NYR Yakuza 4 companion piece: Yakuza

Yakuza 03

This piece was originally written in July 2010: it was part of a separate challenge I had laid out for myself titled 12 Games Before Christmas. I had invited people I knew and trusted to invite me to play a series of games of their choice. I’m now resurrecting this episode as a companion piece for my Yakuza 4 review (coming this Friday as part of the usual NYR series).

Some editing has occurred since this article’s original publication and the screenshots used (apart from the one above) are from Yakuza 4.

It is hard to judge this game without invoking bias. I knew I was going to love it as soon as I booted up the game and was presented with a nutsoid advertisement for SEGA (“do you want adventure? Excitement? This is SEGA”). This game promised what fans of Shenmue have been craving since Ryo failed to find the murderer of his father in Hong Kong.

Yakuza is an open-world game that mixes exploration and hand-to-hand combat with a long over-arching plot. You play as Kiryu Kazuma, a yakuza enforcer, who begins the game standing over a corpse with a gun in his hand. The game skips back to the previous day and tells the tale of how it all went wrong and how Kazuma ends up spending ten years in prison.

This turn works to introduce the player to the world that Kazuma now lives in. After his release from prison he is as unaccustomed to Tokyo as you or I are, so introducing  new plot devices (Kazuma’s face when he is handed a mobile phone is priceless) and mechanics feels natural.

To me, it also serves as a wistful analogy. The ageing yakuza is being constantly reminded that his type and his ways are anachronistic in modern Japan. Thugs mock him about his age (some thirty-odd years) and clothes, calling him an old man. Of course this usually results in them getting curb-stomped but the remarks still rang in my ears.

Yakuza 19

This game really is Shenmue but the world around SEGA has shifted; people don’t have time to feed cats and ask about sailors any more. People don’t care about what the weather was like in the eighties and the fact that a game would recreate this accurately as per weather reports. No, people care about ball punching, hookers and unskippable cut scenes. Yakuza has all of those boxes ticked.

I am being a little harsh but it is hard not to wince when almost 70% of the player’s interactions with another character end in them kicking seven shades of shit out of that person. This is partially explained away by the environment that Kazuma lives in – the seedy underbelly of the city where violence is king – but I can’t help but miss some of the subtlety from Yakuza‘s most direct influence.

That aside I still blitzed through this game jumping through each subsequent crime soap-opera twist, gleefully using deck chairs and traffic cones to smack tracksuited street punks and tuxedo-wearing gangsters silly. The yarn is a good one, despite some of its more cheesy elements, and the game keeps throwing more and more characters at you each with their own spin and story. I was impressed with how audacious Yakuza is. Most games would be scared to bombard a player with so much info and so many different facets, afraid that their three-second attention span would not suffice for this story of Godfather proportions.

Yakuza 10

And that is just the A-to-B story; the game offers just as much in its incidental moments of  travelling around the city. You will find disgraced boxers, purse-snatchers and conniving bar hostesses as you casually stroll through the bustle and noise. The game delights in making you understand how stifling the world is; as Kazuma runs around countless speech bubbles pop up from passersby who are just doing their thing. It feels like a complete experience in terms of environment.

I wish that I had played this game sooner, not only because I feel I was doing myself a disservice by missing out on the experience but also because I have had my open-world gaming experiences ruined forever by Way of the Samurai‘s vision and approach.

There is no escaping the fact that despite being an open-world environment Yakuza is not an open-ended story. Everyone playing this game, even if they spend seven hours in the batting cages, will eventually come to the same conclusion. Choices made in side stories have no impact on the bigger picture. You’re still going execute the same set of nut cracking in the main story on your path to revenge and redemption.

Yakuza is still great, and given its epic nature it’s no surprise that the game has spawned three (true) sequels. It also made me really care about what was happening to the protagonist, something that very few other games have succeeded in.

There’s still some fight left in this old guy yet.