Tokyo, circa 2005, was the most lawless and violent city on the planet. This is what Yakuza, the first installment in the Japanese-underworld series, would have you believe, anyway. Even the most casual of strolls in the pointy shoes of hard-man protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is likely to end in ambush by a bevy of street hoodlums, or squaring up face-to-face with another disgruntled gangster from one of the myriad ‘families’ operating in the game. Although Yakuza is built around a combative core, these constant interruptions – which feel a lot like the random encounters that characterise JRPGs through the ages – threaten to derail an otherwise exceptionally-crafted tale of murder, betrayal, love and honour.
Kazuma is the honourable type. Witnessing the death of his boss at the hands of his best friend, he takes the rap so he and his girlfriend, whose molestation prompted the murder, can escape; his punishment is ten years in prison. Whilst inside he is ostracised from the Tojo Clan, and the former ‘Dragon of the Dojima Family’ is fallen from grace. Upon his release, a decade later, the Tojo Clan is plunged into chaos when the third chairman is assassinated, 10 billion yen is stolen from its coffers and Kazuma’s friend is now his fiercest rival. Top that off with the love of his life going missing, and it all adds up to a pretty bad day, and that’s after you factor in all those years in prison.
Yakuza then tasks the player with unravelling the mystery of these seemingly disparate events, piecing together the story by criss-crossing the fictional district of Kamurocho, which is based heavily on the red-light district of actual Tokyo, and discovering clues, talking to friends (and enemies) and beating up half the populace of Japan. The story really is exceptional, dramatic and epic in true Japanese style, and embellished often with well-crafted cutscenes. The inclusion of text dialogue when talking to NPCs initially feels incredibly archaic, but after a few hours play this minor annoyance fades away. Secondary characters are well-rounded and fleshed out as needed, elevated from mere props to personalities that you come to care about, particularly in the case of Detective Date – the cop who sends Kazuma to prison in the first place becomes an unlikely ally ten years later.
Pinning together the meat of this particular revenge story are the structural bones of the game – the combat. Early comparisons with GTA games dissipate quickly – Yakuza is all about hand-to-hand combat, not shooting. An early mission shows the player the ropes; Square button throws a standard punch, Triangle throws a kick and Circle performs a grapple, which can then be chained into some brutal knees to the face or an over-the-shoulder throw. These basic moves are augmented by Heat actions, essentially more brutal, cinematic moves that can be activated when the Heat gauge is full, and the timing is right. The Heat-activated face stomp unlocked later in the game is a particular favourite, but is also quite sickening. Yakuza literally doesn’t pull its punches and, whilst it pales in comparison with some of the queasy scenes of current favourites such as God Of War III, it still raises an eyebrow with its brutality.
The game kicks off with Kazuma taking the fall for the murder of his clan boss.
The combat is given added depth by RPG-style levelling. Experience points are gained through scripted or random battles, and can be spent in one of three different move-sets. One branch might unlock a new move, another might augment the Heat gauge, a third might increase your maximum health. You’ll find yourself gravitating more towards extra health and faster Heat generation by default; most enemies in Yakuza can be dispatched with a standard combo used over and over again, so extra moves seem a little unnecessary. It’s a shame really; the levelling system adds some nuance and complexity into what can become a tiresome brawler, particularly when the afore-mentioned random fights come in comically close proximity of each other; a little more variation in the enemies may have facillitated a greater need for a broader move-set.
For a game released only 5 years ago, Yakuza should look better than it does. Cinematics still hold up well, and the combat is well-animated if a little lethargic, but Kazuma runs as if he’s moving in slow motion through a field of treacle. UI elements are basic and uninspired; the various gauges aren’t indicated by any text or iconography. The biggest bugbear comes in the localisation, however – for a game that really can’t hide its origins, it’s a shame that publishers Capcom decided it needed to be Western-ised so heavily. Voice actors sound robotic, almost moronic, even. And the use of street trash-talking and bad language produces some truly cringe-worthy moments – especially when the fifth street hoodlum in a row accuses you of ‘being all up in his shit.’ These problems were obviously fielded and addressed between the original Yakuza and its first sequel, as Yakuza 2 (and the recently-released Yakuza 3) feature the original Japanese dialogue, with English subtitles. The shallow voice-acting for the Western version doesn’t spoil the story by any means, but does take off a little of its lustre.
However, if Yakuza was only about walking to A, fighting along the way to A, fighting at A, being told to go to B, fighting along the way to B and once again fighting at B, it would rapidly become a pretty turgid experience. Thankfully, developers Amusement Vision crafted a Tokyo teeming with life and incidental detail, and numerous side-quests. Admittedly, a few of these revolve around more combat, but others include hitting a few balls in the batting cage, indulging in a spot of gambling or visiting one of the numerous hostess bars. Another meta-game involves the collection of locker keys, which sparkle on the ground in a style not too dissimilar to Resident Evil games, which unlock storage spaces which contain useful items, such as weapons, food or documents that reveal fighting strategies. It’s a compelling addition; collectibles that actually lead to useful in-game items rather than collectibles for collectibles’ sake, and a meta-game that made its way to further sequels.
It’s not perfect then, by any means, but Yakuza is an accomplished package well worth revisiting. For a few well-bid pounds on eBay, you can pick up a dozen hours of excellent storytelling and well-realised characters with a competent combat system underpinning it all. The random encounters are a huge frustration early on, and a test that you will need all your patience to overcome, but it’s telling that later on you’ll be praying for them in order to raise some much-needed funds. As a slice of Japanese culture, it’s very compelling, and its portrayal of Tokyo as a bustling city teeming with life is beautifully crafted. It’s a game that obviously hit a lot of right notes as well as a few duff ones; the release of Yakuza 4 in Japan, or Ryū ga Gotoku 4 as it’s known in its native tongue, shows that this series shows no sign of hanging up its pointy shoes just yet.