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Yakuza Review 83

Posted by Zonk
from the you-didn't-need-that-finger dept.
In the age of months-early previews, reviews the day the game ships, and opinionated bloggers, it's always really nice to find something unexpected in a videogame. I went into Yakuza expecting something like GTA in Japan, and was very pleasantly surprised. I've been frustrated by this before, but here Amusement Vision presents an engrossing story strung together by a bare minimum of gameplay ... and it completely works. Yakuza is a Japanese gangster story with a uniquely cultural outlook, some very different minigames, and a zen-simple but highly enjoyable combat mechanic. If storytelling and character development mean as much to you as framerate and polygon counts, read on for my impressions to see if this title is for you.
  • Title: Yakuza
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Amusement Vision
  • System: PS2
When you have a real novelist write your story for you, it's more compelling than something dredged up from High School notebooks. Not a hard concept to grasp, but something I haven't seen put into practice nearly often enough. Here, at the end of the sixth generation of game consoles, there seems to finally be some time to concentrate on story. Hase Seishu, a well-known Japanese crime novelist, has crafted a stirring tale dripping with a Japanese aesthetic. The game follows the exploits of Kazuma Kiryu, a gangster caught up in the internal politics of a Tokyo crime family. He takes the fall for a crime he didn't commit, spends a good long time in jail, and upon his release sets about discovering what happened to his friends and loved ones.

What follows is a surprisingly deep story. A tale that begins with a fairly straightforward structure quickly twists and turns, involving money, women, and the power structure of the Yakuza clans. Behind all this, the numerous stories that make up daily life in a little corner of Tokyo take place. Given the setup, you'd think the story would be dominated by swearing gangers, domestic violence, and bad voice acting. With the exception of the cursing gangers, there's little overly cliche about this tale. The story takes a lot of time to establish the humanity and character of the gameworld's inhabitants. Kazuma in particular is a surprisingly broadly written and human protagonist; along with busting in teeth and staring down hardened killers, he is not above escorting little girls to safety and searching out dog food for a starving puppy.

Where the story struggles, unfortunately, is where it dictates gameplay. There are many story elements that require simple fetch quests. After the first few chapters or so, you're going to wish they were more willing to mix up the story-based gameplay. These runs through the city streets also highlight an unflattering result of the game's slick look: load. As you move from street to street within the district, you'll experience 'pregnant pauses', as the game caches art assets for the next area of the city. Actual load screens only occur when transitioning from in-engine play to cutscenes, but they too are just a little too long to be comfortable. Load times aside, these excursions into the Kabukicho district of Tokyo are beautiful and help to establish the character of the area. They're also well documented; an arrow points the way to a glowing part of your mini-map. The rich environment of the city also allows you access to a number of very unique minigames, such as batting cage practice, ring fighting, and what is essentially a girlfriend simulator. Each of these elements play a small part in the overall game, but even then I thought they could have been thought out a little more fully. That said, they're highly appreciated diversions from the main storyline. How often in a game do you find yourself thinking "Would this virtual woman like perfume or jewelry better?" or "Should I order her the champagne or tell a dirty joke?"

The ring-fighting is essentially just the game's fighting mode opened up for consistent cash prizes. Thankfully, though it is simple, Yakuza's combat is robust enough to be enjoyable. For most of the game, you'll find yourself engaged in combat at specific plot-dictated moments. You can also be accosted in the streets, facing down younger Yakuza thugs or street gangers. Initially, these combat sequences feel rote and repetitive. During the first few fights, you're mostly going to be mashing the square button. The catch, here, is that you'll be plowing through the plot as well, the game's story hooking you in. Just as you realize that you actually care about the story's characters, you're going to find that the combat gameplay has grown as well. As the story progresses, you can choose to level up different aspects of Kazuma's fighting prowess. Unlocking new levels of his body results in a longer lifebar, and higher levels in technique opens up new moves and combos. It's no Soul Calibur, to be sure, but the solid mechanics and ever-changing backgrounds do a lot to save what could have been throwaway gameplay.

