Sega is mostly known for it's Sonic and various other classic hits from back in the Genesis days. But another Sega title that has a cult following to this day is Shenmue. It is an adventure title with a plethora of activities to do around a given city, and it also featured combat elements. The game had a lot of different combos but various control problems were present. Although Shenmue still doesn't have a sequel that finishes its story, Yakuza does take a lot of the same gameplay elements and tosses in a brand new storyline.
The main character from the new storyline is a Yakuza member named Kazuma Kiryu. He's part of Dojima Family, which is an affiliate of the Tojo Clan (for those who don't know, the Yakuza is the name of organized crime in Japan). Kazuma also has a couple of good friends like Akira Nishiki and Yumi Sawamura. All seems peaceful in the beginning with a money-collecting tutorial that teaches you most of the battle mechanics. But the real story starts when Kazuma's friend Nishiki kills one of the top members of the Tojo Clan hierarchy. Meanwhile, Kazuma decides to take the fall and go to jail for this murder to save Nishiki. Ten years later, you're out of prison and the whole Yakuza world has changed around you. The friend you once had is now an enemy and you're dressed in the same outfit you wore ten years ago. It's safe to say that Yakuza does have an interesting story that is heavily based on Japanese Yakuza culture. Some may feel alienated by the heavy Japanese background but Yakuza's story is still a great asset. The voice acting that delivers most of the story is specially well done with the likes of Eliza Dushku, Mark Hamill, Michael Madsen and Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor in Smallville) lending their voices. In a game based so heavily on storyline, great voices definitely help in making Yakuza feel like a well-rounded title.
The story does help but what makes a good game is gameplay. And Yakuza's gameplay is still very fun despite a couple of shortcomings. The game takes place in Tokyo and it's the player's job as Kazuma, to run around the city taking part in various events. A lot of the fighting in the game is done in a sort of RPG fashion with random encounters. Sometimes when running on the street, players will find hoodlums, drunk people, or other Yakuza members who want to start a fight. So the game goes into fight mode after a screen transition and Kazuma is thrown into fights within a limited space very much like an RPG type of game. The game is more like a beat up then an RPG however, so the fights do give players a lot of freedom to run around. In fight mode, players are able to make use of a great combat system with a variety of combos. Besides normal combos, players can also grab other enemies and either throw them or beat them while in the grab. Depending on the size and weight of the opponent, it may be easy or difficult to perform throws. There is also a heat meter that fills up as players beat up on enemies. When it reaches a certain level, Kazuma enters heat mode. In this mode, players can press the triangle button while near a wall or a fence in order to perform a super move that deals a lot of damage and gives a nice cutscene. The game also encourages the use of heat mode by giving extra experience for nice kills. But using martial arts isn't the only way to fight. Kazuma can also make use of weapons that can either be bought in shops or taken from the surrounding environment. These range from chairs, guns, swords, baseball bats, bicycles, and other contraptions.
There are a lot of weapons in Yakuza and Kazuma can actually get better at utilizing them. With special training from a bum (I'm not kidding) Kazuma can improve his martial arts style and his moves with a sword. The bum however is a sort of special hidden training and most of Kazuma's upgradeability comes from experience points. The more fights or side quests that Kazuma completes, the more experience points he'll gather. Once players have enough experience, they can upgrade a number of Kazuma's attributes by giving him more combos, making him tougher, or improving his heat mode abilities.
While the fighting in Yakuza is great, a lot of the game's appeal comes from its open-ended world and the ability to do a variety of things around town. Players can take part in a variety of mini-games that have nothing to do with the story but give experience or money in return. Kazuma can buy gifts and drinks for girls and try to win their hearts. If you get enough love, you may get a pink screen and a ton of experience points. There are also Casinos around town where players can try to make some extra money in a variety of games like Baccarat, Blackjack, Roulette, Slot Machines, and others. And if that wasn't enough, players can also go to bars and restaurants to buy drinks or food in trade for experience and replenishing health. Drinks are also beneficial in that they give Kazuma a buzz and improve his heat abilities. The problem is, the random encounter rate will increase while you're drunk. There's also the question of what you're going to do while you're drunk. The obvious answer is go to strip clubs, which are also present in this game for a fee. But doing one of the side quest missions will give you a lifetime pass to the strip club for all that pixilated enjoyment.
To sum it up, I thoroughly enjoyed Yakuza. The Japanese culture and rich storyline do a lot to draw players in just like an RPG would. The fighting mechanics are extremely fun and breaking a bicycle on some Yakuza guy's head never gets old. But the game does have a few problems. A lot of times during combat, the camera will point to the wrong direction, which may make players a little disoriented. There's also the fact that actually hitting your enemy is difficult as it's very easy to miss a punch due to Kazuma not facing the right way. The game does have a sort of lock-on button that players can use but it doesn't work very well. Even with all of its shortcomings, Yakuza is still a very enjoyable game. It certainly is no cult classic like Shenmue, but in terms of entertainment, it beats its close cousin with a stick. If you're into an action adventure game with some RPG elements thrown in for flavor, Yakuza is definitely a game to check out.