Developer: Amusement Vision
Release Date: September 9, 2008
I'll freely admit that I was a huge fan of the original Yakuza that debuted on the PS2 a couple of years back, and to this day, it remains one of my favorite brawlers on the system, even with the obnoxiously bad dubbing and somewhat tedious loading issues between battles. The story line had its faults, but I don't think anyone could deny that the main hero of the game, Kazuma Kiryu, is one of the better action game protagonists we've seen in a brawler in quite some time. He's got the whole stoic gangster thing down pat, and he's just an entertaining character to watch and see how his story plays out. Yakuza 2 manages to deliver on that aspect just as well as the original, while at the same time making some small, but needed, improvements to the overall system and gameplay.
I'm happy that we even got a chance to check out Yakuza 2 in the U.S., especially since this game was released in Japan just a year after the original title. I'm not sure if this is due to the warm reception of the side-story Yakuza title that recently released on the PS3 in Japan, or if this was Sega's intention all along, but it took nearly a year for this to get ported stateside, and I'm genuinely hoping that it's received well enough so that the eventual third title will be brought over from Japan in the next few years.
Since we'll be waiting a bit for the third installment, let's focus our attention on what we actually have! Yakuza 2 follows a pretty similar formula to the first title, wherein as Kazuma, you'll explore the city in search of clues or information regarding the main story. At the same time, you're being tossed into some random encounters with local thugs or gangs, which is where the brawler aspect kicks in. Like the first title, there's definitely an RPG feel to the overworld; while walking around the city, you can walk up and talk to people, interact with a few of them, and even partake in a couple of mini-games like Mahjong, or tackle some side-quests along the way.
However, the fighting is definitely reminiscent of a 3-D brawler, sort of like The Warriors, if you missed out on the first Yakuza. The title also puts a heavy emphasis on using your environment against the enemies, with most encounters involving a bevy of different objects that Kazuma can pick up and pummel enemies with, including street signs, pipes, boards, knives and even guns. Enemies won't hesitate to use the same tool set against Kazuma either, and they can even disarm you of your current weapon, and vice versa.
The combat system in Yakuza 2 has seen definite improvements, most noticeably with the lock-on ability. Most of the fights you get into will have Kazuma facing off against multiple foes, and in the original title, it was a bit of a chore to lock onto the guy you wanted to hit. This time out, they've made it so you can simply flick the right analog stick and switch between your opponents, and Kazuma will actually maintain that lock regardless of the direction you're moving or even if you get knocked down. It's a bit similar to what is seen in wrestling titles today, and it works really well for these multi-enemy encounters in Yakuza 2. There are quite a few combo moves to unlock, and it's also really easy to switch back and forth between enemies, allowing you to mix up your combos and prioritize whom you need to take down. This makes some of the harder, gun-wielding foes much more manageable than they were in the previous title, which is a definite improvement.
Along with combat, the load times have noticeably eased up, with the transition from city block to city block taking nearly no time at all, and the entry into a combat scene taking no more than a few seconds. This was also one of the bigger drawbacks from the first title, especially when it came from going to a random encounter and back again from the city, which could take 20 seconds or so for each go. Easing up the load times here makes each transition feel much smoother, and it doesn't pull you out of the game every time you get into a fight, as the previous title did.
Another big change is the use of an actual Japanese language track, instead of just the dubbed option from the first game. Personally, I felt that the dubbed track of the first title was one of those "so bad that it's good" kind of thing, but I can understand why people weren't such big fans. They'll be happy with this entry, though, as the subbed option is definitely nice for those looking to further immerse themselves in the game, and I'll admit that I definitely felt more interested than amused this time out.
Story-wise, I like the general plot of Yakuza 2, but it doesn't feel nearly as full and realized as the original, and it lacks a real personal connection to Kazuma. This is basically about Kazuma getting trapped between a gang struggle as he's trying to leave behind his life of crime. It's less about the theme of revenge and lost love that the first title tried to tackle. It's still entertaining as far as video game plots go, and definitely one of the better action-oriented stories on the market, but it's not quite as solid as the first.
Also, I realize that some players are probably at that point where they're kind of ready to leave behind the visuals of last-gen hardware, and considering that Yakuza 2 was already a year old before we got to play it, I can't see anyone being too in love with the way this game looks. The actual city you get to mess around in is nice and definitely full of life, but nothing near the scale of something like the current GTA title, Saints Row, Dead Rising, and so on. We've grown used to a particular amount of detail in cityscapes, and Yakuza 2 is definitely lacking in the visual department. Still, for a slightly aged PS2 title, it holds up well enough. The character models have some decent animation going for them both in and out of cut scenes, and the brutality of some of the attacks you can pull off is still pretty impressive. Being available for an older system definitely holds back the game request, but it has less to do with the developers and more to do with the technical limitations in play here.
Still, even with a few more issues to iron out, Yakuza 2 is a fantastic sequel to an already great game. While not a whole lot has changed to make this one feel like a big revolution from the first, enough issues were fixed to make Yakuza 2 feel far more playable and complete when it comes to the gameplay, and while the story takes a small step back, it's definitely a far cry from being bad. This one is definitely worth checking out if you were a fan of the original and if you missed out on the first, you could pick it up along with this for less than the price of a next-gen title at this point. Definitely do so if you haven't already, and hopefully we'll get to see part three soon enough.
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