Yakuza - Staff Retroview  

Kazuma Kiryu vs. The World
by Sam "Nyx" Marchello

Less than 20 Hours
+ Engaging cast of characters.
+ Tons of sidequests.
+ Deep and engaging story...
- ... plagued by horrendous voice acting.
- Graphics are hit or miss.
- Mandatory minigames are not fun. Period.
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   Life is never dull when you're a part of organized crime. Being framed for murder, taking the wrap for other people's mistakes, money laundering, disposing of evidence: it's all in a day's work. The Yakuza series is known for taking players out of their comfort zone and thrusting them into the world of organized crime. Created by Amusement Vision, Yakuza is the first installment of this gripping four-game series. Although it boasts a fantastic, edge-of-your-seat story, the rest of the game has a lot of kinks that need to be ironed out.

   Players assume the role of Kazuma Kiryu, a man who is blamed for the murder of his Oyabun, Sohei Dojima. After ten long years in prison, Kazuma is released, only to discover that ten billion yen has been stolen from the Tojo Clan, his childhood sweetheart, Yumi, has disappeared into thin air, and his former best friend, Akira Nishikiyama, for whom he took the rap, has risen to the top of the clan with the creation of his own family. While searching for Yumi, Kazuma meets a young girl named Haruka, who is the connection between the love of his life and the missing money. With ten billion yen at stake, Kazuma and Haruka are on the run from the Tojo Clan and its affiliates while also attempting to uncover the mystery behind Yumi's disappearance.

   Part of what gives Yakuza its edge is the well-crafted story. The hierarchy of the Tojo Clan and their disputes constantly stay engaging, and complements Kazuma and Haruka's quest in searching for Yumi. There are plenty of twists and turns, and by the end of the game nothing is as it originally seemed. The game also has a strong cast of characters, each with their own problems and desires to rise to the top. Add the constant power struggle, greed, and action, and the plot stays consistently fresh from start to finish.

   Although the game has strong and memorable characters, they are marred by the game's atrocious voice acting. For a game that boasts a star-studded voice cast of Mark Hamill, Eliza Dushku, Michael Madsen, Bill Farmer, Dwight Schultz, and Rachael Leigh Cook, one would expect an exceptional job. Unfortunately, the majority of the characters sound flat, lack any sort of personality or emotion, and sound completely disengaged from the story. Yakuza is all about violence, but the character reactions sound delayed and bored. Not all the performances are bad, however, as Roger L. Jackson and Alan Dale, who voice Shintaro Fuma and Maseru Sera, are some of the best voices in the game. The biggest offender comes from the grating performance by Debi Derryberry, who voices Haruka. Throughout most of the game hearing Haruka yell "Hey Mister!" and "Don't leave me behind!" might actually make the player inclined to leave her behind due to how irritating she sounds. Considering how strong the story is, it's disappointing that the voice acting is so inconsistent throughout.

Looks can be deceiving. Looks can be deceiving.

   Unfortunately, the general sound design was lazily done in a way that detracts from the game's setting. It has a variety of battle themes depending on Kazuma's opponents. There is no music to speak of outside of combat, and the background chatter is an awkward mix of English and Japanese. The setting has a lot of charm, but this inconsistent sound design works against the atmosphere rather than adding to it.

   Yakuza is broken up into three distinctive modes: Event Mode, which showcases the game's cinematics and plot-related points, Adventure Mode, wherein Kazuma can traverse around Kamurocho and participate in the ample amount of sidequests and minigames. Lastly is the Battle Mode which works alongside both Adventure and Event Mode, wherein Kazuma battles various citizens, yakuza, street hoodlums, and other eclectic enemies. In Adventure Mode there are over seventy-two sidequests that can be completed along with a battle arena and casino that can be unlocked. There are also plenty of minigames to play including UFO catchers, blackjack, roulette, and chinchirorin, as well as erotic minigames such as an aromatherapy massage, which is a rhythm-based minigame.

   There are two mandatory minigames, both of which have some issues. One is the baseball minigame, in which Kazuma must hit ten homeruns for Haruka. This particular minigame is quite frustrating as there will be moments where one will hit the target, but it isn't considered a home run. The second is a Virtua Cop-style shooter, where Kazuma is being chased by the Snake Flower Triads and must shoot moving targets while also protecting Date and Haruka. Part of the problem with this minigame comes from the camera control, as it's challenging to figure out the correct camera position needed to take a shot at the enemy. With the cars constantly moving on and off the screen, it makes it tricky to move the camera in sync, and often players will find themselves taking damage while attempting to change the camera at the same time.

   Combat in Yakuza is also an interesting, if awkward, affair. The game sports a brawler combat system, akin to games such as River City Ransom. Kazuma can punch, kick, grapple, and chuck random objects at enemies, as well as generate power to go into Heat Mode. Heat Mode occurs when Kazuma has dealt enough damage. Once Kazuma emits a blue aura, he can use special moves to punish his foes. However, executing these special moves requires players to pay close attention to the top of the screen, as it only flashes when Kazuma is close enough to an enemy to perform the move. Heat Mode is immediately lost if Kazuma takes two or more hits, meaning players will have to constantly replenish the gauge as quickly as possible. The problem with Yakuza's combat is that the controls are fairly stiff. Although Kazuma can chain combos and perform special moves via Heat Mode, it's difficult to try and chain moves together, with players finding themselves constantly hitting air and losing Heat as opposed to hitting foes and executing special moves. The combat is not as robust as it could be, but thankfully this is remedied in later installments of the series.

Creepy stalkers deserve to be punished! Creepy stalkers deserve to be punished!

   Kazuma has three skills in his arsenal that he can upgrade through the game, which are Technique, Soul and Body. Through battling enemies, completing sidequests and eating at various restaurants, Kazuma is awarded experience points which can then be spent on enhancing skills. Enhancing Soul increases the power of Heat actions, Technique bestows new moves and specials, and Body generates more health. Levelling up each of these skills adds variety to Kazuma's skill set, but not enough to make the combat as entertaining as it should be.

   Graphically, Yakuza is a mixed bag. Most of the cinematic scenes are pleasant to look at and have a good amount of detail. The same cannot be said about the Adventure Mode graphics, which are cluttered in some areas. Kazuma can get stuck when running through crowds or near objects, and hand gestures often clip through other characters when they are speaking to each other. They aren't ugly, but they aren't exactly pretty to look at either.

   Yakuza can be completed anywhere between ten and fifteen hours depending on how much of the content is completed. All the additional content such as sidequests and minigames can push the game closer to the fifteen hour mark, whereas doing barely any of the additional content will put players at about ten hours or less. There's plenty of replay value with all the sidequests, and an additional game mode is unlocked once the game has been completed. Also, the game allows players to retry a battle on an easier setting after three deaths.

   Although I may have come across as quite harsh throughout this review, I actually did quite enjoy Yakuza. Thankfully, this is a series that started off rough in terms of what it was trying to accomplish within its story and gameplay, and gets consistently better as each new game is released. While the game is rough around the edges, its story alone makes this game worth playing if you can get past the awkward voice acting and stiff combat. However, for those who cannot handle the game's aforementioned problems, I'd say skip to Yakuza 2 or 3 for a more refined experience.

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