Yakuza 4

I beat this game the first time while doing this blog, and I looked back to see what I wrote about it a few years ago. It turns out, I only wrote about it in my monthly catch-up post and while I liked it, I didn’t have much to say about it. I have that same problem after beating it again.

Most of what I am going to say is going to be about the narrative and structure of Yakuza 4. As far as gameplay goes, it is a modest evolution from the previous game. The combat expands by having 4 playable characters who all have distinct fighting styles. It makes some difference, but the core of how the system works doesn’t change. There are a myriad of quality of life improvements; the game just plays smoother than the previous one. It looks better. But those are all just incremental improvements. It looks and plays better than any Yakuza game that came before it, but outside of the playable characters, there are no fundamental changes.

The story is the game’s biggest swing, and while it is compelling while it plays out, the game does not manage to bring things home. Yakuza 3 ended on an ambiguous note, series hero Kazuma Kiryu, stabbed in the gut, lay bleeding out on the streets of Kamurocho. Yakuza 4 does not pick up on that, but instead widens the scope on what until this point had been the Legend of Kiryu. It picks up in the familiar confines of Kamurocho, with the player controlling louche loan shark Shun Akiyama. The game then progresses to taciturn, regretful hitman Taiga Saejima and then to committed and benignly corrupt cop Masayoshi Tanimura. Finally, the game concludes with a handful of chapters for Kiryu.

The Kiryu chapters at the end feel a little like the game chickening out. It seems to want to move on from Kiryu, but can’t quite bring itself to do so. It decenters him in the narrative, but then uses him as the anchor in this protagonist relay. It is the wrong choice. Kiryu is the character the player, assuming the player is a veteran of the series, has the greatest connection with. However, he is the character that has the least connection to the plot. He doesn’t really have a reason to be there. It almost feels like the development team wanted to replace him completely, but then did not have the courage to do so, leading to his late game appearance and prominence. His appearance is the right choice, though. As much as I want, from a story perspective, for Kiryu to be allowed to walk away to his happy ending, I also really like playing as him.

The other protagonists feel like they are auditioning to take over the position full time. Looked at that way, there are two viable candidates. The one that doesn’t quite make the grade is Tanimura. That is a bit harsh, but it is hard to imagine more stories with him after Yakuza 4. His story is the one most tied to one aspect of the plot. He is on the lookout for the man who killed his father. His story is tied to corruption within the Tokyo police. That story comes to the fore with Tanimura’s part of the story and is a big part of the machinations that drive the plot of this game, but it is resolved at the end. Unless they were looking to change the direction of the series entirely, he is not really a viable choice going forward. Plus, he is not the most interesting new character. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot there.

Akiyama and Saejima, meanwhile, seem to split aspects of Kiryu into new characters and fill in the rest with different answers. Saejima is the tortured Yakuza legend. Like Kiryu he was in prison for murder. Unlike Kiryu, he actually did it. He did it because he bought in fully to the Yakuza ideal. He did it for his Patriarch. Unlike Kiryu, Saejima wants to get back into the Tojo Clan. He is quiet and brooding, just a big scary mountain of a man. He feels credible in the role as Yakuza heavy in a way that Kiryu always seemed too genuinely good to be. But that also makes him less compelling than Kiryu. He actively wants the criminal life; he is not seeking to break free of it. Also, there is a scene that suggests a close attempt at a sexual assault against Haruka that really does not endear the player to Saejima. Akiyama, on the other hand, is the Kiryu that gets embroiled in weirdo nonsense. He is also the outsider that, for some reason, has the respect of some Yakuza family. Unlike Kiryu, Akiyama faces the weirdness, especially when it gets smutty, with more than a little enthusiasm. Kiryu is this blank slate that takes all the strangeness in stride, Akiyama actively leans into it. He is also just genuinely charming, with a roguish air. Honestly, if one of these three were to be the new protagonist, I would have voted for Akiyama.

The story starts strong. Akiyama meets with Lily, a woman who wants to borrow an obscene amount of money for an unknown reason. He tests her before agreeing to loan the money. Simultaneously, he gets embroiled with some strange goings on with Kanemura Enterprises, a local small time Yakuza family. When his friend Arai apparently kills a member of a rival family, things get serious. Akiyama falls in love with Lily, but he also learns of a few more murders. The story then switches to Saejima, and it is revealed that Lily is actually his sister. In order to find out what went wrong that landed him in prison 25 years ago, which is somehow connected to Akiyama’s story. As Saejima starts to get his answers, it switches to Tanimura, who is looking for the man who betrayed and murdered his father, 25 years ago. It is all connected. Then finally, it moves to Kiryu, who is now with Lily and has found a connection to the pile of cash the Tojo Clan had on hand in Yakuza 1.

