and it begins - as it so often does - with the camera. It's a mostly fixed camera during any battle, and although you can hold R1 to always face your opponents, it's a roundabout way of solving the camera issue. Furthermore, the controls often feel a bit clunky and slow, despite the general fluidity of the fighting.
So there are fairly glaring issues that detract from the gameplay, but thankfully, the combat never fails to entertain. You will upgrade three skills (Soul, Technique, and Body) with experience earned along the way, thus granting you enhanced stats and abilities. There are kicks, punches, throws, and special moves granted when you're in "Heat" mode, and you can even pick up many things to use as weapons. From chairs to bicycles to iron pipes to random signs and pieces of wood, you can really be creative when it comes to nailing the enemy.
There is also a city to explore, where you can engage in all kinds of interesting activities, including brawling in back alleys, gambling, entertaining hostesses, and even smacking a few balls at the batting cage. You gain experience and money from both fighting and helping out people, like giving a bum a coat you found or running down a purse-snatcher. So there is some freedom, but it's a bit restrictive because there are only so many things you can do, and as the game progresses, fewer and fewer tasks actually provide anything of substance.
And to throw in a couple more negatives before we conclude, here- you can only pick up items to use in battle if you're in battle. You can hang on to them if you didn't waste it completely during the fight, but you can't very well prepare unless you actually go buy some weapons. It's not a major failing, but it is somewhat annoying. Another little issue I had regarded the difficulty, which seemed to spike at erratic times throughout the adventure.
All that being said, Yakuza remains a wholly enjoyable experience. The biggest appeal lies in its story, which for action games like this, is almost second-to-none. You'll likely get absorbed into the plot, and while some of the street battles can get a little repetitive, the intensity and fun-factor of the fighting won't ever become boring. The environment is immersive enough, the pacing works well, and as established, the technicals are borderline excellent. Lastly, you've got a main character in Kazuma Kiryu who is a deep-voiced bad-ass of the highest order, and that alone makes this game worth playing.
It's not a must-play gem due to too many easily noticeable flaws, but Yakuza's positives greatly outstrip any negatives. And if you're a fan of a good story, look no further.
9/17/2006 Ben Dutka