There have been games that told a story well. There have been too many games that let you beat the hell out of thugs. And, yes, ever since Grand Theft Auto rocked our world, there has been a spate of hard-talking main characters and gritty cities to wreak havoc in. But so far, there hasn't been a game quite like Yakuza, and Yakuza is, for all its faults, reliably intense.
A lot of the time reviewers say "the game casts you as..." when referring to the main character. That's not Yakuza. This is the story of Japanese mobster Kazuma Kiryu. Fresh out of a ten-year stint in the can - after taking the rap for a murder he didn't commit - he cruises the same Tokyo streets he'd lorded over when he'd been on the top of his game.
This is fundamentally Kiryu's story; you're along for the ride. Somehow, you won't be complaining. The game is packed with other interesting characters, too; some are predictable by nature, but the story is so full of murder and mayhem it takes them all exciting places. This is the first game in years, maybe, where you'll be eager for the next cutscene - the story is that gripping.
It doesn't hurt that Kiryu is one of the best main characters we've seen. Clever, violent, cunning, desperate, honorable... a badass you can respect. Though set in contemporary Japan, the game is dubbed into English - and it works. Kiryu, particularly, breathes out a low-key menace... but when there's real drama, he's just as convincing.
Though he's down on his luck, you still get to explore one of the most convincing cities in video game history and brutally take on all comers. Yakuza is set in Kamurocho, a little slice of heaven, or hell, depending on your perspective. It's based on the real-life red-light district in Tokyo, and it's packed with convincing detail. It's almost like being there - if you run low on energy, just duck into a coffee shop for a recharge. Bored? Go to bars and get drunk. You can even go to strip clubs.
Of course, there's a point where that reality ends. Yakuza, for all of its forays into grittiness, is a videogame - it's about punching, kicking, collecting items and powering up your character. You'll frequently run into thugs while roaming Kamurocho, at which point the game launches into a beat 'em up battle. If you work at pumping him up, Kiryu has a large arsenal of moves, and taking out the enemies can be a great deal of fun. It does get repetitive, but you're always learning new moves, which helps keep the shine on. The boss encounters offer a lot more challenge and variety - they'll keep you guessing.
As you traverse Kamurocho, you'll also run into a lot of amusing sub-quests. From girls who scam you and steal your money to a crazy bum who thinks he's your father, the game world is packed full of bizarre characters. Most RPGs take place in a huge world; Yakuza takes place in just a fraction of one city. Because of that, though, Kamurocho is packed with things to do; you definitely won't encounter them all on your first play, especially if you're deep into the story. Fortunately, a replay mode unlocks when you beat the game that allows you to mess with the quests at your leisure.
And yes, the game is a little rough around the edges. The load times are long, the menus can be clunky and the targeting in battle is imprecise. But to ding the game for these little transgressions would entirely miss the point of Yakuza. This is a game you experience - drink in. Some will reject it for not being the Japanese GTA, as had been lazily assumed by so many before they got a chance to play it. Yakuza's story has the intensity of a page-turner - not surprising, as it was penned by a novelist - and the gameplay backs it up. Kazuma Kiryu's tale is an addictive blend of mystery, suspense and brutal violence.