From an artistic perspective, Yakuza is superlative. Sweeping camera moves as you travel allows for dramatic reveals of the Kabukicho district. At night, your eyes are drawn to the stark contrasts of dark buildings and blazing neon. The rain-slicked streets and swarms of consumers make for a vivid backdrop against which to play out Yakuza's story. Character art and animation is top-notch, with Kazuma in particular a study in how to make a protagonist memorable. The voice acting is highly skilled as well, lending a great deal of credibility to what could have come off as an over-the-top melodrama. Unfortunately, from a technical perspective, Yakuza is yet another in a long line of games that illustrates where the PS2 is in its life cycle. The worst offender is the aforementioned loading lag, which makes it harder to seamlessly navigate the game's beautiful world. I also found myself wishing there weren't quite so many jaggies filling my screen. The title's overall look and sound is top-notch, and another testament to the double-edged sword of an end-of-lifecycle console.

With Yakuza, Amusement Vision and Sega have released a high quality experience. It's definitely not for everyone; it's not 'hardcore', there is far from 100+ hours of gameplay, and the action is considerably more sedate than some might like. This team has created a great game by doing what many others consider the antithesis of the medium: aiming small. Characters are set in a single district of Tokyo (just a few blocks on each side), and placed in a story that explores the humanity of men made to do inhumane things. There are no space pirates to slay or worlds to save; it's just one man, and the people he cares about. Yakuza sets that stage perfectly, and makes you give a damn about the players. My only real and lasting complaint about this game is its length; it's only about ten hours long. With the announcement of Yakuza 2, even that frustration falls to the wayside. It may not be 'next-gen' in terms of visuals or gameplay, but Yakuza transcends the generations with its quietly competent storytelling. I can only hope some of the titles coming to the Wii, 360, and PS3 make an effort to do some looking back, as we plunge forward into the next age of gaming.
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Yakuza Review

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  • by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Tuesday October 03, 2006 @01:41PM (#16294341)
    At 30 minutes a day of gameplay only on weekday evenings, that draws the game out to almost a month of playtime.

    A good book doesn't last a quarter of that!
    • by kfg (145172) * on Tuesday October 03, 2006 @01:44PM (#16294375)
      A good book doesn't last a quarter of that!

      A good book lasts forever.

      KFG
    • You only read good books for an hour a week?

      Most good books take about 10 hours to read, depending on your speed and the depth of the book. Think about it, 2 minutes a page, 300 page book -> 10 hours.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Com2Kid (142006)
        Depends.

        30 seconds per page, cut that down to 2.5 hours.
        • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward
          "Where's Waldo?" doesn't count.
          • by Com2Kid (142006)

            "Where's Waldo?" doesn't count.

            "Where's Waldo" takes me significantly longer than 30 seconds...

            Using Full Reading I am able to choose my pace of reading. If I just need to acquire base plot elements, most of the fluffy English can be skipped.

            ex:

            The green leafs slowly seeped up the blood from the wound in John's chest turning them a dramatic color of red.

            Horrid prose aside.... it should get the point across. A person can learn to skip over the unnecessary details. Of course if I am reading a book for my o

            • by drsquare (530038)
              If you're only interested in scanning the major plot details, you're missing the point of most books. You may as well just watch the film, or read Dan Brown.
              • by ynohoo (234463)
                You cant help but think many authors are paid on word count. You could call it setting the scene, but personally I could care less what color the curtains are!
              • by Com2Kid (142006)

                If you're only interested in scanning the major plot details, you're missing the point of most books.


                As I said, it depends on why I am reading the book. If I need to extract key bits of information from the text, then skipping over detail can be useful.

                Also, some authors think they are better at scenic description than they really are...
      • by rifter (147452)

        Most good books take about 10 hours to read, depending on your speed and the depth of the book. Think about it, 2 minutes a page, 300 page book -> 10 hours.

        The best books I have read are 800-1200 pages long. Kind of breaks your little equation :D.

        Pulp novels are 200-300 pages. I would not call those "the best" or even "most good books."

        • Billy Budd? The Great Gatsby? Animal Farm? The Stranger? Those books are all extremely short. There are unabridged dictionaries thousands of pages long but that doesn't make them good. You think perhaps the length of a book doesn't have any effect on how good it is?
          • by rifter (147452)

            Billy Budd? The Great Gatsby? Animal Farm? The Stranger? Those books are all extremely short. There are unabridged dictionaries thousands of pages long but that doesn't make them good. You think perhaps the length of a book doesn't have any effect on how good it is?