The game builds an intricate web of deceptions and double crosses, with interesting characters and slowly unfolding mysteries. Then it gets to the end, and there is no ending. The finale is four consecutive boss battles, one for each playable character, that make varying levels of sense. But there is no final reveal that really ties it all together, and since you spend the last section playing as Kiryu, all the final revelations that exist happen to a largely unconcerned interloper. It is a lot of fun while playing through it, but the ending is just deflating. It mostly feels like the developers watched Infernal Affairs, or The Departed, and tried to replicate that in a video game, only to completely lose track of their plot and just have the player fight everybody at the end.

Yakuza games are generally games more for moments than overall coherence, but the ending here just misses completely, making the ways it doesn’t fit stand out more than a game that builds to something satisfying.

This is still not my favorite Yakuza game, but I am glad that the one that holds the place in my memory is up next. Hopefully I can get it done before Like A Dragon hits. Maybe I’ll track down the Miike movie as well.

Valkyria Chronicles 4

I heaped praise on the original Valkyria Chronicles a few years ago; I had praise for all aspects of the game. Including the story. Other than the parts about how Valkyria Chronicles was unique (I played the game in 2014 and really thought the series had gone the way of the dodo), I’ll echo that praise. Except for the praise for the story. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I felt the equivalent moral outrage playing a game. More on that later.

By and large, the game plays like the 2010 original. There are certainly some changes, including a new class, but the basics are largely the same. It is a turn based strategy game with action oriented turns. So each unit moves as though it is a third person shooter. The variety of classes and weapons create for some really fun strategic thinking, where you have to adjust your approach on the fly and are constantly reacting to things happening on the battlefield. The unit diversity is great. You have Scouts, who combine the ability to move great distances with really solid counterattack abilities. Then there are the Shocktroopers, who can’t move as far, but carry heavier weapons and (eventually) flamethrowers. Snipers have poor movement, but do carry long range, high-powered rifles. Then you have the more specialized units. Lancer’s carry essentially rocket launchers and are pretty much exclusively tank killers. They are not always necessary, but no one does what they do better. New, from one of the psp games I think, are grenadier. They carry mortars and are great at striking from a distance with explosives. They are excellent defensive units, being able to attack on enemies turns, and depending on which kind of mortar they are equipped with can take out either tanks or personnel. Lastly, there are the engineers. They are the support class. They don’t move or see as far as Scouts, but they can remove mines, repair things such as tanks and barricades, and dispense healing. You generally need one, but you don’t tend to need more than one. Finally, this game gives the player three separate vehicles: two tanks and an APC. Knowing how to use all these tools is where the game really shines.

For the most part, maps give players some freedom to devise their own strategies. It is unfortunate that the grading is done entirely on the number of turns it takes to complete the mission, but that is really immaterial the first time through the game. The game lets you decide if you want to use your tank as a battering ram to clear a path for your Shocktroopers to come through and clean up or if you want to take your Scouts around the outside of the map to catch the enemy from behind. Both can be effective. A new feature, or at least one I never utilized before, allows a leader unit to form a squad with two other units and move as a group. This is really effective at getting Lancers and Snipers into position by having them follow a Scout much further than they could get on their own.

Where this falters is with the game’s overreliance on special enemies. The later half of this game is filled with enemy units that are story characters that have essentially superhuman abilities. The squad is chased by a super tank that does not have the usual tank weakness. There are a pair of little girls that are super strong, nearly impossible to hit, take very little damage when you do manage to hit them, and if you manage to take them out tend to respawn the next turn. And there is a super-powered Valkyria. This problem might have been present in the original game; I recall them using this sort of stuff more sparingly. I expected some of it, but stuff like that becomes the focus of most of the maps in the second half of the game. I also had some problems with controls. I do remember this from the first game, but it seemed worse here. The game seems incredibly slow in getting characters into their shooting stance. It is so bad that I thought my R button might be faulty. I never did figure out the mechanics of how it works exactly, all I know is that my squad took a lot of bullets instead of pulling up their rifles to shoot back.

