In this week’s Breaking Down the Backlog, I dismantled Japan’s organised crime syndicate by slamming faces into walls and then stamping on them.
I had heard so much about the Yakuza franchise before I started playing them. They are big, semi-open world games that portray Japan and Japanese culture in a mostly realistic manner coupled with fun combat and an interesting story that develops from game to game. I had also heard that the first game in the series, Yakuza, is the worst for a multitude of reasons. So I came to Yakuza more from an educational standpoint when compared to other games. I had heard from multiple people that it was a rough game due to both age and some design decisions but it is the beginning of it all, so I had to play it.
Turns out what I have been told was mostly right. Yakuza has some serious rough points…but that’s not to say it isn’t fun. The major highlight is the setting. The entire game, barring a few excursions to a dock and Chinatown, takes place in a fictional district of Tokyo. It is small but dense with places to explore and little details to discover. There are dozens of shops to go in. They range from cramped eye-strainingly bright convenience stores to burger restaurants, coffee shops, strip clubs and interestingly Hostess bars. I had no idea just what a Hostess Bar was. It transpires that it is a place where you go to talk to women, give them gifts, drink together and then pay for it all on your way out. It is just one of the many uniquely Japanese things about this game that make it delightfully strange yet simultaneously educational. It is also packed with people which ‘almost’ makes it feel like a living breathing district if it wasn’t for technical limitations. You could argue that playing one smallish area for twenty hours sounds boring and it almost is, but you end up learning the area like the back of your hand. To the point where you know the location of the noodle shop that doubles as a weapons store or which bar has the best drinks off the top of your head.
The district isn’t just an empty shell that you have to traverse in order to do story missions. It is filled to the brim with mini-games, side quests and combat encounters (kind of like a Japanese RPG). Here is a brief list of them: hitting balls in a batting cage, collecting prizes in a claw machine, various gambling games and pachinko. There is even a hidden mini-game involving Haruka – the little girl you look after – that involves you buying her stuff she wants to get unique items. The side quests are varied and similarly hidden. The majority occur when you are just wandering the city and come across something happening. They talk to you, give you some rather vague instructions and you try to do finish it. The majority of the side quests involve beating the shit out of someone/a group of people whilst others span chapters and can include a combination of fighting, pursuits and item hunting. It is certainly a unique way of structuring side content and needless to say I didn’t do it all.
The game-play is fun, if basic. It reminds me of Dynasty Warriors in that there isn’t much depth but it is very gratifying beating people up. You can pick up various bits of scenery and smash them into people with some serious force. But the best part of the combat is going into ‘Heat Mode.’ You glow blue, do more damage and have access to special moves. These range from smashing someone into a wall, stamping on their head, straight up stabbing them with a knife or, my personal favourite, throwing a piece of scenery into someone lying on the floor and jumping on them. It goes all slow-motion and it looks so painful. There are even some RPG mechanics where you can choose what to upgrade first (more Heat, health or moves), although by the end of the game you get enough XP to upgrade everything anyway. There is a frustrating problem though: the combat can be very stiff and it is difficult to aim at people which can lead to some unnecessarily difficult moments, even when you learn moves that make it easier to control groups. At a couple of boss battles I resorted to using the over-powered weapons I won instead of straight up brawling.
The Graphics and narrative are…spotty. being pretty bad along with the sound, especially the voice acting. Yes, the game is ten years old (!) but I have done BDTBs on older games that look and sound better. Yakuza is very grey, brown and blocky. There are textures and people who look like they are straight out of Morrowind. I can forgive shitty model and texture work, the Playstation 2 wasn’t exactly a powerhouse, but the real problem is the sound design. Background noise repeats constantly and the actual sound quality is abysmal. Voice acting is similarly bad. There is some serious voice talent but it is incredibly obvious that they have made the dub fit the structure of the Japanese language as some dialogue is rushed, some of it is oddly flat and there are some awkward pauses mid-sentence. The story makes up for it to a degree. The game begins with Kazuma being sent to prison to save his friend after he accidentally kills his Yakuza boss then, ten years later, he returns to find that the friend has turned into a villain, his romantic interest has disappeared and the various Yakuza gangs are fighting with each other. It has a strong start and ending, with some great twists but Yakuza sags in the middle as soon as Haruka is introduced. I still wanted to find out what happened, but the game can be a right slog at times.
Despite the problems, I still ended up enjoying Yakuza. Although I have trouble recommending it unless you know what you are getting into. So with the proper expectations, you should totally find a way to play the game. I had to use an emulator on my P.C. and it worked like a dream!
Next Up: Prince of Persia (2008)