So there I was, in Japan, wandering about in the gamer’s wonderland that is Akihabara. I had purchased a PS3 shortly before my trip, planning to make use of the device’s lack of region coding to return triumphantly with all manner of bizarre import games and blu-ray anime.
Things did not go as planned.
It seems that anime on blu-ray will set you back well over $80 per disk and the PS3 has yet to receive the influx of “oh, that shit is so crazy that it’s NEVER coming out in the US” titles.
But they did have Kenzan.
Kenzan is a pseudo-sequel (maybe prequel?) to Sega’s critically acclaimed, albeit not tremendously successful Yakuza series. This time taking place in the 1600s and putting you in the shoes of an identical-looking ancestor (Sega laughs in the face of basic genetics!) of the series’ protagonist.
The first thing I need to get out of the way is that I do not, in any way, speak what could be called “Conversational” Japanese, I speak “just enough to order food in Tokyo and ask someone if they speak English” Japanese. Kenzan has a tremendous amount of narrative expressed primarily though voiced dialogue and absolutely massive amounts of text, and it’s most defiantly of the “So, you think you understand Japanese?” variety. For example, the game makes use of kanji so arcane that they don’t even expect typical, modern Japanese speakers to understand them, instead the game makes use of an in-line dictionary that explains to you (in other kanji) what these symbols mean. Of course, this is completely useless to the Clueless Gaijin since my understanding of Kanji is limited to the Men’s room and a few brands of Sake.
Needless to say, your humble author here doesn’t understand a lick of the context to this game, just that you play this guy who loves laying down and smoking from a hooka, and seems fairly annoyed when his hobby of choice is interrupted. There are also a few geisha hanging around, I’m assuming for some sort of love story angle that I’ll never comprehend. Fortunately for foolish gaijin like me, the game makes excellent use of big red markers on the mini-map. I quickly discovered that if I simply go to the key locations, speak to the people there, then I’ll be fighting thugs in no time, and that is where the game really shines for people who have no idea what’s going on in the story.
Yakuza, I found out a bit too late, owes a lot of its existence to Yu Sazuki’s Revisionist classic, Shenmue, a game who’s combat system was heavily influenced by the most technical fighting game in existence, Virtua Fighter. As a result, the system here is extremely deep, featuring a fantastic variety of punches, kicks, grabs, and stomps (yes, I said stomps)… oh, and you can even grab items out of the environment to throw at your unsuspecting opponents… and that’s before you even get swords! The sword system is a level of depth of its own, offering a variety of different styles to suit the situations you find yourself in, or simply your own preferences.
Kenzan also features a few minigames to add variety to the action. Admittedly, I only got far enough into the game to experience one of these, a frustratingly difficult archery challenge that takes place while riding though the woods on horseback. It did not leave me eager to experience another minigame.
Unfortunately, even though I’ve been having quite a bit of fun with this, I can’t exactly recommend it to other Clueless Gaijin like myself who don’t have a deep and abiding understanding of the Japanese language, since the narrative is clearly a big part of the experience, and there’s not a lick of English to be heard here.