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.