The story is where it really fell apart for me. It is entirely possible that I would not echo the praise I had for the original game’s story for being truly mature today. I recall precious few of the details. I know I was not as actively disgusted by what I saw than I was with Valkyria Chronicles 4. The game starts well enough, with a solid central cast of squadmates. A group from the same village who have grown up since the start of the war and have ended up back together serving in the military of a foreign state, since their homeland is occupied by fake-Nazi-Soviets. Each character’s personality roughly fits their class and are interesting enough. Then you get into the meat of the story, finding out why Kai is impersonating her missing brother and other revelations. Each one makes the squad less likeable.

SPOILERS.

The cascading revelations about the ship the squad is on for their secret mission becomes more and more awful as it goes. The game tries its best to keep the player on the team’s side, but it lost me pretty early and lost me hard. The Centurion, this technological marvel of a ship, is essentially powered by magical child slavery. That revelation is bad enough as it is. Then comes the revelation that the team’s mission is to detonate this child slavery engineer in the enemies capitol city. It ends with a debate about whether or not to go through with it (which to be clear the protagonist was because those were his orders) or not after a ceasefire had been called. There are story threads worth pulling, about how war can make a monster out of anybody. There are obvious parallels to the US dropping atomic bombs on Japan at the end of WW2. I would be okay with a game that wrestled with those issues. That is not what this is. This is the game justifying exploiting a child because she signed a contract to do it. That is an excuse the team buys, even though children cannot sign binding contracts and that it is clear she did not know what she was signing up for (see ‘children cannot sign binding contracts’). But she wants to help, so there is nothing they can do but go on. It wasn’t far past the midway point of the game when I was actively rooting against my team.

It is hard to recommend the game when I found the story so incredibly distasteful. The game still plays well; it is likely the best war crime simulator you can get for under $20. Maybe Valkyria Chronicles should have remained unique.

Yakuza 3 Remastered

It has been some time since I played Yakuza 3. Accordign to my psn trophy information. While I played the first game on PS2, Yakuza 3 was the game that made me truly a fan of the series. While I have frequently seen it rated fairly low on lists like [this], Yakuza 3 has always been one of my favorites in the series. Replaying the remastered version has solidified that in some ways, though I how the series has improved with time, and solidified another opinion of mine in relation to the series.

I’ll start with that other opinion. Here is my mildly warm take: Yakuza 3 should have been the last game to feature Kazuma Kiryu, at least chronologically. Yakuza 3 is the logical ending place of his story. Kiryu dealt with his problems in the first game, settled the Tojo Clan in the second game, and in the third game firmly established himself in a new place. His story is done. The next couple of games seem to tacitly acknowledge this, moving him from primary protagonist to one of four or five. But they keep pulling him back in anyway. I understand why; Kiryu is a great character. Most of his replacements have struggled to show similar qualities as him. Some of that is on purpose; they largely exist as foils for Kiryu in some way. Still, Shun Akiyama could have been that character with a little adjusting, fitting him into space that didn’t exist because Kiryu was there. The same is true, to a lesser extent, for Taiga Saejima. Akiyama has some knowingness, a little sleaze that separates him from Kiryu. Saejima is a little too quiet, a little too hard. He doesn’t have the charisma. But again, is that innate to the character, or does he exist that way to differentiate him from Kiryu.

After Yakuza 3, Kiryu ceases to be a real player in the plots of the games until Yakuza 6. Even in Yakuza 0 his plot feels somewhat subordinate to Majima’s. Here, we see the final evolution of Kazuma Kiryu. It is telling that a lot of this game has nothing to do with the internal politics of warring Yakuza clans. It is largely about Kiryu raising his gaggle of orphans. What even gets him back to Tokyo is a plot to takeover the land on which his orphanage rests. This game definitively sets Kiryu’s place as in Okinawa, at the orphanage.

The plot is generally where I think this game excels. It is likely the most simple in the series. For all the appearances of twists and turns, it is actually pretty straightforward. There are two different plots going on. One is Hamazaki’s plan to use the Triad’s to take control of the Tojo Clan. The other is a power grab by Mine, who idolizes the injured chairman Daigo Dojima, but despairs at the possibility of his recovery. The grotesque Kanda believes he is player in this game, but he is revealed to be Mine’s pawn early on. The other big player is the CIA, who are pushing the Tojo clan and the Japanese Defense ministry to negotiate a land deal to catch arms dealers Black Monday. All of this plotting involved in the land deal matters to Kiryu for one reason: the land that his orphanage rests on is one of the final pieces of the puzzle.

