THE CAST OF CHARACTERS IS HUGE, but each player has a significant role.
In the course of making Yakuza, producer Toshihiro Nagoshi underwent a strange transformation. He dropped significant weight, adopted a spiky blond hairdo, and tanned himself to a deep brown. In short, he assimilated many of the distinguishing physical characteristics of the Japanese mobster. (I’m glad to say he didn’t cut off a finger.) This Method approach to game design paid off. Whereas so many games in the crime genre are unable or unwilling to resist treating their subjects with ironic detachment, if not outright scorn, Yakuza wears its authenticity like a tailored suit.
You play as Kazuma Kiryu, the “Dragon” of the Dojima crime family. Kazuma’s plans to start a family of his own are derailed when he takes the rap for an inter-family murder and heads to the clink for 10 years. Upon release, he becomes embroiled in a mystery involving the city’s warring crime bosses and 10 billion missing yen. Standard stuff. But Yakuza goes on to show how fresh genre trappings can be in the right hands. The tough-guy talk, sniveling street punks, and damsels in distress are presented with such conviction, it’s hard not to surrender to the narrative.
The cast of characters is huge and intricate — family connections haven’t been this tough to follow since One Hundred Years of Solitude — but each dramatic player has a significant role. Although it’s a crime story, the heart of the tale has orphan Kazuma finding himself as the uncomfortable mediator between disconnected children and parents. There’s a subtext here, something more compelling than a race to rule the streets. The way the smaller story arcs play out within the macro narrative is almost novelistic. Not to put Yakuza on the same plane as a good book, but it’s a step forward on gaming’s path toward artistic respectability.
HOT TIP: Pay attention to the conversations you overhear on the streets — they’re often tips for side missions.
Of course, if you just wanted a story, you could read a book or watch a movie. Yakuza at first seems as if it would be long on cutscenes and short on gameplay. But after an hour or two the exposition fades away and the game world opens up. What looked to be a Warriors-style brawler turns out to have much more in common with a role-player like Final Fantasy VII. Kazuma has the run of Kamurocho, a city that’s big enough to be convincing but small enough that substantial portions of gameplay aren’t spent chugging from point A to point B. That’s essential, because Kazuma can’t seem to walk a city block without being accosted by thugs.
The fight scenes are brief and brutal. Although the combat system is not deep (every scenario features some combination of fat, strong guy and quick, weak guy), the blows have a tactile impact. The mix of concussive sound effects and subtle visual indicators is brutal without crossing the line into cartoonishness. Fighting also builds up Kazuma’s “heat gauge,” which allows him to unleash ever more devastating attacks. Heat attacks are context-sensitive — Kazuma might slam someone against a wall, tee off on his head with a baseball bat, or toss him into a lake. It’s hard not to cringe, and grin, each time.
Yakuza reveals its pleasures slowly: new characters and new gameplay wrinkles are introduced with each new chapter. I’m told it suffers in the translation from Japanese to American: Japanese voice actors attuned to the particular cadences of the Yakuza were replaced with functional but unremarkable Western performers. But the American Yakuza is such a complete and compelling experience that it’s hard to imagine how it could be any more satisfying.