            Good point. I guess I was just responding to the posters assertion that most good books are only 300 pages or less. I liked a lot of short books including the ones you mentioned. The Old Man and the Sea was pretty good, so was some of the Ber

      • I don't think I'd read very much at all if it took me 2 minutes to read a page.
    • by Peden (753161)
      A good book does not last more than 2½hours? That certainly depends!
      If you are such a fast reader, I will recommend Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, albeit that some parts might bore you to tears, the whole of the book is excellent :)
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward
        I recommend Atlas Shrugged, the whole of the book is excellent

        Now who's trolling?
      • by nuzak (959558) on Tuesday October 03, 2006 @02:39PM (#16295225) Journal
        Actually I recommend you just skip to the end and read the 60-odd-page screed that the pathetic excuse for a plot was wrapped around. It's not even very good polemic, but at least it'll save you from having to read the rest of Rand's tripe concerning magic metal, domination fantasies, free energy machines, and, of course, angular planes.

        • by Erwos (553607) on Tuesday October 03, 2006 @03:03PM (#16295587)
          The funny part about that sequence is that I recall even the author herself makes a backhanded joke at how long it goes, something along the lines of "I hope they heard that; I just spent two damn hours saying it all!"

          However, I've got to disagree with you: even though I find some parts of Rand's philosophy to be awful (her hatred of freely-given charity comes to mind), she raises some interesting points and questions that deserve some thought. If you can't handle Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and We The Living are both excellent books.

          "I only read things I agree with" is a terrible way to approach life.
          • by nuzak (959558) on Tuesday October 03, 2006 @03:19PM (#16295879) Journal
            I've read them all, I even have her objectivist dictionary, which I gotta tell you is really a window into insanity. And they're all pretty much the same book. What basically turns me off is how rooted the expression of her philosophy is in bilious vitriolic hate -- it just drips from every page. Even her heroes must be framed as greek gods against the oozy smarmy or sometimes even moustache-twiddling-muahahaing villians (Ellesworth Toohey anyone?) I mean, it's sincerely bad fiction and not even very good philosophy (A=A, therefore charity is bad. Huh?).

            I consider myself a libertarian -- that's how I got into Rand in the first place -- but I won't associate with the capital-L Libertarian crowd, largely because of the Randroids.

            Ah well, we're way off topic now. Let's knock off that karma bonus.

            • The Fountainhead, a.k.a. The Architect Sketch
            • by tehcyder (746570)
              I've read them all
              I think there's a psychiatric term for such behaviour.
              • by nuzak (959558)
                > I think there's a psychiatric term for such behaviour.

                Yeah, masochism.

                She wasn't terribly prolific with her fiction. You can get through all her stuff comfortably in a couple weeks.
          • by daigu (111684)
            Name one. Let's summarize the Objectivist philosophy from Rand's perspective:

            My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

            Any reading of Ayn Rand's books will make it clear to the reader that she is not talking about man as a class being heroic beings - but specific men. It is also clear that there is a whole set of values as to what is "pro

      • by mugnyte (203225)
        Actually, "Atlas Shrugged" can be read in about 15 minutes, since any synopsis of it will eschew the mundane character development and endless repetition of capitalistic independence. As for economic philosophy, try reading about the effects of unchecked consumptive capitalism in the real world (The Wal-Mart Effect) [amazon.com] instead of fiction from last century.
      • by Don_dumb (927108)
        I would be amazed if anyone could get through Stalingrad http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stalingrad_(book) [wikipedia.org] or Godel,Escher,Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6del,_Escher,_B ach [wikipedia.org] (that old favourite) in under 10 hours.
        Oh and yes, I would consider both, essential reading.
      • And while you're entertaining yourself with a good, enlightening read on economic and social philosophy, I'd recommend you brush up on religion and spirituality with a read of Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard.
      • In the sewers: "Nothing but crumpled porno and Ayn Rand." -- Bender
    • by bartyboy (99076) on Tuesday October 03, 2006 @01:48PM (#16294441)
      Yes, I too have read the LOTR trilogy in 7.5 hours.
    • by JeTmAn81 (836217)
      A good book doesn't cost $50 new, either. *

      *Obvious exceptions include rare editions, encyclopedias, etc.