That land is owned by Ryudo Family, a tiny Tojo affiliate in Okinawa. Kiryu, of course, forges a friendship with the family and they refuse to evict him. So the deal is at an impasse. Until, that is, Daigo is shot, causing upheaval in the whole Tojo clan. At the same time, the head of the Ryudo family is shot, and the deed for the Orphanage is stolen. They were both shot by the same man. This leads Kiryu back to Kamurocho to find who did this and secure his orphanage. Kiryu unravels it all with his fists and sets things right.

The most affecting part of the game is Kiryu with the Ryudo Family. There is good stuff in Kamurocho, as Kiryu fights his way through everything. But it feels a little deflated. Most of the characters from the first two games are dead, or disposed of pretty quickly. Even Majima has precious little to do, though he makes the most of his brief appearances. But in Okinawa, it is prime Yakuza stuff. Because it is personal; because it matters. Ryodo family head Nakahara is an old man who is like an older, somewhat failed version of Kiryu. He too has an adopted daughter, the silent Saki, and like Kiryu he would do anything for her. The only other members of the family are the hefty comic relief Mikio and hot-headed second in command Rikiya.

Rikiya is, in my opinion, one of the best, if not simply the best, supporting characters in the city. Whereas Nakahara is an older version of Kiryu, Rikiya is a younger version of him. He is proud and strong and fiercely loyal. He is like a fully fleshed out version of Yakuza 1’s Shinji. The game keeps him around just enough for the player to get to know him. First, he is something of an enemy, then he sees Kiryu in action. He helps out throughout the game and the player really learns a lot about him. Especially if the player does the two Rikiya centric substories. While he doesn’t quite reach the heights of series mainstays Kiryu, Haruka, or Majima, Rikiya is as good as anyone else.

Where the game falters is in the gameplay. It is stuck between the later PS3 and PS4 games and the PS2 games. There are significant improvements from the early games, but the game is not as fleshed out as the series would become. The substories are not especially good, but there are a lot of them. Eating at restaurants is a chore. A lot of the minigames are weird. It is a transitional game in the series. It is still a lot of fun, but with just Kiryu and just one fighting style, the game feels limited in some ways.

I am no longer sure it ranks up there with 5 or 0 as the best in the series, but it is one of my favorites. I kind of wish it had gotten the Kiwami treatment like the first two games, as a simple remaster leaves this as the most archaic game in the series, but it is not so old fashioned that it is not worth playing.

Now Playing November 2019

Beaten

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse –

I bought this game a few years ago, but never really got around to until recently. It is a pretty typical Kirby game in a lot of ways. It colorful and pleasant and not particularly challenging. It plays much like the DS game Canvas Curse, with the player using the touchscreen to draw paths for Kirby to follow through the stage. Knowing how to draw lines to both direct Kirby and to deflect obstacles is intuitive. I don’t know that it is quite as satisfying as a normal platformer, but it still works really well. There is a multiplayer component, but I didn’t have the chance to play it, so I don’t know how well that works. The most striking element of the game is the graphics. Nintendo has long been the master of aesthetics, and Rainbow Curse is another high mark. There was Kirby’s Epic Yarn, which Nintendo took to the next level with Yoshi’s Woolly World. There was The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, with its impressionist looking backgrounds that resolved into solid shapes when you got close. Rainbow Curse turns everything to clay. It looks amazing; Kirby rolls and squishes. Everything really looks like someone shaped them and get realistically deformed by various kinds of contact. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is like a lot of the Kirby series; somehow forgetably excellent.

Battlefield 1 – read about it here.

Persona Q2 – post coming soon.

Streets of Rage 2 – At Thanksgiving, me and my brother powered through this classic beat-em-up. I don’t have a lot to say about it; Streets of Rage 2 is really good. I had the first back in the day, and my brothers and I would beat it repeatedly. The sequel has some more complexity and gets pretty tough as it goes, but it delivers some classic brawler fun. There is just something mindlessly enjoyable about moving to the right and punching out hundreds of dudes. The brawler has always been my preferred arcade style game. This deserves its reputation as one of the best.

Ongoing

Judgment – Progress is slow, but I am liking this game. Despite its similarities with the Yakuza series, I can feel the developers attempting to give this game a different flavor. A lot of the detective specific stuff works. Examining a crime scene is fun. But some stuff feels like a step back. Like the modal running/walking switch. Instead of holding a button to run, and smoothly transitioning in and out of different speeds, you push a button to run and keep running until you stop. It is a small change, but just slightly more awkward than it was before. Still, this is really good. I hope with some time I can really dig into it.

