Yakuza 2 (PS2)

Things are hotting up down Tokyo way, in a sequel to the epic Yakuza on PS2.
Did it live up to its name? Find out in my Acegamez review.

Full text below the cut:

Yakuza 2

For reasons that are readily unapparent, the vastly expensive to make, hugely ambitious and interestingly unique Yakuza series on the PS2 has been delayed in its release in the Western world. Having already been released in Japan several years ago, the second installment is only now reaching the shores of Europe and America, quite far from the hey-day of the console. So the question now becomes, does it still hold up to scrutiny?

The original Yakuza followed the tragic and difficult life of Kiryu Kazuma, known to his mates as the Dragon of Dojima, and his rise from low-level hard man to the leader of the Tojo Clan. In between bouts of beating the living crud out of most of the Tokyo underworld, he managed to become embroiled in a plot that saw him jailed for a decade, betrayed by just about everyone and ending up adopting a cute little girl.

Yakuza 2 begins precisely a year later as Kiryu brings his daughter to her mother’s grave, only to be attacked by the first foes in a conflict that takes him all over Japan and across the paths of many different friend and enemies. Needless to say, this being Tokyo-Noir, it features more characters than your average soap opera and the complexities of societal interaction that a gaijin such as myself cannot hope to understand fully. Thankfully, SEGA has decided to ditch the god awful Hollywood voiceovers of the first game, opting instead for authentic Japanese and Korean with English subtitles. In addition there are a fair few subtle moments where the deeper and more hard line moments of cultural difference are explained away by either the inclusion of non-Yakuza characters and Western-temperament brats who need things explained to them.

That’s not to imply for a moment that the plot is simple though – if anything it’s more convoluted than the first – but suffice to say, the majority boils down to Kiryu needing to defeat his rival, Koda Ryuuji, the Dragon of Kansai. It’s a clear case of bad-guy punishment as Kiryu is forced to put an end to Koda’s plans to become the Dragon of all Japan and rule the country with an iron fist. Now, if that was complicated then expect to be utterly befuddled by the myriad of names, clans, characters and locations that pop during the game’s sisxeen chapters. But in any event, you’ll be thoroughly entertained.

You might ask why I’d spend so much time addressing the story in what is fundamentally a beat ‘em up, but Yakuza 2 is filled with so many lengthy dialogues and cut scenes that it rivals even the Metal Gear Solid series in the amount of time it spends not letting you play. With each scene beautifully crafted with cinematic style and the motion captured actors emoting each scene right down to the last quivering eyebrow and angry scowl, you’ll be hard pressed to find this sort of level of detail in your run of the mill scrapper. While the storyline is certainly one of the highlights, the relentlessness of the plot may be too much for some, which is why it’s fitting that the game includes an option to make the scenes skippable. However, they are so well produced and entertaining that you won’t mind letting the controller cool off on the armrest for a while as you marvel at the lives of Japan’s version of Goodfellas.

Of course, when Kazuma isn’t dealing with political machinations and assassination attempts from poor friends or rival gangs, or putting the moves on attractive young female detectives, he’s back under the control of the player. While comparisons with GTA will inevitably abound, there really isn’t much to compare; Yakuza is about a living, breathing society with a beating heart rather than an open sandbox with some guns and cars. There are some areas in which you can freely roam around the beautifully rendered streets, listening to the conversations in giant word balloons floating above the pedestrians you pass. Some can be interacted with, to either get the option of simple mission that will give you experience, start arguments or just pass time with some idle conversation. This mechanic gives a simple but effective sense of a real world that’s entirely oblivious to the plight of the Tojo clan. It also gives you the opportunity to play some fun mini-games, such as drinking yourself blind and broke in one of the many bars, eating fancy Japanese cuisine or playing arcade machines and Mah-jong. As well as providing a break to the action, this is the part of the game that really builds up the atmosphere, as you can really craft the character of Kazuma to suit yourself here. Whether you only eat sushi and drink thirty-year-old Malt Whisky or drink coke and play pinball when not saving Tokyo and Osaka, there is enough space and time here to let you relax and just gaze in amazement at the level of detail put into the crowded, individually rendered shops and restaurants. As previously stated, this isn’t GTA and there are no huge open areas to explore, but the streets in each city offer plenty of entertainment in a Yakuza’s natural habitat.

The final piece to the puzzle of Yakuza is the combat, which intersperses half of the sequences and frequently occurs during the open street areas. The system from the first game is virtually unchanged, so fans of the first part of the saga will already know its pros and cons. For the uninitiated, the fighting system in Yakuza 2 is at the same time one of the most variable and also simple systems in a game, making it easy to use but a swine to master completely. There are basic attack keys, which can be used to hit out a few different four-hit combos or to swing any of the weapons that you can pick up from the environment. Considering the clutter that litters the streets of Japan in the game, there are rarely too few to find – and even in the pristine dens of the Clans there are a few sofas and vases that you can throw at people. You can also grapple with enemies and, depending on which button is used next, usually in a flurry of quick-time presses to see who wins you can headbutt, throw or kick your foe out of reach. This makes for an easily usable system that gives you a genuine feeling of accomplishment, something that’s missing from many such games. Sadly, the same flaws that stung the original are still present; the lock-on system that lets you dodge incoming blows is fiddly and more often than not leads to failure in a crowd as you frequently lock on to the farthest enemy and get pummelled by those swarming behind you. There is also a special mode where you begin to burn with blue flames and can use the scenery to stylishly impact opponents off the closest wall or kerb but, again, the grappling, followed by the perfectly-timed button presses needed to do this mean that more often than not it’s Kazuma who gets hit hard.

The biggest issue with Yakuza 2 isn’t with the game itself but rather that, as a PS2 game, it suffers from the usual problems. Run on a large, HD-capable television, the picture looks washed out, the motion is blurry and the text is blocky. While the upscaling options on the 80Gb and 60Gb models of the PS3 will go some way to help this, it’s a fact that the game simply doesn’t look all too good on the latest technology. Still, if you’re playing on a good solid cathode-ray tube then it looks vastly superior and this qualm can be dismissed.

There is a great story and a fine game in Yakuza 2, let down mainly by old technology and some stylistic choices that wouldn’t have mattered half as much when it was first released in the East. Those waiting to join the ranks of the latest generation of tech users who are still playing their PS2 faithfully to the end owe it to themselves to own this, as it’s probably one of the last true triumphs of the ageing console.

By Graeme Strachan, Originally Published on Acegamez.com



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