Yakuza has a lot to answer for: the series has, arguably, influenced many titles, including this year’s Sleeping Dogs, and the series as a whole has had some of the most bizarre minigames in recent memory. In Yakuza 4, the player is expected to play dress-up with a hostess in order to ensure that she is everyone’s favourite by selecting from classes of clothing and make-up such as “conservative” and “sexy.” In the game that started the series, the shoe is on the other foot: the core minigame is one where the player is expected to romance (read: spend money on in order that they come to like you – an oddly misogynist angle to take on the hostess trade) women in hostess clubs in exchange for a 3,000 experience point boost upon the completion of the romance. Yes, this is what we have come to expect of Japanese cultural exports: an odd, ill-defined creepiness.
Cut through the surface level of smut, however, and there is an incredibly capable game with a focus on narrative. The game revolves around Kazuma Kiryu, a former member of the Yakuza, and his quest to find a woman from his past upon his release from prison after serving a sentence for a murder he did not commit. The plot may well sound hackneyed and a little contrived, but given the number of deviations made from the straight course from release to discovery of this lost woman, it is not at any point boring. As the old cliché goes, the message of the game is in the journey itself, and the lessons Kiryu and his supporting cast learn along the way.
The gameplay straddles the line between a 3D beat ’em up inspired by the likes of Streets of Rage and an action-RPG with fighting sequences occurring between objectives in the manner of random battles most oft found in the realms of the RPG. These role-playing elements are bolstered by an open-world approach to objective completion: the story objectives must be completed in the stipulated order, but each chapter of the game brings with it some secondary mission that can be found by roaming around the city – a secondary mission that will most likely involve going to a given location and defeating some enemies. Such exploration will be rewarded with items, experience or exposition of the story dependent upon the mission in question. Other distractions from the main story include the collection of one hundred locker keys, which can be redeemed for the contents of the locker at any visit to the lockers, handily located in the centre of the game map. These contents are items of varying use, but generally reward the amount of effort required to find the key. Exploration of the fairly sizeable game map is a joy, with many and diverse locales available to visit, from pawn shops to batting cages to a Sega arcade. The last of the game mechanics usually found in RPGs is a three-tiered levelling up system, where experience to put towards the levels here is earned by completing missions, side-quests and, as mentioned, romancing women of the Japanese night. The three domains in which one can level up are Body, Soul and Technique, each with their own benefits, with specialisation in one particular area allowing for real decisions to be made in how the game is played early on. On progression through the game, however, it is incredibly easy to amass enough experience to fully level up all three areas, with the associated nullification of any player choice made in these fields.
The combat mechanics vary from rewarding to infuriating dependent upon the type of fight on is engaged in. At the beginning of the game, the player has at their disposal a light, combo-friendly attack and a heavier attack, with the heavier attack being capable of forming the end of a combo to inflict extra damage onto any enemies, and a grapple that can either be used to strike or throw enemies. As the game progresses and the player levels up the various areas of Kiryu’s character, more and more devastating techniques become available, both in terms of new combos or new moves altogether. Combined with the block and “shifting” commands (which enables the player to strafe around an enemy), the combat system is incredibly intuitive, and even the most complex combo can be pulled off with ease. The weapons available to the player all handle differently, and the attention to detail apparent in their limited use is a nice touch. The work of the smooth combat system, however, is undermined by the worst enemies of the game: the camera and the player’s movement. A tap of L2 will recentre the camera behind Kiryu in combat, but that is the full extent of camera control during combat, and the camera has a tendency to just shift seconds after being recentered anyway, rendering it a pointless exercise in the first place. Kiryu is also slow to react to input from the left analogue stick, meaning that the player’s anticipated attack in one direction will in fact end up in another one altogether. This is particularly annoying when it comes to boss fights, where the opponent will brutally punish any misstep made by the player, which makes the game feel unfair: the player is effectively punished for oversights made by the developers in the control of Kiryu.
The game is, as a whole, aesthetically pleasing: the game’s city is well-realised, with the glowing of signs and busy streets having little impact on the smooth video output of the game. Save for the lack of vehicular traffic, Yakuza’s Kamurocho feels like a real city, with its own collection of big names and characters, as well as its “regular” folk, merely seeking to eke out a living handing out fliers for clubs. Attention to detail suffers in some of the cutscenes, particularly in the background, but this is not something that will be noticed by the majority of people: there is usually too much going on in the foreground for bad shading in the background to be a major issue.
The sound in Yakuza is somewhat of a let down, particularly in the Western release. Much of the voice acting is shoddy, with large delays between words and (even in the final production edit) stumbling over and inconsistent Japanese pronunciation. Fortunately, this was the only game in the series where the mistake of creating an English dub to Japanese lip-movements was made, with the later games having Japanese audio and English subtitles. The soundtrack is, for the most part, generic rock guitar riffs signifying the start of a fight and generic J-Pop elsewhere, save for a surreal rendition of Amazing Grace during the credits.
Yakuza is a deeply flawed game lacking polish in certain areas. It remains, however, an incredibly rewarding gameplay experience due to its mixing of differing gameplay styles and the combat system itself, divorced from all other player control. If one is willing to work with its idiosyncrasies, the patently absurd ending is all the reward one could ask for.