Sega Genesis Mini – While I beat Streets of Rage 2 with my brother, we sampled almost all of the multiplayer games. When I am around my brothers, I will probably give them some more time. Some Golden Axe or Gunstar Heroes. I also played through about half of World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck with my three year old nephew. He’s not quite old enough to grasp the game past the opening stage, but we had fun. When I’m playing solo, I really want to get to some time with the more complex games; like Shining Force, Beyond Oasis and Phantasy Star IV. I am really liking the Genesis Mini.

Sonic Mania – I played two more stages. I think I might be done with this for now. I don’t have anything bad to say about it, I’m just not feeling it right now and I don’t want to force myself to play a game I’m not enjoying.

Upcoming

Life is Strange – There was a PSN sale, I picked up a few things. Like Battlefield 1. And this, as well as Cosmic Star Heroine and Dragon Age Inquisition. I am going to play this next, and with a month between semesters I should have time to finish it.

SteamWorld Dig 2 – I got some game for my 3DS during the Black Friday sale. This is the first one I am looking to get started with. I kind of forgot this game came out. I loved the first SteamWorld Dig game and SteamWorld Heist.

Shovel Knight: King of Cards – I’ve never actually finished any of the extra campaigns for Shovel Knight. I played about half of Plague of Shadows and a couple stages of Spectre of Torment. I really want to correct that oversight, and the release of the fourth campaign feels like the ideal time to do that.

Yakuza 6 The Song of Life

Yakuza 6 was conceived and sold as the end of the Kazuma Kiryu story. And it is that; it is supposed to be the last time we see the Dragon of Dojima in a starring role in the series and it really does close out his story. I have some spoilery thoughts about how it does that which will be at the end of this post, but it is an ending. The Song of Life is a strange game for the send of the series iconic hero, as it removes him from nearly every character he has built up a relationship with over the course of the series.

Before I dig into the story, a few words about the gameplay, which is solid. I first experienced this new Yakuza engine with Kiwami 2, and this feels much the same way. The game is a little more fluid than it was before, moving more seamlessly into and out of fights with roving bands of thugs that accost Kiryu in the streets.

One thing that is absolutely disappointing with Yakuza 6 is how little the series usual cast has to do. Yes, it stars Kiryu and nearly every game in the series has introduced a full new cast to spend time with. But the series has built up quite the stable of regulars and most of them are MIA for the bulk of the game. If you played Yakuza 0 and love Majima, this is not the game for you. I don’t know that he even speaks a line. The same goes for Saejima, a co-protagonist of Yakuza 4 and 5. He appears briefly at the end and does nothing. Daigo Dojima is absent as well. Haruka Sawamura, who is vital to the plot of the game, is barely there outside of some bookend scenes. Kiryu’s detective friend Date makes the occasional appearance, and Akiyama at least gets to show up occasionally, but they are tertiary here, at best. Maybe it’s just me, but I expected a game that is saying farewell to its hero to let him interact a little more with all of the allies he’s built up over the course of the previous six games.

Still, the game fills in with some really good new characters. I have long been a defender of Yakuza 3, and one of the things I loved about it was Kiryu meeting a yakuza family that initially knew nothing about him, only to win the group over just by being awesome. Yakuza 6 does the same thing, and I think does it a little better. Instead of a family of just three, this one is a little larger and feels a little more fully formed. Plus, they are led by Beat Takeshi. Kiryu shows up in Onomichi looking for clues about what happened to Haruka. AMong the first people he encounters is the abrasive Nagumo. Soon, he meets, and fights, all four of the underlings of the Hirose family; Nagumo, Matsunaga, Tagashira and Yuta. Nagumo and Yuta quickly become close allies. It follows a familiar set up, with first they fight Kiryu, then they grow to respect him, then almost worship him. By the time you get to the end and a former foe is agreeing to go on what is essentially a suicide mission with Kiryu, it all feels just perfect. Which is what makes the ending such a downer.

