Version tested: PlayStation 2
Seeing as it's already been out in Japan for nearly two years, you'd be forgiven for greeting the European release of Yakuza 2 with a shrug. The game is set one year after the events of the original but is otherwise more of the same in almost every sense. Why should we care this far into the PS2's lifespan?
On the surface, Yakuza 2 offers little more than a series of repetitive brawling encounters, stitched together with lengthy cut-scenes, convoluted flashbacks and extensive interludes of dialogue. And yet, once you become immersed in this peculiar openworld beat-'em-up/RPG hybrid, it's hard to tear yourself away.
If you played the much-loved original, you'll know exactly what to expect. It's a gritty, accessible beat-'em-up with RPG overtones, and has more than a hint of the inspiration, spirit and style that infused SEGA's revered Shenmue series. Think of it as Streets of Rage reinvented.
You'll also find the sequel doesn't deviate from the formula one iota - for better or worse. Once again, the action and the plot revolves around the stony-faced central protagonist Kiryu Kazuma. He's a former Yakuza who's permanently on a mission to Do The Right Thing, while also smashing hundreds of people's faces into the nearest wall.
Without giving too much away, the basic gist is as follows: Kazuma wants to stop Japan's various gangland factions from kicking off an all-out war. The problem is, one particular ego-freak with an irony bypass wants to be the regarded as the 'Dragon of all Japan'. So Kazuma ends up fighting a war single-handedly, and on several fronts.
That synopsis grossly oversimplifies what has to be one of the most complex in-game stories ever. Although you seem to spend almost as much time watching as playing with Yakuza 2, the cut-scenes rarely feel self-indulgent. Once you've got a handle on who's who, what's going on and why, the chance to kick back and watch another portion of the narrative unfold feels like a real reward after some pretty intense action.
The gameplay in Yakuza 2 is well-balanced. There's just enough variety and intrigue to stop the brawling from feeling repetitive. The beat-'em-up mechanics will probably feel a little lightweight for hardcore fans of the genre, but there's a nice mixture of depth and familiar accessibility.
Pitched somewhere around the God of War/Onimusha level of complexity, most of the punch/kick combos are focused around the square and triangle buttons, with the basics augmented by grab, dodge, block and lock-on options. It's a decent compromise, which challenges the player without crippling anyone's hands.
At first, the forgiving array of oafish opponents you'll encounter require little more than a simple, repetitive square, square, square, triangle combo. So, Lewisham on a Friday night. But once you start facing smarter, armed enemies capable of blocking and dodging, the brawling aspect of Yakuza 2 becomes much more complex.
You'll start making more use of the 'Heat' ability, which encourages you to grab enemies and smash them into nearby walls, down a flight of stairs, or even throw them in the river. But with only a small window in which to grab your assailant and press triangle, it's often harder than you think.
Other opportunities to use the super-powerful Heat move present themselves in the blink of an eye. Usually when an enemy is downed, a kick in the cobblers does the trick. On the occasions you do manage to time it just right, the way the game zooms close-up in slow motion to a shot of you pulling off acts of extreme violence is a wonderfully satisfying reward. And I'm a pacifist.
So, as in the original, you'll bumble around (slightly comedically - the slow-mo running animation is still as odd as it ever was) neon-lit cities engaging in meaningless random battles, eventually making it to an objective marker on the mini-map. Typically these help move the resolutely linear storyline along, and might simply result in a bit of meandering narrative for a few minutes before you trot off elsewhere to pummel some other bad guys.
But at various junctures, you're left to your own devices without any prompt as to where to go next. This abandonment leaves you no choice but to engage in the exploration side of the game. It'll either prove to be a massive irritation or come as a welcome distraction as you inadvertently stumble upon all manner of side quests, careers and other nuggets of time-wasting fun.
Sometimes making basic mission-based progress in Yakuza 2 can feel like a gigantic pain in the arse. Particularly when the only clue the game offers is to go and look for so-and-so, with no suggestion as to where to even begin. No mini-map marker, no dialogue clue, nothing.
So, unless you like reading FAQs, the only option is to pace up and down the streets instigating conversations with anyone and everyone, until you bump into someone who can help. Sometimes walking past a specific area triggers a pre-scripted event that moves the story on, but at other times it's just a case of tediously trudging around until you find the right person in the right place.
