My grandma had an old saying she used to bat around: Women are from Venus, men are from Mars, and Japanese videogames are from some alternate fucked up dimension of reality where underage girls in skimpy clothes wander around with pre-teen boys and kill Satan. Upon reflection, I don’t know why I didn’t listen to her more. Perhaps it was because she tried to convince me that the garbage men were secretly stealing my hamsters to sacrifice them to the alien god. Hmm…no; it was because she smelled funny. Actually, now that I think about it, my hamster was never around on garbage day…
What was I talking about? Oh, right. Japanese games.
As a child I was exposed to all sorts of dangerous materials, such as Final Fantasy VII, VIII, X, X-2, Tales of Symphonia, Devil May Cry, as well as many others that remained the only sort of games I used to play. Seriously, I played the hell out of Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts, but as I look back on them I often wonder what it was that I found appealing. Most of those games had horrid voice acting, cheesy dialogue, and a battle system (other than Devil May Cry) that was like opening the file menu on Microsoft Word. You might say that you play those games for the story, but for the majority of the games that are considered “the best of the best,” the story resembles something that a five-year-old Japanese fashion stylist wrote in his Hello Kitty notebook.
So, when I first heard about Yakuza (Ryu Ga Gotoku in Japan, which means “Like a Dragon.” Jeez, even the name sounds more badass in Japan), a videogame with a crime drama story that was written by a best-selling Japanese author revolving around Yakuza in Tokyo and combines God of War action with Grand Theft Auto world exploration, I was a little bit skeptical. In fact, if a two-headed unicorn wearing Sasquatch’s pelt holding a copy of Duke Nukem Forever came up to me and asked me to come watch his pet kraken do back flips over Godzilla, I’d still believe it over this supposed God’s gift to gaming.
Turns out I was wrong to be suspicious, because the game kicks ass.
It sucks. But it kicks ass.
Let me explain.
In Yakuza, you play as Kazuma Kiryu, a legendary Yakuza hitman known as the Dragon of Dojima around the city of Kamechuro. He was having a pretty average day—beat up some people; beat up some more people that owed him money; kissed a baby, then kicked it into low orbit; had lunch; kicked more ass—before suddenly finding out that his best friend had accidentally killed the head of his clan in self defense. To put this into perspective, if you were to flip off your boss at work, he’d probably just get cross and fire you. If you flip off your Yakuza boss, he’s going to get cross and chop off your fingers and send you floating down a river in a barrel full of cement. So Kazuma decides to do the honorable thing and take the fall for his friend, and he’s sent to jail for ten years and expelled from his gang, the Tojo Clan. Ten years later, after he’s released, he realizes that it’s now 2005, and the world has changed greatly during his time in the clink. Cellphones exist, hip-hop has started to become mainstream, and while 50 Cent hasn’t been shot (yet), the Yakuza clans have changed. His best friend is now a hardened gangster leading his own family, the clan had ten billion yen stolen from it, and somehow a little girl name Haruka is the key to it all. Kazuma must come to grips with a world that has abandoned him, and protect this little girl while discovering the hidden secrets behind the Tojo clan and the crisis that plagues them.
Like in my last review, I really don’t want to give too much of the story away, because it really is the best part about this game. It’s an intriguing conspiracy plot that is also deeply rooted in the Japanese mafia as well as pride, existentialism, and a bunch of other long words. The only problem I have is that there are way too many characters to keep track of in this game; it’s like the designer sat down at his desk, started coming up with characters, and didn’t stop until the programmers found his malnourished skeleton days later. So let me break it down for you: Kazuma and any women who happen to be around = Good. Everyone else = Evil or are about to be punched in the face. Probably both.
But I don’t want to bore you with the story! Story is for little sissy girls who can’t get a date! I want to talk about the main character, and officially the most badass character in videogames: Kazuma Kiryu.