Here is my big problem with the ending: it is not the ending to the game that preceded it. It is a perfectly understandable ending, and fits with Kiryu’s characters, but it flies in the face of the lessons he supposedly learned during the preceding 40 or so hours of game. It is also clumsy and occasionally aggravating. I am going to have to really spoil things to explicate this, so consider yourself warned. Yakuza 6 ends with the apparent death of Kiryu. This is a fine ending, though a little disappointing given the perpetrator. Still, Kazuma Kiryu shot down while protecting his Haruka is a perfect way for him to go out. After 20 minutes or so of ending, the other shoe drops. Kiryu is not dead. He survived the gunshots. Instead, he took a deal from the government to cover up certain revelations during the last act of the game and has to disappear forever. So he does, leaving his family behind. And that is where the game loses me. Kiryu deciding or discovering that his family is safer without him around and then leaving to keep them safe is a very Kiryu thing to do. But the game just spent it whole story showing why that is a bad idea. Again, the relationships between fathers and children is the heart of the game. And the game shows a multitude of ways in which they work and they don’t, and one big thing, outlined by Kiryu in a letter to Daigo at the end, is that a father needs to be there for his family. The game opens with Kiryu, in order to be with Haruka and the kids from the orphanage, going to jail for his Yakuza past. The idea is that he’ll serve his time and be allowed to be with them as himself. When this attempt to deflect attention fails and people are paying attention to Haruka, she leaves the orphanage as well, because the girl with the adopted yakuza dad draws too much negative attention. She doesn’t tell Kiryu this, so when he gets out and find her gone he sets off looking for her, and finds her in a coma, the victim of a hit and run, and mother of a small child. The father of that child is revealed to be a low level yakuza member, though like Kiryu a good guy.

Along with several other plot threads, the clear message here, to me at least, is that Kiryu going to jail to protect Haruka didn’t work. He wanted her out of the yakuza or yakuza adjacent life, but she ended up in it anyway. Again, the most important thing about being a father, according to Kiryu, is being there for your kids. He shows this by not being there for his kids. If the lesson of the game was that Kiryu’s yakuza past will always catch up to him and the only way to keep Haruka safe is to leave her, then okay. She’s grown by this point anyway. But the game teaches the exact opposite lesson, that bad things are coming no matter what and he needs to be there. Plus, Haruka takes over the orphanage with her (ex?) yakuza beau, so everything is right back where it started. The whole thing just didn’t work for me. That missed note at the end kind of soured me on what was otherwise an excellent game.

I’ll still play Yakuza games going forward, and am interested to see who will take over has the protagonist. Will it focus on Saejima and Majima? Akiyama? Those are good options who have been playable in the past, but they are all also kind of old. Maybe Yuta will take over, but if so, why get rid of Kiryu. I know the next game set in Kamurocho is this summer’s Judgment, which is about a detective. I’m not sure if any Yakuza characters show up.

Yakuza 0

After being one of the best video game series around for the last half decade or so, Yakuza finally got its big break with Yakuza 0, the first game to really explode in much deserved popularity. I have to assume this is mostly down to timing and platform, with Yakuza 0 being the first on the PS4 and access to it’s easy sharing functions, because while Yakuza 0 is a ton of fun ii primarily does the same things as the previous two games in the series. There is no great leap forward in presentation or play to explain this entry’s popularity. There is that it is a prequel, with the implied lack of series baggage. Knowing the series plot history has never been a true hurdle to playing this series; each game tends to knock down all of the dominoes it sets up leaving a clear playing field with the new status quo for the next one. But thinking you have 3 or 4 games worth of story to catch up on can definitely be a perceived hurdle.

The biggest change, gameplay wise, is going from having a handful of playable characters who each have different fighting styles to having just two playable characters who each have several fighting styles. In Yakuza 4 and 5, the game split the story up between 4 different characters who each fought in different ways. (Yakuza 5 also had playable Haruka, who didn’t fight except with dance.) Across the two games you had the familiar Kazuma Kiryu with his balanced style, the hulking Saejima who is slow but powerful, Akiyama with his quick kicks, Tanimura with his counter based style, and Shineda the former baseball player who incorporated his baseball skills into a fighting style. Those are condensed onto Yakuza 0’s two protagonists, Kiryu and new playable character and series mainstay Goro Majima. Kiryu has his own fighting style along with Brawler, a heavy style somewhat reminiscent of Saejima and Rush, a speedy style similar to Akiyama. Majima has his own unique style and a baseball influenced not unlike Shineda. It allows the game to simplify the story while not losing any complexity in the battle system.

The other change is the game’s time setting. Yakuza 0 is set during Japan’s 80’s bubble economy, so money plays a big part in this game. Money does everything. Gone are experience points from previous games, which have been replaced with money. The big sidequests for both Kiryu and Majima involve business ventures that make money hand over fist. You can also go disco dancing and have disco dance battles. For the most part the game retains everything that makes the series great, but it manages to fill in the edges with period detail to make the setting a big draw.

