It’s more rare than it should be for a series that’s not an RPG to make it all the way from Japan to North America, and in that sense I’m really glad that at least most of the Yakuza games crossed over. It means that more of us will get to experience the fascinatingly heavy roots in its native culture instead of merely hearing about it in easily forgotten forum threads.
I may have taken a few too many years to get around to beginning the series myself but I’m glad that I finally did. It has a number of critical gameplay flaws that try to bring it down, but the world it brings the player into more than makes up for it.
The story of Yakuza 1 hits the ground running as protagonist Kazuma’s friend and fellow Yakuza member Nishiki shoots their boss Sohei Dojima to stop the sexual assault of their friend and mutual love interest Yumi. With the police only moments away Kazuma takes the blame to protect Nishiki, going to prison for a long 10 years to pay for it.
It’s around Christmas in 2005 once Kazuma is released, and not even a single night can pass before things get complicated.
It’s a bit of an understatement to say the multi-faceted tale of Yakuza is a difficult to follow at times. Most of the main story revolves around a handful of warring clans all vying for more territory and eventually the seat of the fourth chairman (read: leader of all the clans) itself. Meanwhile ten billion yen has been stolen from the combined clan’s vault and Nishiki, who has now taken over the Dojima family head position, knows where it is. Yumi has also gone missing since not long after the incident ten years ago, and Nishiki blames Kazuma for it.
On top of all this it isn’t long before Kazuma runs into a nine year old girl named Haruka who’s looking for her mother, and wherever she goes other Yakuza members, street gangs, and mysterious organizations aren’t far behind.
Every chapter falls deeper into conspiracy theories, betrayals, double agents, and all too many people knowing exactly what everyone else’s plan was from the beginning. The final chapter is a ridiculous circle of twists begetting twists as nearly every surviving character attempts to kill the previous character who came to fight Kazuma while explaining that they were merely using them from the beginning. By the third time this happens it’s hard to muster up any excitement for it.
Luckily Yakuza is okay to a quick break every once in a while to share in a quiet, understated moment with Kazuma and those close to him. He’s around for a lot of people’s death monologues sure, but he’s also willing to help out his detective friend Date’s daughter get loan sharks off her back or save an information broker’s son. Should the opportunity arise Kazuma can also buy Haruka ice cream, do a bit of gambling, or even just enjoy a little side conversation with any of the major characters.
Not everyone has wants to talk it out however; at least not for long. There’s actually an astonishing number of people who hate Kazuma merely from the look of him and his all too nice suit. Street gang members, Yakuza from other families, and sometimes just random passerby’s who simply cannot stand his dumb face. Kazuma doesn’t want to fight everyone he meets, but is rarely given much choice.
At least as far as the first game is concerned, combat is a series of well designed systems that rarely get the chance to be of any real use. Kazuma can throw light attacks and heavy finishers that usually stagger or knock down enemies, and even has a “heat” system wherein if he deals enough damage consecutively his attacks will get more powerful and he gains the ability to do some brutal context sensitive attacks. Mixing in with this is a standard block maneuver, a quick dash that functions as a dodge, and a multitude of weapons that also have their own unique heat moves.
The problem with the combat is twofold. One is that there’s a particular combo that is vastly superior to the rest for most enemies. It’s a multi-punch attack that ends with two kicks, the second of which is unblockable. Even if they can block every attack, that final kick will either knock them out of their block and stagger them, or better yet, knock them down. If they get knocked down and Kazuma has enough heat he can then smash their face in with his foot while yelling some obscenity. For just about every enemy in the game except bosses this exact combo will get through fights while taking the least amount of damage since whomever is getting assaulted has virtually no chance to retaliate.
Despite this it’s still quite possible to get hurt since the other major issue with the fighting is that it simply doesn’t feel designed to be used in groups. Just about every encounter involves at least three guys all wanting to beat the living crap out of Kazuma, and the player has no ability to easily orientate him. Aside from not being able to turn to either side mid-combo there’s no real command to rotate without running in that direction. This results in either frantically tapping the poor lock-on button that only vaguely keeps him facing his opponent or a much more ridiculous maneuver. It involves attacking someone until they move, running around in circles to face them again, and attacking once more with the vain hope of knocking them down. That way you can smash their face in with your nice shoes before they smash his with their likely much filthier footwear.
