In this age of cynical disillusionment, the Yakuza is perhaps the only international crime organization that North Americans can still look on with any kind of nostalgia. The once mysterious tongs are now thought of as little more than drug running slave traffickers. The Mafia’s suave counterculture image replaced by balding men with fourth-grade educations clad in track suits, partially because they're too fat to wear anything else but mostly because they just don't care about their personal appearance. Heck, John Gotti was known as the "dapper don" because he wore a suit every day, not just to court. Yet somehow, and perhaps this is just here in North America, the Yakuza have retained their sense of mystery and wonder. Whether it’s an accurate depiction or not, to the outside observer, they still all dress up in nice suits and go to elaborate ceremonies where music is played by slowly plucking one string at a time on some kind of Japanese mandolin thing. Then there’s the fact that they cut off their own fingers when they’ve made a mistake. Somehow tubby guys ogling strippers and then getting shot to death in a parking lot just can’t compete. So, even if it didn’t have anything else going for it, at least Yakuza has one heck of a setting.
Yakuza has been frequently compared to Shenmue, and it’s no accident—but that shouldn’t scare off the vast majority gamers who didn’t enjoy Yu Suzuki’s methodically paced martial-arts epic. Their similarities aren’t in gameplay, but in concept. Shenmue was, at its core, an attempt to come up with a realistic story on which to hang a fighting game—a believable reason for a man to wander the world, fighting the strongest foes. In the same way, Yakuza is all about providing a framework under which a Zombie Revenge-style 3D brawler would make sense. If it just succeeded at melding the adventure and brawler genres, Yakuza would be a good game, but it goes much farther, reaching into great game territory by featuring one of the best stories I’ve ever seen in a videogame.
The reason that the 3D brawler all but died out in the late 90s is that it’s very difficult to keep people entertained for over an hour when there’s no content to be found beyond punching various gang members in the face. Yakuza artfully dodges this problem by treating the fights like the battles in an RPG—in addition to plot-themed battles every ten minutes or so, the player can get into random battles just wandering around the city, as gangsters, street thugs, and ordinary citizens decide that they really don’t like the main character’s face. This means that every five minutes or so the player can look forward to beating up a team of around six thugs. It’s the perfect balance of fights to all other content. Every time I started itching to smash in the face of a Japanese mobster, there was always one happy to oblige.
Now, in a game where an average 20-hour first play-through will require viciously beating up over seven hundred foes, it’s important that the fighting not get stale. Yakuza offers the standard experience-point based character enhancement and move unlocking to help with this a little, but the real secret of keeping the fighting fresh is the way the game offers interactive environments to fight in. Whenever a random battle starts, it takes place in the same area that the player was walking around in when it started—usually the streets of Tokyo. The normally-crowded streets are suddenly clear, but the people haven’t gone anywhere, no, the citizens of Tokyo actually provide the boundaries for the arena as they stand nearby, watching the fight. Every arena is littered with improvised weaponry that can be picked up and used, as well as numerous surfaces that enemies can be smashed into or thrown over. It’s a real credit to the design that the fights keep feeling unique and dynamic for the entire length of the game.
All the fighting would be perfect if it wasn’t for a few glaring flaws. The first problem is in the camera, which gets way too close to the action whenever there’s a fight in a small, enclosed area. The much bigger problem is that the engine is so perfectly suited to 6-on-1 brawls that no real care was put into making it work for 1-on-1 boss fights, which makes them not just much harder, but startlingly difficult when compared to everything else in the game. The strangest thing is that it’s all because of one tiny design oversight involving the lock-on feature—the player can’t automatically turn to face his opponents, but boss characters can. To be fair, though, the game seems to acknowledge just how difficult it is, and if a fight goes badly more than twice, it offers players the opportunity to drop the difficulty down to easy for the rest of the game.
As good as the fighting is, Yakuza’s story is that much better. It’s so good, in fact, that I’m not going to divulge any of the plot’s details, because they’re worth experiencing unspoilt. I will, however, divulge the secret of just what makes the game’s story so good: a complete lack of irony. At one point a transvestite stripper pulls out a shotgun during his act and starts firing into the crowd, and it doesn’t feel exploitative and awkwardly tacked-on, just amazingly cool. Even if there’s nothing particularly new or innovative about the story—an unbelievably tough former Yakuza gets out of jail and becomes embroiled in a struggle between rival mob families as he tries to protect a little orphan girl—it’s all played with such a straight face that it invites players to take it seriously, and enjoy it for what it is, then rewards them for doing so.
Yakuza is the best example I’ve seen in a long time of just how much a great story can elevate a good game. It’s all well and good to give people hundreds of bad guys to beat down in an interesting way, but making those same players care about the people punching and getting punched moves the experience to an entirely different level. Whether its nostalgic, gauze-filtered look at the Japanese Mafia has any basis in reality or not, Yakuza gives players access to a world where gangs still settle their differences with bats and knives instead of guns and bombs, and being the toughest man in the city is an extremely marketable job skill. Then it uses it to tell a story that could only be told in a videogame. And for once, that’s being used as a compliment, rather than a criticism.