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Ryu Ga Gotoku, loosely translated as “Way of the Dragon,” was a surprise success in Japan, which had me reading import sites looking for screens and information, not to mention praying to the gaming gods that it would localized for North America. I got my wish, but not without a compromise.
Yakuza is the story of Kiryu Kazuma, who, after taking the murder rap to protect a friend, is finally free after 10 long years in jail, only to discover the Yakuza hierarchy has undergone some serious changes. He also discovers that 10 billion yen have been stolen, and the only clue to its location is linked to a young girl. With this as a backdrop, the game unfolds over multiple chapters, all of which you have the freedom to pretty much ignore until you want to progress further into the main mission. Considering the marvelous job of writing a compelling script Japanese author Seishu Hase did with the plot, however, it’s not likely you’ll want to ignore any of it.
Should you decide to branch out, you’ll have full run of the city, with various sub-missions to complete such as saving restaurants from protection rackets, catching pickpockets or even trying to pickup a hostess and win her affections. As you navigate around the city chapter by chapter, various types of gangs will attack you, and by defeating them you earn yen and gain experience. Although the game on the whole echoes Shenmue somewhat, Yakuza really isn’t Shenmue, nor is it GTA: Japan, as there are no vehicles to drive and no cops to give chase.
What is it then? Probably the best beat-em-up game you’ll play this year, sprinkled with minor role-playing elements. These elements enable you to level-up Kazuma’s Health, Technique and Heat. By attacking with kicks and punches, you build up your Heat, enabling you to unleash some truly entertaining brutal moves involving either the weapon of your choice or your hands and feet. Building Technique, meanwhile, allows for a greater move set and more painful moves.
The fighting engine isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done. Everyday items are easily used as weapons: see that bike over there? How about that neon sign outside the restaurant? Just grab it and get medieval on some enemy butt. There are also items and weapons to buy and use, but they are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, as most weapons provide only a few uses before they break and are mainly heath, gambling aids or gifts for the mini-games. There are a few power ups, including one that allows you to avoid being surrounded.
Yakuza’s graphics are good, but something about them seems almost as though the game would run better on the Dreamcast, as it looks somewhat like a port (even though that’s obviously not the case). The camera is at a fixed angle, and about the only control you have is to zoom rather than move it around. This isn’t perfect, but while playing the game you realize that it’s probably the best angle for the majority of the game. It does get annoying with certain boss fights when the target moves off screen and continues to hit you, but really most of the bosses are pretty easy if you have ample health items equipped. The city is quite nicely designed and really goes a long way in creating the atmosphere of Japan. It’s quite dense with numerous stores, restaurants, bars etc.
The ambient sounds tend to get repeated a bit, but all in all the audio serves to set the scene quite well. Also, what could have been a red flag, Sega’s decision to dub the voices from Japanese to English and not offer the option of having the original voices with subtitles, turns into a pleasant surprise, as the voice cast does a good job, even better than Shenmue’s English voice cast. If you though you’ve heard mature language in a game before, though, think again: the f-bomb flies around both in voice and text constantly, and while you think this may have been a part of localization process, it actually stays true to original script.
One technical issue that was neither a pleasant nor unpleasant surprise was the amount loading this game does. There’s a LOT, and when Yakuza isn’t loading, you’ll hear the PS2 drive working overtime. It doesn’t really detract from the game, it just gives you a pause to take a drink before going into a fight. Not counting those pauses, though, Yakuza still lasts about 19 to 20 hours, even without completing all the side quests and mini games. After beating the game you’re given the opportunity to go back and finish things up, but the few unlockables don’t really add anything substantial to the mix.
Still, Yakuza is fresh take on the brawler style with a genuinely interesting and original subject matter. With strong writing it proves you get what you pay for. Want a great story? Hire a professional. Yakuza plays up its strengths, which make you look over its little quirks happily. It may show its influences here and there, but generally it improves upon all of them.

Overall: 7.5
A good story, decent length and immersive gameplay make the game shine, but lots of loading, vague subquests and camera control hold it back somewhat.

— Phillip Vollmer

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