The last hitch in the fisticuffs is more of an auxiliary one as it’s only prevalent for the last chapter or two but when the grunts get guns it becomes a new game of “how much health will Kazuma have left by the time he can slowly run to the assailants?”. Kazuma can’t block the bullets with just his arms and every other shot will knock him straight to the ground so often the best plan of attack is a silly serpentine movement that will hopefully dodge at least some of the bullets.
It would seem that even the developers noticed this as the areas where the enemies have these weapons tend to be absolutely littered with health restoring energy supplements. It makes sense thematically to raise the stakes for Kazuma as the story continues, but the already hampered combat suffers a near fatal blow from this alone.
It’s a little sad to say that the worst part of a video game is the gameplay itself, but even if the fighting was competent it would still have no chance standing up to the exquisite presentation. The city that Kazuma runs through is mostly designed for the game, but some of the buildings are modeled after real structures, and even that little bit Kamurocho a real sense of place.
There’s a “host club”, wherein people can have drinks and stare at very pretty male employee’s, featured heavily in the story, and “hostess” clubs wherein Kazuma can do the same with women. A couple of “Club Sega” arcades are littered around and offer a modicum of excitement through their games. A theater square is set up on one side of town for performances, though it gets no use within the first title. Inside the park exists an underground network of information trading, illegal gambling, and fighting tournaments called “Sanctuary”.
Finally the Millennium Tower stands ever present in the middle of the city, holding the final mystery and resolution within.
While the graphics haven’t aged too well since it was going for a realistic style in the PS2 era, it’s commendable that the developers didn’t go for an anime visual aesthetic in the eyes and faces. Considering the mostly down-to-earth hard politics angle of the game it would probably be difficult to pull of that sort of dissonance, and at the very least it’s novel to see Japanese characters who look like real Japanese people.
Yakuza flies high with it’s visual flair, but clip’s its own wing with what it actually tried to rely on so heavily when it came to the states: Full English voice acting.
It’s a little surprising that with such an amazing voice cast and remarkably well done, if unambitious, script it could all fall apart so easily. One can only imagine that these actresses and actors simply didn’t understand the how to fulfill the role of a Yakuza boss, double agent, or host club manager. The nine year old girl Haruka in particular might easily be the worst offender even if her voice acting isn’t so terribly stilted like everyone else’s; it’s just grating. Horribly grating. Possibly bad enough to make one think muting the entire game during her conversations would be a better option.
Maybe not so surprisingly, but no less welcome, on the other end of the spectrum is Mark Hamill as the rival family member Majima Goro. Functioning somewhat similarly to his classic role as The Joker, Majima revels in the pain of others and yet has an uncharacteristically caring attitude toward Kazuma, calling him “Kazuma-chan” while wearing a crooked smile and holstering a baseball bat with the fresh blood of one of his subordinates who tried to kill his opponent during their fight.
That use of honorifics is a pretty interesting touch in the localization. Most games wouldn’t bother using that or words like “aniki”, as the Yakuza refer to others in their “family”, for fear of losing a potential audience who don’t understand the words and won’t bother to look them up. It was a bit of a gamble for Sega to trust their audience to either know these terms and a little bit about Japanese culture beforehand, or be willing to do a little research to make sure the experience comes across as fully as possible. In retrospect it has to be better than all the Yakuza calling each other “brother” (in English) and potentially confusing the player even more than before.
After finishing Yakuza 1 it was very comforting to see an epilogue that provided plenty of closure for all the big players left in the game. The great mystery is completely solved, family heads get reassigned, and everyone left continues with their lives as normal.
The very last cutscene also happens to feature a quirky set of dialogue just at the end that invites the player to come back around for another journey with Kazuma next time.
Kazuma learns on the car door with Detective Date inside and says, “Welp, I’m outta here.”
“You’re not coming back?”
“Who knows? Someday, if someone really needed my help, you might see me again.”
Play Yakuza for the story, the intrigue, the characters, the style, and try not to leave because of the combat. Word is it gets better.