Brawlers steeped in the criminal underworld aren't exactly new, but Yakuza's stunning dedication to re-creating Japan's notorious gangster syndicate takes the genre to new heights of realism. This densely woven tale of backstabbing and intrigue (penned by a Japanese novelist famous for his yakuza-related stories) unfolds in immaculately rendered Tokyo back alleys.
Don't let the sleek suit fool you. For protagonist Kazuma, a typical business negotiation involves guarded courtesies, some heated words, and then, well, a face planted into the wall and a seeing-stars uppercut. Such is the grind as Kaz works his way through the world of the yakuza, more commonly known as the Japanese Mafia. And while it's easy to think of the game as an Eastern-developed Grand Theft Auto, Yakuza a mission-driven brawler heavy on the cut-scenes has some key differences. It's got no grand theft auto-ing for one, it sports a more methodical pace, afl you'll even have to buy gifts for your girlfriends. Makes you wonder if trigger-happy Western gamers will readily adopt this importl.
Just when I write off the PS2, I find yet another game that contradicts my expectations. Yakuza is just such a game, using every bit of the PS2 technology to create a wonderfully simple, and yet immersive experience. The main gameplay is fighter style combat, tweaked well. Featuring a beautifully rendered story with complex characters and a plot worthy of any good exploitation film, Sega has managed to gather good gameplay and excellent narrative together in one game. Although the game's flaws show through, it by far makes up for them.
For the first couple of hours of the game, you'll get used to a pattern that carries through the rest of the game. Speak to NPC, run from point A to point B, encounter a cutscene, have a fight. That's about it. Early on, you'll be sitting through several of those cutscenes, seemingly endlessly, but they ease up later on. And when it isn't making you sit through a cutscene, Yakuza lets you get down to the business of kicking some tail.
Starting with your first fight, and a few thereafter, Yakuza first teaches you how to fight, and teaches you well. The tutorial introduces you to a fighting system that lets you use both items and parts of your environment to fight. As with any other fighting centric title, you'll level up and unlock special abilities that make you even cooler. These elements all combine to make the fighting system not only easy to use, but a total blast as well. You don't need to worry about this being a one trick pony though; Yakuza has all manner of sidequesty mini-games and easter eggs you can find to keep yourself entertained.
Visually, I doubt you'll be impressed with this game. There are frequently many NPCs on screen at one time (crowded Tokyo streets), and it seems like changing views by running to a new area consistently introduces a second or two of loading time. Still, this becomes a minor issue as you get used to the game.
Yakuza isn't the cleanest title I've ever seen, but it is well executed and fun. I'd call this game an unqualified success.