Kazuma is so badass that whenever he appears bare-chested in any news footage, the TV networks censor him for fear of all of their daughters simultaneously becoming pregnant with his children. His kicks are so powerful that they have the potential to send the receiver into the stratosphere (thus he is considered Japan’s premier space program). That old saying that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” is bullshit. There are two things to be afraid of: Fear, and Kazuma Kiryu learning to fly a plane. When we develop a sentient AI program and it decides to wage war against humanity, we would instantly lose should the machines discover the secret to Kazuma’s power, which is his bitchin’ dragon tattoo. That tattoo on his back is not, in fact, a tattoo, but a real dragon that was told that it should just stay on his skin if it knows what’s good for him. If that doesn’t convince you, then listen to this: In the second game he fights off two tigers and WINS. USING ONLY HIS HANDS. AND HE’S HALF NAKED (for some reason). This man is so masculine that his sweat could cure impotency forever.
In all seriousness though, the characters are brilliant, all of them having significant motivation and intriguing backstories, and you end up really caring for all of them in one way or another. This game’s writer is wasting his time in videogames and should be writing screenplays, or at least working in Hollywood. But this is, in fact, a game, so I should probably start talking about the gameplay before I drool over my keyboard.
I know that it’s generally in bad taste to describe a game by saying that it’s another game meets some other game, but there’s really no other good way to articulate it. Yakuza is like Grand Theft Auto meets God of War. You can freely roam around Kamechuro and muck about in the city, and the story progresses whenever you want it to. You can go to the strip club, buy some food, play some arcade games, go to a hostess club, get drunk, go watch the video with the creepy girl from The Ring, get drunk again, beat up some gang members with a hot bowl of soup, among many other activities. These serve as interesting asides for when you don’t feel like punching anyone, which seems like an odd angle to take; I mean, why would you want to stop all of the action and violence to go play mahjong? But I suppose it’s a nice way to showcase Japanese culture, as it’s not likely any of us are going to visit Japan anytime soon; but if I wanted to get drunk I’d go out to a bar instead of making my virtual badass gangster pound shots back with a transvestite bartender (and yes, you can pound shots back with a transvestite bartender). Ultimately it’s an interesting way for us overseas players to get a handle on a different culture and society, which brings up some curious thoughts about why Yakuza is so popular in Japan and not here. A little too into ourselves are we, Japan?
But as with God of War, you didn’t come here for the girly food or the scenery; you came here to ruin some shit. The combat is seen through the third-person view and involves you beating your opponents to death with baseball bats, bricks, road signs, katanas, nunchucks, bowls of soup, or your fists, if you’re feeling particularily honorable. You have square for you light attacks, triangle for your finishing moves, circle to grab, and X to dodge, and it’s a lot more realistic than God of War. You can just wail on the guy you’ve got grabbed, kick him away, or throw him into other dudes if you’re feeling romantic, and each square combo attack has an individual triangle combo attack that results in a different finishing move, so there’s certainly some interesting combos you can pull off. It gets a bit clunky, but more on that below. However, the combat system has something that I haven’t seen in other games yet, which is the “heat action,” or as I’d like to call it the “FUCK ME DID YOU JUST SEE WHAT I DID?!” button.
There’s a little bar below your heath called the heat gage, and as you beat up enemies it fills. Once it reaches a certain length, Kazuma starts to glow like he just reached Super Saiyan, and the game lets you press the triangle button to kick the ass of a nearby enemy. When I did this on a guy I had up against a wall, Kazuma shoved the man’s face into it, threw him down, then stomped his face into the ground like he was trying to scrape gum off his shoe. These attacks are nothing short of BADASS to watch, and it’s almost like a mix between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Sopranos with the level of finesse and brutality of some of these moves. God of War may have epic moments where you’re trying to get a minotaur to deep throat your sword, but Yakuza is much more intimate with its action; it’s grounded in such a way that it’s more awesome than the over-the-top action of its western counterpart. After watching this man kill someone with an egg carton, then several others with a golf club and a Chinese sword, I have come to the conclusion that Kazuma is the resurrected form of Odin, the Norse god of war.