      • by rifter (147452)

        A good book doesn't cost $50 new, either. *

        *Obvious exceptions include rare editions, encyclopedias, etc.

        A friend of mine once pointed out that it is a peculiar aspect of our (the US) economy, but one can, for less than the cost of one hour's wages, obtain the words of Caesar, Confucius, and quite a few others. It's interesting what you find in the $5 bargain bin at Barnes and Noble, and even more interesting how few people have actually read even one of the books in there.

      • In fact, the Good Book® is currently available free-of-charge from a seedy motel-room nightstand near you...
    • The review says it's far 100+ hours. Where did you read the game is 10 hours long?
    • by drsquare (530038)
      Good games you can play for hours every day, for years and not get bored of them. If the weather was particularly bad, you could finish Yakuza in a weekend.
  • Rating (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    8/10
  • hm (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 03, 2006 @01:50PM (#16294483)
    This game reminds me more of Shenmue than GTA. Even down to the slow loading times.
    • by Valdrax (32670)
      That's kind of horrifying. Does the voice-over sound like the person is reading the script for the first time while trying not to fall asleep from boredom after their high school drama club meeting?
  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Tuesday October 03, 2006 @01:53PM (#16294503) Homepage Journal
    Can you just explore wtihout having to fight? Should be especially interesting as Kabukicho is a red light district IIRC. Esp. considering prostitution is one of the Yakuza's main money making "industries"
  • Focus? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Speare (84249) on Tuesday October 03, 2006 @01:54PM (#16294533) Homepage Journal
    Kazuma in particular is a surprisingly broadly written and human protagonist; along with busting in teeth and staring down hardened killers, he is not above escorting little girls to safety and searching out dog food for a starving puppy.

    I haven't seen the game and I would like to give it a shot. Sometimes reviews include strange minor elements that don't seem to fit. I read the above, and imagined the game team decision making progress:

    Producer: Throw in some more minigames so we can boost the checkbox count.
    Developer: We racked our brains but can't figure out any more in-character minigames that won't bust the budget in terms of complexity.
    Producer: I don't care about that, just copy some ideas from Sims2 or Mario or FF5 or something.
    Developer: ...

    • by rifter (147452)

      Producer: Throw in some more minigames so we can boost the checkbox count.

      Developer: We racked our brains but can't figure out any more in-character minigames that won't bust the budget in terms of complexity.

      Producer: I don't care about that, just copy some ideas from Sims2 or Mario or FF5 or something.

      Developer: ...

      Yes I am sure that is exactly what occurred, complete with inscrutable ellipsis. Still have not found any explanation of what the hell that means in manga / Japanese video games... It seems th

  • It sounds a lot like Shenmue with a bit of a crime drama/noir bent. I may have to give this a shot. The load time may drive me crazy, though.

    The PS2 isn't dead, it's just dreaming...
  • That review reads like one of those suck-up reviews from a game mag supported by game advertising. Is this game advertised on Slashdot?

    From the description, the game sounds like what, in the industry, is derisively called a "track ride", where you're led by the nose through a canned story.

    • by Afrosheen (42464)
      Oh, you mean a game like Dead Rising? Where you have to be at location X by Y time or you're guaranteed to lose?

        Yeah, I hate carrot and stick games too. What's the point of letting the main character wander around if he has to be at the bus stop at 10 sharp or the game ends?
    • From the description, the game sounds like what, in the industry, is derisively called a "track ride", where you're led by the nose through a canned story.

      So it's a good thing the reviewer gave you enough information to make up your own mind rather than relying on arbitrary scores.

      I give this review a 9 out of 10. ;)

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Shenmue is why I bought a Dreamcast.

    Yakuza is why I will buy a PS2 when they do the price drop after PS3 release.

    • For some reason, I doubt they'll do a price drop on the PS2 when PS3 releases. If they did, it may spark more people to buy a PS2 instead at its new low price when PS3 isn't available.

      Unless you're talking about waiting until the PS3 has been released for 4-6 months.
    • by BIGmog (592353)
      If you haven't been able to find a quality PS2 game in 6 years, you don't really need a PS2.
    • Darn it, forgot about shenmue, now i'm torn between buying myself an Xbox or a Dreamcast for xmas ... the ps1 is starting to get a bit worn out
  • Some white-bread fed kid will chop off a finger and the parents will sue Sega.
    • by gstoddart (321705)

      Some white-bread fed kid will chop off a finger and the parents will sue Sega.

