Sunday, 21 February 2016

Favourite Games/Series #3 - Yakuza (series)


Is it ironic that a series often cited as a spiritual successor to the much-loved Shenmue should have lived for so long and received so many sequels when Yu Suzuki's Dreamcast classic has only just managed to have its third installment green-lit? I've personally not played Shenmue (the closest I got was owning the two Dreamcast games but I sold up without ever playing them...) so I'm in no position to comment on any similarities but I find it an interesting point. After all, Yakuza (known as Ryu Ga Gotoku in native Japan) has 5 numbered installments, 1 zombie-themed action spin-off, 2 historical samurai-era spin-offs, 2 handheld spin-offs for the PSP and 1 HD collection (comprising of the two PS2 installments). A sixth mainline sequel is nearly ready to release in Japan while a prequel (Yakuza 0) and a remake of the original (subtitled 'Kiwami') are all recent additions to the family.

Including the few that haven't yet been released, that's 14 games in a series that debuted relatively recently in 2005 (2006 here in the West) so a Shenmue fan could be forgiven for turning their nose up at Yakuza and assuming that so many releases would surely be the sign of a drop in quality. That's a very naive assumption to make though because aside from the divisive Dead Souls zombie-themed spin-off, the series has maintained a high quality over the years as well as consistent, strong sales in Japan, earning it a place as one of Sega's top pocket liners. What's more, the main series has regularly been released over here in the West despite it being an incredibly niche product. Yakuza 5 has recently been released over here on the PSN store after fan pressure for a localised edition eventually beat Sega down so while a box and manual would have been nice, just having access to the game is enough of a treat.

But how did I come to regard Yakuza as one of my all-time favourite series'? It started when I bought the PS2 original with a stack of other cheap games back when a certain videogame shop in the UK were doing a '4 for £20' offer on used PS2 games. At the time, this was a fair promotion and it was possible to pick up a lot of top-rated games, obscure oddities and such - games that you don't see around as much today as back then. I knew nothing of the game apart from a vague general concensus that it was worth playing and mistakenly assumed that it was a Japanese Grand Theft Auto! Once the end credits had rolled however, I had certainly experienced something completely unlike Rockstar's famous crime 'em up but moreover, I was gutted that I'd reached the end and genuinely moved by what I had just played.

Mundane tasks such as visiting eateries became absorbing.
The best way I can describe Yakuza is as a Japanese crime soap opera. That sounds quite dull doesn't it? However, the highly detailed, cinematic cutscenes and the engaging, dramatic storyline are both traits that would make for riveting TV boxset. In between the story segments, there are many oppurtunities to freely wonder the fictional Tokyo district of Kamurocho and it's here that Yakuza really sucks the player in. The city is a living and breathing location with some superb detailing and numerous alleyways and other interesting places just begging to be explored. There are also sidequests galore to discover within each chapter so it pays to cover all of the city every now and then to uncover all of the extracurricular oddjobs, favours and missions but it's a testament to Yakuza's engrossing nature that all this walking around doesn't really grate too much. After all, if you've ever wanted to visit urban Japan with its neon lights and extravagent store frontages then you'll be far too captivated to even consider getting bored. I played it without a guide and though it's quite difficult to score 100% completion (some of the sidequests are very obtuse and tough to fulfill in the correct way), there's nothing like scouring Kamurocho, not knowing what you might find around the next corner.

Like Shenmue, Yakuza also has a knack for making everyday things interesting. The city has many different restaurants for example where eating food can restore health (you also have to eat the whole menu from every eatery to achieve 100% completion!), bars stocked with real-life licensed alcohol, convenience stores (also selling licensed products such as the 'Axe' deodrant to name one), a bowling alley, batting cage and more. You can waste absolutely hours simply touring the city, eating ramen, knocking back a few Jack Daniels' or trying to win prizes from the UFO catchers in the Club Sega arcades. It's a bit like a life simulation I suppose but a cool kind of life that most of us won't ever be able to indulge in (not a regular basis anyway!).

One of Yakuza's many, many, many brutal street battles.

Of course, the big draw for me (and - I suspect - many Western consumers of the series) is the unashamed Japanese-ness of it all. There's genuine Japanese culture oozing out of the whole game with regards to the customs and social conventions of the country which are well represented. The hostess clubs for example are a big part of the game and not something that a great deal of us Westerners would understand. Sometimes, it's surprising to consider that Ryu Ga Gotoku was ever localised at all for lands outside of Japan, let alone that four direct sequels have received the same treatment. The first game does stick out like a sore thumb however in that it was given an English-language voice-over (featuring the likes of Mark Hamill) but lukewarm sales were likely a reason for all subsequent localisations being serviced by more cost-effective English subtitles. The English dub was of a genuinely high quality but given the subject material, I definitely prefer the more authentic Japanese speech with English subs and the general concensus online appears to be the same.

