Yakuza (Christmas Special)

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Developer: Sega
Publisher:  Sega

I remember reading a magazine preview of Yakuzaback in the day labeling it as “Sega’s GTA”. Now considering how I stopped caring for Rockstar’s flagship franchise once the series evolved to 3D I ended up ignoring Yakuza, expecting it to be more of the same, much to my detriment.

You play as Kazuma Kyriu, once the most feared yakuza member in the entire Tojo clan, but fell into disgrace after being wrongfully accused of murdering his own boss and spending 10 years in prison. When he’s finally, Kazuma discovers the Tokyo clans are on the brink of civil war due to the disappearance of 20 billion yen from their hidden stash.

As the game begins you’re prompted to explore Tokyo’s fictional Kamurocho district, which is a series of neighborhoods filled with bars, strip clubs, stores, thugs, gangs, yakuza and just about everything else you can imagine. While the general area is relatively small when compared to other sandbox games or even RPGs it makes up for it by being so damn interesting and detailed. Every neighborhood feels different from the last, you can read magazines, watch commercials and have a few drinks, all of which are from real products and brands though most of them are exclusive to Japan. Still, I recognized a few western products like Jack Daniels whisky. You can’t really interact with random NPCs though, nor can you steal or even drive a car, as when exploring Kamurocho, most of the action is relegated to select areas with specific tasks or NPCs to talk to.

There are a ton of shops you can visit, many of them with their own mini-games which can range from baseball batting cages, gambling or even hostess bars where you pay for the time and opportunity to court a woman (wait, what?). These are pretty fun at first, but a lot of them quickly become stale or the rewards are simply not worth the time/money investment especially in regards to the hostesses. I ended up spending nearly 100K on one of them with the ultimate reward being a small animation implying Kazuma slept with her… big whoop.

When you’re not exploring the town it’s likely you’re engaged in combat, this can happen as part of a story/side mission or by random thugs accosting you, which happens way too often. The combat is really fun, playing like a 3D Streets of Rage, you can perform combos, grab your enemies or even use weapons which can be bought or found lying around on the floor and as you beat thug after thug you gain experience points which can be spent on learning new moves or just generally improving your stats. 

Unfortunately as fun as the combat is, it happens way too often to the point of it almost feeling series of random encounters. In one instance I was attacked by three groups in the same street! To make matters worse there’s a loading screen between battles, streets and shops, slowing down the pacing quite a bit. Combat isn’t perfect either as I often ran into camera issues where I couldn’t see myself and/or the enemies, also, it could’ve benefited from a lock-on feature as I often found myself punching the air simply because I was facing the at the wrong angle. 

The story for the most part is pretty good, even if it hinges quite a bit on the soap-opera side. It features plenty of interesting and unique characters, but many of them, as well as the situations themselves are often so over-exaggerated that it feels like I’m watching a Naruto anime (e.g. at one point your character punches someone through the floor). My real gripe with its story however lies with the complete lack of self-restraint towards the later chapters, it throws you a bunch of plot twists and everything just keeps escalating to point where it simply becomes a bit too ludicrous for my taste, though I did enjoy the relationship between Kazuma and his friends, especially detective Date.

It even features a pretty impressive cast of well-established voice actors such as Mark Hamill (Batman: TAS) and John DiMaggio (Futurama) but you wouldn’t have guessed it by the performances we got, with the exception of Mark Hamill’s Majima everyone sounds so bored and lifeless. If I had to guess I’d say all of the actors were given zero voice direction, but hey, that’s just my opinion.

Graphically I was pretty impressed with Yakuza, the city is beautiful to look at both artistically and on a technical level with tons of Neon lights, billboards and dozens of NPCs leading their daily lives though at times I did notice some light texture warping and a seaming issues. I’m surprised to see the latter is still an issue considering this is a late PS2 release.

On the sound department is certainly doesn’t win any prizes, apart from the previously mentioned voice acting there are only a handful of songs and I got tired of the battle music way too fast. I also noticed a few ambient sounds looping every 3 seconds or so especially when visiting K-mart, but these were in the minority as almost every other place did a good job at disguising this.

Overall I feel Yakuza is a much better game than I originally thought. While it can be seen as a GTA-style game I would argue this is a shallow comparison at best. The story, combat and exploration are fun, but they’re all poorly balanced, with too much combat, a plot that goes overboard towards the end and an abundance of mini-games where the rewards are hardly ever worth the time invested.

Trivia: Did you know many of the brands and even some of the shops we see in Yakuza exist in real life? Due to the game's expensive development process Sega secured several tie-in campaigns ranging from the Don Quijote discount stores to Jack Daniels adds.

Pros:
- Fun combat
- The city is small but interesting and very detailed
- The story is pretty good for the most part
- Plenty of mini-games to keep you entertained

Cons:
- Gameplay becomes repetitive after a while
- You'll encounter loading screens a bit too often for my taste
- Towards the latter chapters the story jumps the shark
- With so few worthwhile rewards, the mini-games feel meaningless

Final Grade: B-

The box shows our main character with his back turned to the viewer and displaying his Yakuza tattoo. While the idea itself is a bit on the boring side the nice use of color in the tattoo makes up for this turning it into a pretty eye-catchy box art.

When reading the manual I was surprised at the lack of backstory information or character backgrounds, all you get is a short paragraph that sounds more like a tagline than it does an actual backstory. 

On the flip-side the booklet goes into great detail on how to play the game. It gives you a ton of information, screenshots, tips and NPCs to talk to. On the rim of each of each even numbered page is a different Yakuza styled tattoo, while the designs end up repeating themselves they do a good job at making the manual feel unique and part of the experience, unfortunately the entire booklet is in black and white though, so while it makes for a nice read the eye candy is a bit muffled.

Overall this is a pretty nice package, I liked the cover image and while it doesn't come with any extras a lot of effort was put into the manual, a shame that it comes in black and white and lacks backstory information.

Packaging Grade: B+

Christmas cheer rating: 

When it comes to Christmas, the Yakuza series is like the Die Hard of videogames. They may take place during the Holidays, but they sure don't seem to care about it. Yes, occasionally you'll run into a few people dressed as Santa or some shops play a few Christmas-y jingles here and there but these are easy to miss. Rarely, if ever is the Holiday Season mentioned throughout the story. It's a game whose plot happens to take place during Christmas, that's it. Half a snowman.


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