What better way to kill time waiting for a download from the PlayStation Store to finish than to write something?
I recently finished Yakuza 4 for the PlayStation 3, a game I thoroughly enjoyed. When I finally saved my finished game data I came to realize that I have developed a particular fondness for this series. I don’t believe this series from SEGA has a large audience outside of Japan. I have played every game in the series since the first game made its way to North America in 2006. I had been sold on its story, written by a famous Japanese novelist named Hase Seishū. I am not actually familiar with his work outside of Yakuza, known in Japan as Ryu ga Gotoku (“like a dragon”).
First I was into the series for its over the top combat, which requires breaking in and adjusting. Although the games feature characters pulling off impressive martial arts techniques and moves, the draw is using objects in the environment (traffic cones, store signs, bicycles) to do extra damage, turning a street fight into a brawl. Getting in enough hits will cause the character to enter into ‘HEAT’ mode, which allows for special moves to be unleashed on a poor (but deserving) thug. When accompanied by brilliantly evocative rock/techno soundtrack by Hidenori Shoji, the fights bring out the bad-ass in all. I suppose playing these games is like playing a yakuza film, although I haven’t seen too many of those in my time. Along with one-on-one battles, there are typically scenes where one person has to pretty much fight an entire organization inside corridors of office buildings to get to the big boss or hostage or prize or whatever.
The combat is part of the fun, but then I started to appreciate the notion that many games aren’t set in a reality-based modern Japan. The games have spanned across Tokyo, Okinawa, and Osaka, with real-life inspired locations like restaurants, bars, and convenience stores. The games allow you to put the main story on hold in order to explore this virtual Tokyo and experience a number of side quests and mini games, so much so that by the fourth game the side quests were taking precedent over the main plot for me, which is rather telling since Yakuza 4 features four player characters with four separate plots that tie together. This exploration is perhaps why Yakuza is often compared to SEGA’s last-generation opus Shenmue, yet combined with the fighting, this series also harkens back to River City Ransom on the NES.
The main stories themselves are effective in a way in that they aren’t based on the fantastical or surreal, but written as anything else but what we typically see in a game. For all the combat sequences we interact with, there are quiet scenes where the characters sit in reflection of their goals when their dialogue isn’t driving the plot. When they aren’t setting up the next chapter, they are reflecting on character, and given what this series is about there will be many a conversation about death, honor, and greed. Many of its characters are sullen although there are always one or two crazy characters to help deliver the series’ few surreal moments.
Breaking from the main plots are the side quests that allow the player to help strangers all over Tokyo and help the player gain experience points for new fighting moves. They also shift the mood of the game as many of the strangers we meet can be surmised by some of the awkward requests made or the desperation in the help they seek. Some are games within the game, like the series’ famous hostess club dating sim games. Take all that yen you earned punching thugs in the face to woo the hostess of your dreams and wine and dine the night away. The fourth game included a karaoke mode I never explored and frankly forgot. Batting cages and golf courses help build skill while enjoying a side activity. Some of the quests also exist in a more emotional plane, like when the character of Saejima helps a young orphaned boy reunite with his sister. In the big picture, I enjoy that these side quests help its world feel alive, as Kamurocho (based on the real-world Kabuki-cho) is already bustling with non-player characters with shopping bags or on the side chatting away having a cigarette or deciding where they should eat.
It is all of this that have helped make Yakuza one of my favorite series, which now pains me to say that. SEGA of America has been hit with layoffs and restructuring that might prove trouble localizing future Yakuza titles. Recently, Yakuza: Dead Souls has seen release on the PlayStation 3, which sees four characters from previous games taking on the undead. You read that correctly.