So you’ve got an intriguing story, brutal combat, and a great world to explore; is this the greatest game ever? Well, not quite. For every single bright-eyed-college-cheerleader-with-questionable-moral-standards game design choice that Yakuza has, there are just as many ugly old male cheerleaders-with-questionable-moral-standards.
First of all, the combat is as stiff as a stone golem who’s watching women’s gymnastics. Unlike his Greek and demonic counterparts, Kazuma’s combos move in one and only one direction, because changing directions is for pussies. So mashing the square button sometimes results in Kazuma angrily punching and kicking the air like it stole his high school sweetheart, while the enemy has the time to have a drink, order a pizza, look over his stock portfolio, and then royally kick your ass. He also has this habit of pausing after every attack as if he’s insecure and waiting for an applause. The odd thing is that you can actually gain a multi-directional combo attack as a hidden move! What the hell, guys? Don’t hide what should be an integral part of the game! God of War has a half-naked bald man twirling blades on chains that somehow retract back like they are on a conveyor belt, and he controls easier than Kazuma. Also, Kazuma apparently has very sweaty palms, because trying to use the grab move is about as easy as trying to pass a health care bill.
Also, this game has a weird habit of not telling you shit. As I previously said, you can run around and interact with the city of Kamechuro, go and play at the arcade and et cetera. You can also get involved with some side missions, usually by just stumbling over them. Which is fine—I’m not so jaded that I can’t appreciate a little bit of old-school puzzle solving—but the “mission” menu only gives you the title of the mission, and nothing else.
One time in the game I had just finished a particularly rough battle with a large Japanese man wearing only a towel, and I felt the need to level up a little more; so, after wandering around in the city, I found this kid who wanted me to give a love letter to a hostess girl he had a crush on. Being a gallant defender of truth and justice who just happened to be an elite member of the most ferocious criminal organization in the world, I decided to help this young guy on his quest. Not too long after, I suddenly remembered I had a life and had to quit playing for a while. When I got back, I checked the mission menu to remind me what my current objective was, and all it said was one sentence: “Deliver my love.” That’s it. No mention of where I should go, or what I should be doing—not even a screen capture of the young man standing outside the hostesses house with a boom box playing love music to give me a hint. This is retarded. I have no idea if they just don’t have quality control people in Sega (which may be the case, since Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 actually saw the light of day), or if they’re all just sitting in a room watching reruns of Sanford & Son, but they should probably be fired if they exist.
Regardless, this series has flourished in Japan, as it encompasses two sequels, one spin-off, and a movie adaptation. It’s basically the Japanese equivalent of the Spider-Man franchise, except without a shitty third movie. And to the series’ credit, it’s gotten so much better: The sequel corrected most of the problems listed above, as well as adding in a whole bunch of new moves as well as new characters and settings. Unfortunately, not everything in this franchise is going to see the light of day over here because of a certain blue hedgehog that continues to stumble around drunkenly in horrible game after horrible game while a select minority of people continue to cling to the hope that he will one day return to his brief moments of glory while the rest of us would just rather forget about him and AAAAAAAARRRRRRRGGG!
But you don’t care about that; you want to know “is it good?” And well, I’m not too sure, really. Granted, the story, setting, and characters are great, but the gameplay is a bit off. Hell, the North American version features English voice actors that are almost as bad as the ones in Shenmue, so it loses even more points there. I guess you can’t really–
HOLY GIANT FLAMING DRAGONBALLS, did you just see that? He just used a guy’s face as free advertising space! There aren’t the words to describe how manly that is! Just watching him makes want to get naked and go wrestle a polar bear! I’LL SHOW YOU WHO’S EXTINCT! YAAAAARRRRGGG!
Note: The author does not condone violence against animals of any kind. Unless they look at you funny, the smug bastards.