Yakuza promises to drop you in the middle of a crime drama. It also promises a lot of back alley street brawling. Above this, it wants to grant Yakuza outsiders a taste of what the organization's all about. It may not be accurate, of course, but Sega's rendition of the notorious society is, if nothing else, an immersive one.
And it all starts by telling a good story. You play an up and coming Yakuza by the name of Kazuma. After years of faithful service, and after a very lucrative assignment, he's ready to start his own family. Thing is, the day he receives his mentor's blessing everything goes to hell. His good friend kills the head of his Yakuza family, and being the loyal friend he is, Kazuma takes the rap and winds up in jail.
After ten years in lockup, Kazuma leaves jail on parole to find the third chairman of the Yakuza murdered and 10 billion yen missing from the treasury. He' still a wanted man in the eyes of his former family members, and his good friend Yumi has vanished. Kazuma teams up with the very detective who interrogated him 10 years earlier, who is now assigned to the organized crime unit, to see if they can figure out what the hell is going on. Throughout the story you meet a huge cast of characters, each with their own well-defined personalities and story arcs.
In a way, Yakuza feels like an adventure game with a heavy dose of street brawling. This isn't because of puzzles, though it has a few, but because of how immersed you become in the gameworld. That, and the fact characters do actually matter here. As for Kazuma himself - he's the kind of character everyone loves. He's a man of integrity and compassion, yet if you cross him, he'll snap your spine and throw your ass through the window. Then he'll run outside and kick your face in, just to make sure you never walk again. He's a badass, in other words, one that just happens to have his heart in the right place. Having said that, there's a whole lot of fighting going on in Yakuza.
Fights take place all over town, from bustling intersections to the calm of a Zen garden. In fact, the locations all help immerse you in the world of Yakuza, and it's undeniably one of the game's greatest assets. Were it not for the ability to run across the city, and to stop and linger whenever you wanted, Yakuza would be far less of an experience. You can walk around and talk to NPCs whenever you want, even buy privileged information from a number of street corner informants. You can also visit a number of shops and parlors, too. Many of them have no ties to the main story, but you can visit a number of restaurants, such as sushi houses or burger joints, to buy food that recovers health and nets you a few experience points.
Each shop has several items for sale, and they all affect you in different ways. Discovering what item goes with what benefit is actually a satisfying pastime in Yakuza. In addition to grocery stories and fast food chains, you can also visit seedier locations such as strip clubs and pachinko parlors. It's an m-rated game, remember, and you can actually spend your time looking up specific strippers in specific clubs.
Or you can just blow your funds at Pachinko, or perhaps even at the UFO Cather Machine, located at Club Sega. Here, you can lose cash and try to win random stuffed animals. It's all part of Yakuza's elaborate network of side-quests. None of it's actually necessary, but damn if it doesn't make the game longer and, yes, more in-depth than your average brawler.
For all its peripheral factors, Yakuza still has the heart of a straightforward action game. It plays in the third-person, with you in control of the protagonist as he weaves through the crowded streets and alleyways of Japan. Between story segments, usually when crossing town, you get jumped by random hoodlums or rival Yakuza. In a way, these encounters feel very RPG-like, in that avoiding them is near impossible and they seem to happen whenever you just want to reach someplace on the map. Unlike many RPGs, however, these fights end quickly. More importantly, they're actually fun.
You spend a lot of time in Yakuza throwing punches and smashing people's faces into walls, so it's a good thing the combat system handles the job well. It's not without a few glitches, though. Sometimes it gets rather difficult facing multiple opponents, simply because the engine lacks the kind of sophistication seen in pure 3D fighters. Thanks to the game's efficient block and strafe functions, this problem never spirals out of control. You can perform a number of simple combos just as easily as you can grab a nearby object (say, a bicycle) and break it over someone's skull. Regardless of the action, it never approaches the level of complexity seen in your average fighter. It's usually a simple matter of punch, punch and kick. In any other game this could have been an overly negative thing, but not here. And while three-hit combos may sound boring, plenty of other elements make brawling worthwhile.
Take the upgrade system. You can enhance your character in three areas, including body, technique and soul, each of which affects your abilities as a bruiser. It's possible to create a unique fighter, too, though experience points earned through street fights is rarely scarce. You can often afford to upgrade every aspect of your character often, but the opportunity is there for players who crave technique over health, etc. As you upgrade, you earn new moves and counters. By game's end, you should be throwing lethal uppercuts at the end of your combos and devastating enemies with chairs, poles, boxes, bikes, signs and all sorts of items.
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