On other occasions it's even more mind-numbing, requiring you to visit a specific shop or bar and talk to one person simply to get the main plot moving again. You can waste an awful lot of time doing this in Yakuza 2. There's no justifiable reason for such arcane design decisions.
That said, such forced exploration does have positive side effects which, if time isn't an issue, make the game more enjoyable overall. When you're stuck it's tedious to find yourself trudging around, but you end up wandering into the many bars, restaurants, supermarkets, Club SEGA arcades, bowling alleys, DVD viewing booths and driving ranges. There's a ton of incidental fun to be had if you adopt a slightly less rushed mindset.
If you're not rather pointlessly trying out new drinks and obscure Japanese cuisine, you can always help out that loon in the arcade to win the Robot Manager in the UFO Catcher machine, or play some Mahjong. At times like these, you're reminded of the way you'd lose an entire evening doing similar things in Shenmue - 'wasting' hours simply talking to randoms and shopping for useless artifacts. Just because. It seems like a waste of time, but in fact it makes the game all that more charming.
Talking to people also reaps rewards. Not for the sake of their mindless chit-chat (some of the nonsense they come out with is priceless), but because some of them give you little missions, or even mini-careers - like becoming a successful 'host' at a club for bored, rich businesswomen. By smooth-talking your way to the top you can earn a decent wedge on the side, and enjoy being a chisel-faced love machine. It's all completely superfluous to the main story, but it's highly enjoyable.
Rather than simply offering a series of linear beat-'em-up missions, Yakuza 2 offers a diverse range of distractions. Admittedly, few of them are fleshed out enough to draw you away from the main game for too long - but the more you play, the more you're compelled to seek out new secrets. Even picking up collectibles (like those bloody locker keys) becomes strangely compelling. It's just a shame the way the game almost gives you no choice but to experience this side of the game - as if we're naughty children and mustn't be allowed to decide for ourselves.
But again, I'm tempted to give Amusement Vision the benefit of the doubt. Once you do gain that sense of place from hours of wandering around, your overall appreciation for the game grows and grows. In a masochistic way, I'm grateful for having been properly exposed to the somewhat 'pointless' side of Yakuza 2. It's a better game for its quirkier features.
Part of what draws you in is the high level of technical accomplishment. For a PS2 game it's an incredible achievement, and the developer deserves credit for making each of the cities feel so vibrant, ambient and lived-in. Whether you're in a bustling main thoroughfare or dingy back alley, each and every nook and cranny you stumble upon has been designed with real attention to detail. In addition, non-repeating buildings and individually rendered shops make it easier to get your bearings.
The general hubbub ebbs and flows and you stride along, with individual speech (and thought) bubbles giving you an insight into everyone's mundane reality. The in-game cut-scenes are seriously impressive in their own right, never mind the fact they're in a humble PS2 game.
Each has been thoughtfully shot, expertly cut and generally well-animated, while stylish and detailed characters convey a convincing level of emotion. You can see why the Yakuza games cost so much to make. Thankfully, this time SEGA didn't bother wasting any more time, money and effort in dubbing the original voice-overs. It's subtitles all the way, which are far more preferable to the lamentable attempts blighting the original.
Inevitably for a last-gen title, there are a few technical quibbles which look a tad wince-worthy these days, like pedestrians popping in at the last moment, some camera-related niggles and minor clipping issues. It's also tiresome to have to juggle inventory items between a magic 'storage box' and your limited carrying capacity. In most other senses Amusement Vision tries to keep the game fun, with regular save points, the ability to retry a boss fight and temporary reductions in the difficulty level. Such features go a long way to keep you going, so it's possible to forgive Yakuza 2 when it lets you down.
In many ways, Yakuza 2 is a fitting swansong - not only for PlayStation 2, but for what SEGA managed to achieve on the platform. It's likely to be the last true big-budget epic to hit the console, and the fact that it's ended up being one of the finest action RPGs on it is gratifying for anyone who's stuck with the machine throughout its history.
Sadly, this late in the day, it'll be tough for SEGA to tempt many next-gen gamers to experience a 'last-gen' title. But those savvy enough to see beyond Yakuza 2's slightly dated visuals will enjoy a richly rewarding openworld brawler - one that's every bit as immersive and entertaining as the original. Now go out there, buy it, and convince SEGA it's also worth releasing Yakuza 3 in the West...
8 / 10