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PS2 Review: Yakuza

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In the Japanese card game Oicho-Kabu, the worst hand you can have is a set of 8, 9 and 3. To win with such a hand requires the most amount of skill and the least amount of luck. Why is any of this relevant? Because 8-9-3, in the traditional Japanese forms of counting, is “Ya”, “Ku”, “Sa”, and it’ll take more skill than luck to make it through Yakuza

At first glance, you’ll find a solid beat ‘em up, but look closer and you’ll find an incredibly rich story and a surprisingly accurate look at Yakuza culture.

The game tells the story of former Yakuza, Kazuma Kiryu, who was expulsed from the family for murdering his own Oyabun (Family head). Ten years later, fresh out of prison, he returned to Tokyo looking to get his life back in order. Unfortunately for Kazuma, third Chairman Sera of the Tojo Clan has just been murdered and ¥10 billion has been stolen.

Already despised by other Yakuza, Kazuma quickly finds himself caught up in the whole messy affair. To make matters worse, Kazuma’s former lover, Yumi, has gone missing.

Eventually Kazuma encounters a small orphan girl named Haruka. At first she seems like any other child, but Kazuma quickly learns of her true importance. Haruka is the daughter of Yumi’s sister, Mizuki, is the key to finding the missing ¥10 billion.

Yakuza features a strong narrative that moves along in almost prefect sync with the action. Plot points develop at just the right pace to keep you interested, but without overloading you with information that you’ll forget during your many, many battles.

The game offers dozens of moves and weapons to use to dispatch your main rivals, but actually pulling the moves off can be a little difficult. Often you’ll miss an enemy and then find yourself caught in a combo, unable to defend against an incoming attack.

In battles with a large number of enemies you’ll occasionally find yourself overwhelmed by your number of attackers and won’t be able to pull off any attacks until you can escape the crowd.

Against slower enemies fighting is pretty easy, but against some of the faster bosses like Majima (voiced by Mark Hamill) it’s almost impossible to land hits. Without a full compliment of health items, some bosses are nearly unbeatable.

Still, despite those issues, fighting mechanics aren’t considerably worse then any other beat ‘em up made in the last five years. Plus, battles are, on the whole, enjoyable. When you land an attack you’ll feel the power of your punch thanks to the game’s vicious animations.

Special power up attacks, especially those with weapons are exceptionally brutal and exhilarating. One such animation involves hitting an enemy in the arm with a baseball bat and then, when the fall to their knees, nailing them full force in the head. If you’re particularly lucky this will be your final blow and you’ll be treated to an awesome slo-mo effect.

Outside of combat, most of Yakuza involves running around Tokyo accomplishing certain tasks. You’ll be able to take on several side missions that allow you to earn some extra money and some extra experience that can then be used to learn new moves and increase your abilities.

You’ll also end up fighting in numerous random battles during your travels around Tokyo. These fights can be a great way to make a little money and to gain experience, but they can also be very frustrating because the game has to load before each fight. Think of it like an RPG, every time you encounter a random battle, the game loads a battle.

Some of the later missions can be rather frustrating due to a lack of information. One particular mission requires you find Haruka, but you’re given no hints to where she may be, so you’re forced to systematically scour the city. It takes a great deal of time, stalls the story to a crawl and is a generally unpleasant experience.

Some gamers may also be put off by the use of Resident Evil styled cinematic camera angles that make moving from one street to the next a real challenge.

Those annoyances aside, most of Yakuza’s missions are quite entertaining. In one of the later missions you’ll get to participate in a Virtua Cop styled chase sequence where you trade bullets with enemies using a cursor based interface. Unfortunately the game does not include light gun support.

Cut-scenes and voice work are surprisingly good with all voice actors, aside from Michael Madsen, matching their characters perfectly. That’s not to say Madsen’s voice work is bad, because it’s not, but rather his voice simply does not fit the character he’s portraying and it breaks the level of immersion the game attempts to build up.

Debi Derryberry, on the other hand, does an amazing job as the voice of Haruka. She really sells the part and listening to her talk is truly a treat.

Graphics and sound are on par with any other PS2 titles, but the game’s music is a definite high point. During slow moments you’ll hear is ambient noise or soft cords, but when there’s action the game kicks in with hard rock and strong jazz tunes reminiscent of Cowboy Bebop.

Simply put, Yakuza is a great game with some noticeable issues. The game screams high class, but it’s pulled down by less the prefect fight controls and static camera angles. If you like games with a good story or just like a solid beat ‘em up (and can deal with some minor control issues), Yakuza is for you.

Yakuza is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol, and Violence.

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About Jason Westhaver