I am mixed on Yakuza 0’s plot. It is largely in line with the rest of the series, which means lots of fights and double crosses alongside long conversations about the nature of masculinity and honor. My problems come from the fact that young Kiryu doesn’t quite work and that the game focuses on him when this should be more fully Majima’s game. Majima, as he has frequently done as a bit player in the grand Yakuza tapestry, steals the show here. But he doesn’t get quite the opportunity he should have.

Kiryu is the stoic rock at the center of the series and this game, which usually works given the what goes on around him. Here, though, he comes off as slightly bland. Instead of being a quite badass, he comes off as something of a nothing. Part of the problem is that young Kiryu doesn’t work as well as the older version from the rest of the series. Even when we first meet him at the start Yakuza 1 Kiryu is a man entering his prime, ready to take full advantage of his abilities. Here he is young and green, his taciturn approach lacks the world weariness that is a huge part of his character in later games. It would have worked better, I think, to have him be a little more hot-blooded, a bit of trouble maker. Kiryu has never shied from using his fists to solve problems, this tale works better with him growing into the man he would become instead of just people realizing what a badass he is. What does work in Kiryu’s story is how it builds his relationship with Nishiki. That never quite worked in the original Yakuza, because the game didn’t really sell Nishiki as a friend before Kiryu went to jail. This game builds that relationship.

Kiryu’s story is kind of familiar; he is framed for murder and ends up expelled from the Dojima Family as he tries to figure out who framed him, eventually setting him against his former allies.

Majima is easily the more interesting character, and his arc could be more fully formed if he had the same story real estate as Kiryu had. At the start, Majima is disgraced, living out of Kamurocho and working running a cabaret club. He wants nothing more than return to his crew, but has no real avenue to do so. His story really gets going when he gets a way back with an order to commit a hit. Except the target turns out to be not what he expected and Majima ends up trying to protect a young blind girl from just about everybody.

The game kind of tracks Majima’s development into the Mad Dog Majima that we all know and love, but that throughline is kind of muddled. You can see the pieces that are supposed to be tied together to build that story, but they never really gel. I won’t lie about the relationship between Majima and Makoto really worked for me. Makoto, for much of the game, isn’t much of a character, but in the middle part of the game she really starts to be an actor in the goings on. The two of them have a kind of genuine romance like this series has never seen. So when it comes to the end [SPOILERS] and Kiryu is the one who is saving her while Majima is simply after revenge [/SPOILERS] it kind of hurts. Especially the last few scenes, where the two of them go their separate ways. The problem is that Majima’s threads seem to get a little short shrift when compared to Kiryu’s comparatively less engaging plotline.

Yakuza 0 is a very good game. It certainly deserves its success. I don’t know that I would put it above any of the PS3 games (I acknowledge Yakuza 3’s shortcomings while really liking its story), but there isn’t a lot of difference in quality between them. I am pumped to get the the other 3 Yakuza games I have on the PS4.

Yakuza 5

I don’t think I’ve written about my love for the Yakuza series much. And I do love it, though it is unlike other games I tend to enjoy or write about here. I have been a fan of the series ever since I picked up the original game way back in 2008 or so. I was initially put off, having read bad reviews, likely from that rag Game Informer, but as the second game was nearing release, I picked up the first game used and has a blast with it. It felt like the distant descendant of River City Ransom, with an RPG’s attention paid to the story. While I wasn’t able to find a copy of the sequel, I did nab Yakuza 3 & 4 when I got a PS3. I only finished the fourth game a little more than a year ago, just before Yakuza 5 finally hit. I purchased and downloaded it right away, but put off playing it for a while since I had just spent so much time with Yakuza 4. I’m glad I did, because Yakuza 5 is probably the best game in the series and it deserves to be played fresh.

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Like its predecessor, Yakuza 5 splits the game into chapters, each with a different protagonist. Each of these chapters could be their own game, though those games would be a little short. It starts with Kazuma Kiryu, the series longtime protagonist, while Shun Akiyama and Taiga Saejima make return appearances. While there is no sign of Tanimura, Yakuza 4’s fourth protagonist, he is replaced by Tatsuo Shinada. Also, for the first time in the series Kazuma’s adopted niece/daughter/ward Haruka Sawamura is playable. Each of these chapters has its own setting, storyline, and tone. Yes, they eventually connect, but they also stand on their own right up until their conclusions. Kiryu’s chapter is a very much a traditional Yakuza game, with a city to explore and lots of thugs to fight. Saejima’s chapter features another prison break for him, as well as an extended stay in the mountains. The third chapter is a curve ball, starring Haruka as she gets her start as a pop star. All of the fighting is replaced with dance battles and rhythm game musical numbers. At least, they are until the president of her talent agency turns up dead and in debt to genial lender Akiyama. From there the two split the chapter as they try to win a singing competition and get to the bottom of a murder mystery. The last chapter is back to Yakuza business as usual, but this time with a character completely unfamiliar with the criminal underworld. While their stories are separate, they all lead to the same place, with one mastermind behind the whole thing.

