Name: Yakuza 2
Genre: Action Adventure
Platform: Playstation 2
There aren’t a lot of quality games coming out on the Playstation 2 these days. Sure, there are still a few RPGs, and the usual multi-platform fare (sports games, movie tie-ins), but the system is just about out of quality titles that you can’t get on a newer system. Fortunately, that didn’t stop Sega from releasing their niche title, Yakuza 2, two years to the day after the first Yakuza graced the console. I’m an absolute crime fiction junkie. My bookshelves are lined with Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Richard Stark, Dashiel Hammet and the like. I completely slept on the first Yakuza, so when the opportunity to play the sequel arose, I jumped at it. But could the sequel to a game I never played live up to my own hope and hype?
In short, Yakuza 2 is the best game to come out on the PS2 this year. The story is engrossing, the combat is fun, the side quests are entertaining, and most of all, the lead character, Kiryu Kazuma, is probably the most badass noble ladies man you ever had the pleasure of playing as. In one sequence, Kiryu is attacked by a friend who tends bar at his favorite watering hole. After wiping the floor with the guy, Kiryu learns the attack was prompted by the friend being in trouble financially, and hoping to collect on the bounty on Kiryu’s head. Kiryu lets the guy off the hook, and not only tells him not to close up his bar since he finds it so comforting, but that he’ll handle the bartender’s debt. It’s so refreshing to play as a character as complex and honorable as Kiryu in a genre filled with stereotypes and clichés. But Kiryu is just one of the reasons you’ll be so drawn into the game.
Yakuza 2 will draw comparisons to Grand Theft Auto, but honestly it derives more from Shenmue than it does from GTA. For one, there’s no car jacking or driving (combat is also entirely different, but we’ll get to that later). Pretty much everywhere you need to go, you get to on foot. By everywhere, I mean just about every store, arcade, club, bar, or restaurant. In addition to progressing the story, you’re able to partake in a myriad of activities, from hitting the batting cages to managing your own club. Honestly, you could lose yourself for a few hours just tasting the different actual whiskeys and scotches at various locales. That is, if you have time to try them all out while wooing one of the numerous hostesses across the city. If there’s one thing Yakuza 2 does better than its Rockstar counterparts (at least the PS2 ones), it’s provide an interesting interactive world that offers a lot, but doesn’t overwhelm you with the size and scope. Though there are a few different cities in Yakuza 2, you only have the one you’re currently in available at any given time. The advantage is not wasting any of the system’s resources on the parts of Japan in between cities, and instead focusing all assets on making cities feel as alive as possible.
Roaming the streets of Osaka wouldn’t be half as interesting if it wasn’t for the incredible sound design. Aside from wonderful soundtrack, you’ll find a great deal of attention was paid to the ambient sound of every corner of ever street. I haven’t played a game on the PS2 that had a sound mix this perfect in a long time. Since you spend so much time on these streets, making them as realistic as the hardware allows brings a lot of immersion to a playthrough. Now, while I’m sure there are tens of dozens more people on any street in Osaka at any given time than there are in this game, the world of Yakuza 2 never feels empty. The nightlife districts where you spend most of your time remind me of a Vegas street or Times Square. Neon signs are bright and garish, and there are all sorts of different pedestrians walking the streets. One minute you could run into club promoter and be forced to take his or her complimentary tissues (which then waste a spot in your inventory), while the next you’re bumping into a rich old man who insists on paying for the trouble he caused in knocking you down. Streets are also populated with thugs looking to rough you up. Little do they know how out of your league they are.
Combat in Yakuza 2 is where the game really differentiates itself from other sandbox-style games. GTA has always deferred to weapons for its combat, so your hand-to-hand experience was limited to punch-punch-kick and that’s it. Kiryu initially is limited to punching, kicking, throwing, and blocking, but as the game progresses, you are able to level up abilities, incorporating special throws, better attacks, and the all important “Heat” finisher. By fighting or completing tasks around the city you earn experience, which you can then put into leveling up in three categories: Mind, Body, and Skill. Upgrading these early and often is an important strategy. You’ll find some of the defensive tactics you learn by leveling up Body can make boss battles much more manageable. Finishers, or “Heat” moves, are really cool attacks you earn by building up a meter in combat. Pretty much everything in your environment is interactive (think hot spots in The Punisher game), so when you have enough “Heat” built up, you’re able to grab a guy and smash his face into a car/wall/homeless fire barrel, pretty much whatever you want. If you happen to have a baseball bat, kendo stick, or some other type of weapon, there’s a different finisher for all of those as well. It’s really up to you how to finish a guy off. The moves are all pretty brutal, and help remind you just how much of a bad ass Kiryu is.
All the street roaming and brawling is how the game progresses you from story point to story point. It may seem a bit repetitive at times, but the combat is so fun, you honestly won’t mind. Yakuza 2 takes a note from Hideo Kojima when progressing the story, implementing lengthy cut-scenes to tell the story. I can see how this would normally turn some people off (particularly those burned by the Metal Gear series), but honestly, the story in Yakuza 2 is so good you’ll find yourself not wanting to get distracted by the numerous side quests. Even though the game takes place exactly one year after the first, those who missed out on the first game need not worry about not knowing what happened. Moments into the game, Kiryu is given the chance to reminisce about the events of the first Yakuza, giving new players (i.e.- me) a great re-cap of characters, motivations, and the world the game takes place in. From there on, players are thrust into one of the more entertaining crime stories in any medium. The numerous plot-twists and reveals make any of the stories in a GTA game look like a Lifetime “Movie of the Week.”
Having said all these positive things about the game, it’s only fair I let you know about the game’s shortcomings. The fixed camera is probably one of the most annoying you’ve ever come across. It’s nowhere near as bad as the PS1’s MGS, but it will become more apparent how bad it is the farther you progress into the game. There are some clipping issues, and there’s quite a bit of pop in, so elitists will be put off, but I can forgive the PS2 for having these issues. It never ruins the gameplay, and that’s all you can ask. Load times wouldn’t be an issue for this game if there weren’t so many opportunities for this game to load the next in-game movie. Thankfully, this time around Sega decided not to localize the game, leaving the dialogue in Japanese and incorporating English subtitles. This wasn’t an issue for me, but I can see how some people may be put off by having to read the tiny text at the bottom of the screen. If beat ‘em ups aren’t your thing, you may also find the combat repetitive, despite how simple and fun it is.
Even taking the shortcomings into account, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better game than Yakuza 2 on the PS2 this year. I’m impressed with Sega being able to churn out a game of this quality, and wish they would do it more often. Right now the busy gaming season is just beginning, so I understand people passing this game up in favor of something on the 360 or PS3. This is definitely a game you could buy now (it’s only $30), and store to play on those nights you’re just waiting for the next big release. It’s worth the investment, and a perfect reason to blow the dust off your PS2 before you pick up Persona 4.