I can't not mention the combat though which places the player in a third-person beat 'em up scenario against random street thugs, Yakuza members and gangsters. The combat is actually pretty solid and there is a satisfying variety of combos, throws and special moves to execute. Landing hits gradually fills up the 'Heat' gauge and once it passes a certain level, Kazuma will exude a blue aura which signifies the accessibility of brutal Heat moves. Some of these are context-sensitive such as slamming a foe's head against a wall (if you grab hold of them near one) and some can only be executed while holding specific weapons. As you gain experience and level up, new Heat moves will become available and you feel genuinely powerful while beating the crap out of criminals and crooks. Weaponry is a major source of entertainment too. Aside from being able to pick up the typical bats, knives and swords, you can also arm Kazuma with pieces of the scenery such as traffic cones, store signs and even bicycles! With some of these items only appearing in certain areas of the city and many bestowring unique Heat moves, it's worth laying the smack down with as many objects as possible. Smashing a bike over a thug's head never gets old!

As far as I remember, the sequel almost didn't get a PAL release based on the unsatisfying sales of the original but at the eleventh hour, it thankfully happened. One of the last major releases in the PS2's twilight years, Yakuza 2 showed up two years after the Japanese release and at a time when the Playstation 3 was already on sale but it was certainly a game that validated keeping the PS2 beneath the telly. It was also released at a fairly budget price and I still have the receipt which shows my copy cost £14.99 on the day of release! It was almost daylight robbery for a game that expanded on the original in every way, adding new ways to waste time (Golf for example) and a second Osaka-based city in addition to Kamurocho. It was more of everything that made the original so fascinating and the storyline is my personal favourite in the series. The more suitable English subtitle format added additional authenticity and it was a pure joy to revisit the locations and characters that had been so well established in the first game. To this day, Yakuza 2 remains my favourite installment in the series.

That's not to say that moving into the HD generation of sequels was disappointing because it wasn't. Yakuza 3 was a vast, visual and mechanical upgrade from the previous two games and once again featured a new city (set in Okinawa) to roam alongside Kamurocho. Combat was overhauled and many new activities such as the (excellent) pool and darts simulations made their debut. It was yet another masterpiece and enormous time-sink of a game that was a driving reason for me to finally purchase a Playstation 3. The power of the PS3 enabled Sega to create cutscenes and story that were more cinematic and captivating than ever before and the overall experience was a very successful move to the new generation of consoles.

It's not all fighting and boozing y'know. Gotta look after the kids.

That brings me up to Yakuza 4, a game which I am currently in the middle of playing and enjoying to a (possibly) illegal degree. Shifting slightly in structure, the fourth main game features four different playable characters whose stories all eventually converge. I was initally a little wary of not being able to spend the entire game with Kazuma but the three new faces - Akiyama, Tanimura and Saejima - have grown on me. All four characters share common abilities/skills but have very different fighting styles which help to make their segments of the game feel fresh and different. The plot has been intriguing and seeing how everything ties together has kept me hooked just as much as the exploration and side activities have. This time, there is only Kamurocho alone to explore but it looks prettier than ever with brand-new underground and rooftop areas introducing some new places for the action to go down. Once I'm done with Yakuza 4, I will likely get Dead Souls unwrapped and played before downloading Yakuza 5. The fifth digital-only release is currently up at £32.99 - far in excess of what I like to pay for digital content - but I have no doubt that it will be worth every penny.

In conclusion, the Yakuza series isn't something I would try to sell to those who haven't played it. Simply browsing screenshots, viewing trailers on Youtube or even (whisper it) reading this amateur write-up will let you know immediately if this is your sort of game. Japanophiles (is that even a term?) and Otaku will find it to be essential gaming for example but it would struggle to ever convince hardened fans of Western-styled games to even briefly change their allegiance. And this is okay because if ever there is a series that I applaud for stubbornly dishing up more of the same and not really doing anything to appeal to a new audience then I want it to be Yakuza. These are the sort of games that linger in the memory long after the credits have rolled; the sort of games that you almost live rather than simply play - the sort of games that make you want to visit the real-life equivalents of the in-game locations. I absolutely adore the continuation from one game to the next with past events being frequently referenced, faces from previous installments popping up again and Kamurocho evolving both physically and socially whilst also staying the same. The gaming landscape would certainly be a lot less inviting to me without Yakuza being there in the background as it has been for the last decade. Doumo arigatou gozaimasu, Sega.

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