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The most amazing thing about Yakuza 5 is how varied the gameplay is and how satisfying everything it. I have long criticized a lot of open world games, like GTA, for offering the player thousands of things to do, except none of them are fun. While not everything available to player to do in Yakuza 5 is fun or remotely worth doing, the bulk of the central modes are enjoyable. Kiryu starts the game with a job as a taxi driver, and his racing and driving missions are surprisingly fun. That same goes for Haruka’s rhythm games and Shinada’s adventures in the batting cages. The standout is the hunting minigame with Saejima. There you take to the snowy mountains with just a gun and a small pack to hunt bears, as well as host of other woodland creatures. All of these things are different from the main brawling gameplay, but all of them are also worthwhile in their own right. The pool minigame isn’t half bad either, nor is the golf, though you can safely avoid the slot machines.

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The Yakuza series doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would like. It is a very violent game. Overtly, obscenely, unnecessarily violent. But that violence tends to stop short of killing. This is not a murder simulator. The dudes you pummel in the streets might not realistically survive the beatings they get put through, but the game dutifully shows them alive, if aching, after every fight. That goes a long way for me. Even though this is a game about criminals, taking a life is not something even they take lightly. It is a game that strikes a tone similar to Metal Gear Solid. That series can ponder the nature of loyalty while at the same time have Snake track down hidden cartoon monkeys in the forest. This is a game where the protagonists can get caught up in all sorts of silliness, like a man getting into multiple fist fights with a bear, but still features long cutscenes where the characters ruminate on what it means to be a man and how to go about keeping their manly honor.

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The tragedy of the Yakuza series is that Kiryu will always be the star, even though it would likely be better for him if he weren’t. By the third game in the series he has retired to Okinawa to run an orphanage, but in each game since he gets drawn back into the action. In the last game worthy successors were created in Saejima and Akiyama, but fans would revolt if Kiryu weren’t in it. Even in the game world he is such a legend that he is deliberately pulled into the action so a character can prove themselves by beating him (they can’t). The trio of non-Kiryu fighters in this game would be more than enough for the game on their own. Akiyama is a personal favorite of mine, with his lackadaisical approach to life, but his deathly serious take on his job. Shinada’s story is the most disconnected from the rest of the game, but it is also the most satisfying. He is a former professional baseball player who was framed for cheating and banned from the sport. More than a decade later he is prompted to investigate the conspiracy that got him banned for life. He is joined by the apparently unscrupulous loan shark Takasugi. While the normally carefree Shinada is forced to confront some darkness he had ignored, Takasugi proves to me much more soft-hearted than he initially appeared. It is an altogether satisfying little story. However enjoyable the other stories may be, the heart of the game is the relationship between Kiryu and Haruka. He gives everything up to let her live her dream, but by the end she realizes that her dream, which began as a way to provide for her surrogate family, will prevent her from being with them.

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Yakuza 5 is a jambalaya of a video game. Everything is thrown into the pot and the flavors meld perfectly. The tone ranges from silly to somber, from awesome to heartbreaking. I have enjoyed each and every game I’ve played in this series, but I don’t think any of them are quite as good as Yakuza 5 is. It is too bad I’ll never get to play the Japan only spin off, but at least we can look forward to Yakuza 0, Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami over the next year or so. That is almost enough to finally get me to spring for a PS4.

Video Game Archaeology: Dinosaurs for Hire

It’s time for more Video Game Archaeology! This entry’s game is Tom Mason’s Dinosaurs for Hire for the Sega Genesis. Dinosaurs for Hire was developed by Malibu, probably, and published Sega in 1993. I found it, sans case, at Game Zone, a video game store in Joplin, MO. While the cover comes off as more derivative than genuinely interesting, I thought an unknown Ninja Turtles knock-off to be intriguing enough to warrant a 3.99 purchase.
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