      The finger chopping comes after you've screwed up and are atoning for the transgression. He's not just gonna chop his finger off to look cool -- the Yakuza don't do that.

      Though, if he's so inclined, he may as well just commit Seppuku [wikipedia.org] and spare us all the trouble of yet another rampage killing.

      Cheers

      • by mgblst (80109)
        Ha, I think the parent makes a good point. What the Yakuza would or wouldn't do doesn't really enter the mind of some little kid. If he chops his finger of, then people MIGHT think that he is in the Yakuza, and stop bullying him.
        • by gstoddart (321705)
          Ha, I think the parent makes a good point. What the Yakuza would or wouldn't do doesn't really enter the mind of some little kid. If he chops his finger of, then people MIGHT think that he is in the Yakuza, and stop bullying him.

          Wow. I really hope that some kid wouldn't be stupid enough to follow that line of reasoning.

          Intentionally maiming yourself to stop bullying just sounds ... fsck'd up.

          Cheers
  • by mapmaker (140036) on Tuesday October 03, 2006 @02:30PM (#16295095)
    Amusement Vision presents an engrossing story strung together by a bare minimum of gameplay

    To each their own, but personally I enjoy playing games, not watching them. Movies are good for watching, and they don't cost $60 per disc.

    • But a game provides a more interactive experience - rather than observing the charactor, you are the charactor. Its all up to personal preference, but I can see how a story told in the form of a game can actually strengthen the plotline and emotional involvement of the players.
    • by Hahnsoo (976162)
      To each, his (or her) own. A lot of folks enjoy the more "interactive movie" style game. For example "The Seventh Guest" had very little gameplay (mostly loosely veiled puzzles), but had a relatively engrossing story and was quite popular. Of course, it helped that it was packaged with pretty much every PC with a CD-ROM in the early 90s. There are games that seamlessly combine gameplay with story, like recent favorites "Shadow of the Colossus" and "Psychonauts", but the good old adventure game with minima
    • by Afrosheen (42464)
      Then you probably loved the Metal Gear series. It was alot of playing and alot of watching with good voice acting and an interesting story.

        Once in awhile I caught my wife getting interested in the story aspects. She'd say 'hurry up and beat the boss so I can see what happens next!'. This coming from a woman that won't touch video games.
  • In the comment "If storytelling and character development mean as much to you as framerate ... etc.", the mere mention of frame rates implies that this game would be playable on a computer where frame rates can get above meager NTSC rates. I was disappointed to see that it was a console game...
    • In the comment "If storytelling and character development mean as much to you as framerate ... etc.", the mere mention of frame rates implies that this game would be playable on a computer where frame rates can get above meager NTSC rates.

      What, you've never seen framerates drop in a console game? Hell, even as far back as the Sega Genesis, I played an F-117 sim that would routinely tank into a slideshow -- mostly cuz the hardware wasn't designed to render a 3D landscape. Modern consoles still have games t

      • by m0nstr42 (914269)
        Exactly. The TV just sets the maximum framerate, at something comfortably above what you can (arguably?) percieve. That doesn't mean that too much game cranking through too little console won't hork a little. To this day I find myself endearingly anticipating the slight pause in The Legend of Zelda when you enter a new room.
  • .. which was the Dragons Lair style button pushing sections. These cropped up way to often, turning an action RPG into a Simple Simon style action tester. The downside is that the 'Sega Arcade' featured in the game doesn't actually have any playable Sega games in it.
  • ...an engrossing story strung together by a bare minimum of gameplay ... and it completely works.
    Gameplay is usually a much stronger attractive force to play the game again. I guess I'm not one of those that play a game just for the story line.
  • After reading the review, I miss an important point.

    How does this game compare to Shen Mue? It seems that Yakuza is its direct descendant.

    They both have combat, asian city blocks to explore and minigames.
    They also seem to share a plot-driven approach.

    More in general, I feel that reviews should position a game, by comparing it to the more similar alternatives.

  • I have never sat down and played a game for 30 minute sessions. If a game is good and engrosses the player, then hours can pass by without your knowledge. With that said, I'm a fan of 250+ hour games (mainly RPG).

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