Review – Yakuza

As a fan of the Shenmue series I was induced to try Sega’s Yakuza (non-neutered Japanese name: Ryu go Gotaku, or Like a Dragon). Hardly a review was written that avoided comparing some aspect of the game or the game itself to Sega’s acclaimed series. If you have not already played them, I am here to tell you that these are drastically different games. While there are some cosmetic similarities, the crowd that adores Shenmue (at least those who do so for the same reasons I do) will not find a spiritual successor here. While both games are basically brawlers in an open world, with plenty of side quests and dark corners to explore, the heart of Ryo is absent from the muscular Kazuma.

Shenmue has many strengths (and several weakness), but chief among them is Ryo’s hesitance to resort to violence unnecessarily and his ineptness in many adult situations. The obvious example is his incompetence in wooing the lovely Nozomi (and several other females that throw themselves at him), but there are subtler examples, such as the way he prosecutes the early stages of the revenge he seeks for his father’s murder. This lends the character complexity as well as our sympathies. Kazuma Kiriyuu suffers from no such shortcomings. He has also faced injustice, such as ten years in prison for a crime he did not commit followed by being framed and hunted by the Yakuza for another crime he didn’t commit, and he may be slightly reluctant to rejoin the criminal underworld, but once he has committed to his mission, he acts with a ferocity befitting the Dragon tattoo that adorns his back and gave him his nickname.

Oh, it looks like Shenmue.

When Ryo is forced to fight to continue his quest, he fights with an elegance that defeats his enemies but does not seem to punish them unduly. Kazuma smashes faces into walls and crushes skulls with his boots. Where Ryo is cerebral, Kazuma is visceral. Kazuma is a stereotypical anti-hero; the tough guy who removes his young female ward to some safe spot so he can club a villain in the face with a pipe. Incidentally, that female ward (a small girl looking for her mother who is somehow mixed up in the whole mess of murders and heists) makes Kazuma seem far less heartless and slightly deeper than he otherwise would. Nevertheless, he is nothing we haven’t seen many times before. This distinction is present beyond the main characters as well. While parts of the Shenmue series takes place in crowded cities, there are pastoral scenes; beauty in rivers and canyons as well as smaller towns and villages. Yakuza’s Tokyo is a series of slums, casinos and red light districts.

This is not to say that Yakuza is not a fine game in its own right; it is the comparisons to Shenmue I resent rather than the game itself. On the brawler/adventure scale Yakuza shades much closer to brawler. The fighting is passable but far from outstanding. Ironically, though the game has you fight so much more frequently than Shenmue, there seem to be fewer moves and combos available. When executing the combos you do have, a miss on the first maneuver will likely lead to a few seconds of punching and kicking the air. The lock-on feature is invaluable, but even with it, Kazuma spends a lot of time kicking next to and away from his enemies. These issues seems as though they could make the game difficult if not impossible, but rare is the fight that pushes the gamer’s talents to their limit. I do not consider myself particularly dexterous, but there were very few times that I had to try a fight more than once or twice.

Uhh, maybe not.

The plot of Yakuza is definitely its strength and the driving force behind the fact that I played it to completion. The motivations behind the actions taken by characters are coherent if not particularly complex. Like Kazuma, most of the characters are nothing we have not seen before: a down-on-his-luck cop whose family can’t understand how much he cares about the job, a power-hungry young gangster, etc. Early in the game you are sentenced to prison after taking the blame for the murder of a high-profile gangster. The crime bosses try to have you killed in prison, but, of course, fail. You are released ten years later, and while the bosses have not forgotten your past transgressions, their latest concern is the theft of 10 billion yen from their coffers. You investigate the theft and try to find out what has happened to the few people (all also associated to varying degrees with the crime families) you were close to before being sent away. The ten chapters lead you through settings as eclectic as a red-light district, a slum, a red-light district hidden in a slum, and one brief chapter that begins in a mansion and ends on a highway. All of these are pretty and have plenty of NPCs to interact with, but the scope and variety of the game is relatively small.

I have recently become slightly disillusioned about the state of plot and dialogue in video games (possibly to be covered in some future post) but Yakuza’s is at least as good as a pulp mystery novel. This makes sense and is perfectly acceptable since that’s also the type of game it is. I have heard it suffered severely through localization, and that does sound plausible. As it stands though, the intricate, fun, and occasionally heartfelt story that drives both gamer and protagonist is enough to make me recommend Yakuza and hope the next installments are localized, even if that hope is less intense (but vastly more likely to be satisfied) than my hope for further Shenmue installments.

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14 years ago

Good review. I also liked the game and think that it’s one of the better series from Sega lately. But the points you make about how it compares are exactly how I feel. For example that Ryo feels like a more complex character in a way. Or that the Shenmue series feel more grand and vast. Shenmue feels also more like “reality” due to all the little details, different NPC’s and the fact that they all have voice overs just to name a few things. Nevertheless, one of Sega’s best games in recent times for me.