Retro Review: Yakuza (PS2)

SEGA’s Yakuza series has had quite a few difficulties finding success outside of Japan, whether it’s problems with localization, its nichè gameplay not having mass-market appeal, or the series being very heavily rooted in Japanese culture in its setting, tone and story. However, in the beginning of 2017, Yakuza 0 was released in the West, and it acted as sort of a renaissance for the series. Its success saw a surge in the series’ popularity, and SEGA is more than happy to give hungry fans more. With Yakuza Kiwami, a PS4 exclusive remake of the original Yakuza, the developers wish to bring more players up to speed on the story while also celebrating how far the series has come since its inception. Due to Kiwami releasing in the very near future, there is no better time than now to revisit the flawed little PS2 game that started it all.

The original Yakuza was released on PS2 in Japan in 2005 and a year later internationally. The story of the game focuses on famed yakuza, Kazuma Kiryu, who operates in a fictional entertainment district in Tokyo known as Kamurocho. Very early on in the story, Kiryu ends up sentenced to 10 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Upon being released from police custody, he finds things in Kamurocho have changed: Friends have turned into enemies, and the yakuza family he was once part of has now cast him out. Very quickly, Kiryu gets sucked into the middle of an elaborate conspiracy involving the entire yakuza family. It’s up to the player to figure out what the source of the family’s infighting may be. The story of the game was very highly praised in the time of its release, and for good reason. It was one of the first games to depict Japan’s seedier side in a rather true to life manner, as well as showcasing a lot of impressive cinematography for its time.

While the story still remains good and engaging, it has its fair share of problems, the biggest of which is the localization. Yakuza on PS2 is the only game in the series to receive a full English dub, featuring a lot of very big name actors, such as Michael Madsen and Mark Hamill. Despite the star-studded cast and some very good casting decisions (Mark Hamill as Majima is perfect casting on paper), the dub feels very phoned in. Everyone’s lines feel very subdued, and with some cutscenes having little to no background music, this makes a lot of scenes feel rather dull and not very emotionally engaging. The dub isn’t terrible, just very dry and unremarkable. This isn’t helped by the writing, which showcases a very sophomoric understanding of what “mature” means, crowbarring in as many F-bombs as possible, and lacks a lot of the character nuances present in the future games. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the dub was optional, but unfortunately, Japanese audio is not included in the PS2 version.

Yakuza laid the groundwork for the overall gameplay design of the series. For a majority of the game, you will be exploring the district of Kamurocho and getting into various fistfights. The fighting obviously feels very basic in comparison to recent entries but still manages to be a weighty and satisfying combat system in its own right. This is helped by a balanced difficulty curve (with the exception of some weapon-based encounters) and excellent sound design, which help make every blow feel as weighty as possible. The combat system will mainly have the player dishing out pain with the use of light attacks, heavy attacks, grabs and environmental weapons. There are defensive options ranging from dodges, blocks and parries. The Heat system, which Yakuza is famous for, makes its debut here: When fighting, the player will fill out a gauge that grants passive bonuses, as well as the ability to use devastating special moves known as Heat moves. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many Heat moves on offer, but this did help Heat feel more like a strategic necessity rather than a flashy spectacle. The combat has its fair share of issues as well: The soft-lock is a bit too loose, and coupled with the inability to attack in multiple directions (without having discovered the moves later in the game), you will end up flailing past a lot of enemies, leaving you open to a counterattack. Unless you try to play very methodically and patiently, you will be punching the air a whole lot during the game’s 15-hour campaign.

There is, however, quite a lot to keep you distracted in Kamurocho. Yakuza has always been known for its abundance of mini-games, and while the original doesn’t boast too wide a selection, there is still quite a lot to do, from visiting massage parlors, to playing games at the arcade, to wooing hostesses at the hostess club. There are also numerous substories located all over the district. These side-missions, while good, demonstrate an overall problem with the game’s design – it’s a bit too cryptic for its own good at times. Things like side missions don’t get marked on your map, nor do they list their objectives. The same can be said about various integral characters that aren’t exactly pointed out to the player. A little more communication from the game would’ve gone a long way to alleviate some frustrations. As it stands, it is definitely a game I would recommend playing with a guide.

The presentation of the game is truly excellent. The visuals, while dated by some standards, still carry a lot of charm, offering quite expressive and emotive character models. The district of Kamurocho was also first introduced here and would go on to be the setting for all future entries in the series. It is also quite a sight to behold, as it must’ve been hard to get a busy city district with this level of detail functioning on the PS2’s hardware. Because of this, some obvious compromises had to be made. While the streets are filled with pedestrians, various establishments, and text boxes showcasing people’s chit-chat and banter, it is all viewed from the perspective of a fixed camera angle. These camera angles are mostly fine, but going from one camera angle to another isn’t a smooth transition, like in classic survival-horror games, instead requiring a second or two of loading. This can make traversing the environment a bit of a slog at times. The audio design here is excellent. Apart from the dub, everything has received a lot of love and care: weighty and satisfying sound effects in combat all topped off by an incredible soundtrack, which features tunes that ended up being some of the most iconic in the whole series. Subsequent entries often carry throwbacks to the first game’s soundtrack, and for good reason.

With all these issues, one might be thinking if it is even worth playing Yakuza anymore, now that the PS4 remake is available. While the remake will certainly be an improvement over the original as a game, Yakuza still has its charms. It is a very interesting game to go back to, just to see how far the series has come. While flawed, the game helped lay the groundwork that the rest of the series would build on top of in subsequent entries. Playing the game in chronological order helps you see how with each installment the series has tried to iron out issues that it may have had. The quality leap between entries is showcased best in Yakuza 2, which improves on almost all aspects of the first Yakuza. That is one of many reasons why Yakuza 2 continues to be one of the fan favourites in the series, despite its old age. With 2017 being the height in the series’ popularity, it would be nice if SEGA could bring the Ryu ga Gotoku 1&2 HD Editions, which contained HD re-releases of the first two Yakuza games, over to the West. That way, new fans can experience both the remake and the originals. It would also help the originals gain a lot more exposure, since neither game is available outside of the PS2, with Yakuza 2 especially fetching some outrageous prices online.

Yakuza is a good yet flawed little PS2 game that helped create the foundation for one of the most unique game series out there. What it did right was exceptional enough for the developers to continue making sequels. While it had its fair share of flaws, the developers learned from them and improved their games with each entry. Yakuza on PS2 shows us the series’ rough origins, and what better way to see how far the developers have come since than by checking out the PS4 exclusive remake, Yakuza Kiwami, releasing August 29th?