Platform: Playstation 2
There is plenty that has been written about Sega’s Yakuza game. A spiritual successor to the ambitious Shemue series, Yakuza made waves in Japan as one of the first videogames to explore the topic of Yakuza gangs and it is also one of the most expensive videogames ever made.
Unfortunately, in my mind, I think the Western translation of the game will go down as one of the best examples of validating Sony’s desire to introduce BluRay as the storage format of the future in gaming.
Yakuza follows the story of Kazuma, a man who murders his oyabun (crime boss) and is imprisoned for ten years. When he is released, he finds that his girlfriend is missing, his brother is now one of the leaders of a yakuza family and everyone is searching for the missing cache of $2 billion yen and a mysterious young girl that is somehow connected to everything.
As mentioned earlier, Yakuza is a spiritual successor to Shenmue. The game eschews its Quick Time Event oriented gameplay but retains the graphical style, the 24 hour (non real time) clock, easter eggs and mission structure.
Based unofficially in Shinjuku’s red light district in Tokyo, the level of detail Sega has achieved in recreating a bustling populated Tokyo district is a stunning achievement on a 7 year old piece of hardware. There aren’t many games that look like this. The constant gloomy wet weather and neon lights in a decaying city reminded me most of Westwood’s PC adaptation of Blade Runner.
The game divides its progression into story chapters. Within each chapter there is usuallya couple of objectives that need to be met to further the story. Most of this is usually combat driven and the game controls in a similar fashion to conventional side scrolling beat ’em ups with hoards of identical enemies. The unique gameplay theme really plays to Sega’s advantage here though as each battle is preceeded by a short splash screen and a musical interlude which seems to be very deliberately evoking the soundtrack to Kill Bill. So while it may be yet another Random Battle With 8 Identical Yakuza guys, the feeling that you’re about to unleash a beating not unlike what The Bride doles out to the Crazy 88s somewhat aleviates the usual tedium of level-grinding. This is helped by Sega’s successful portrayal of Kazuma in the cutscenes as a supreme badass.
Unfortunately, the game still ultimately disappoints. Here was a game that was receiving serious plaudits in Japan for its insight into the how the Yakuza operated and for telling a compelling story within this unique environment. When bringing the game to the rest of the world, Sega was faced with a conundrum. There is not enough memory on a DVD to have voice acting in both Japanese and English. While films such as Amelie and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon have largely removed the barriers and concerns that most Westerb audiences would not watch a film with subtitles, the same cannot be said of the videogame industry which continues to dub every Japanese game that leaves its shores with no option of retaining the original language and using subtitles. While it may not be much of a big deal in fantasy RPG title with no grounding in real life culture, it is crucial to making a game about the Yakuza feel authentic.
Sega took the dubbing option with Yakuza and it suffers terribly for it. There are some big name actors recruited to play the roles but the translation is dismal. What should’ve been an artful and sensitive treatment of the Japanese dialogue is turned into mush. A lot of the cultural references seem to have been flushed out and the swearing in the game is ridiculous. The game is structured to have random battles and when half of them are started by enemies yelling out ‘Hey, fuckface!’ it gives the game an aura more akin to Team America. The swearing in this game is really clumsy and far too frequent.
Will Sega ever manage to perfect this formula? Shenmue didn’t quite get it right either. I hope they keep trying and Sega is to be commended for making a project like this in the first place. And when it they finally perfect this formula and get it right, it’s going to be one sweet game. As is stands, Yakuza is still a very good game but a disappointing one also.