The popular 龍が如く (Yakuza) video game series by Sega was released this March (2011). My kohai (後輩) and friend from my days at Sophia, Peer Schneider at IGN asked me to review the game for their website, checking for general accuracy, along with Daemon Hatfield, a senior editor. The game allows you to play as four characters: a benevolent loan shark, an escaped convict who killed 10 or more yakuza in a violent ramen shop blood bath (based on the actual Maebashi incident), a corrupt Vice Squad cop, and of course, the yakuza paragon of ninkyodo (任侠道-the noble way), Kazuma Kiryu, who has driven the series from the first edition. The four interwoven story-lines all come together before the game concludes. The 5th game in the series, Yakuza of The End, in which you get to save Kabukicho from zombie hordes is coming soon.
It was enjoyable playing four different characters, although honestly, I had to say I liked playing the loan shark the most. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. Ask one of my relatives, allegedly a Jewish mobster in his day. Maybe it’s because I spent too many years covering the Kajiyama Susumu (Emperor of Loan Sharks) story. In reality, I’ve only known one loan shark who had any moral code at all. His was: don’t bother the families of the debtor. You can beat him up, intimidate him, hound him for interest, but leave the family out. That’s something, I guess.
I also liked playing as the morally challenged vice-cop. (Mmm…sort of felt like deja vu at points. Ahem.)
The game is graphically violent and based on some real incidents. Unlike most of the fight scenes (unrealistic) in the game, the yakuza shot to death in this scene stay very dead. I imagine in Yakuza 5 they’d just come back to life as zombies. The cut scenes in the actual game are incredible; Kitano Takeshi could have directed them.
It took some time getting used to the video review format but once I got over that, it was a very fun talk. I could have gone on for another fifteen minutes but they were kind enough to make me shut up.
Unlike the last hastily put together English version of the Yakuza games series, this one had surprisingly little cut out. The hostess clubs were there as well as the sexual massages parlors. There are many sub-adventures in the intricately mapped out Japanese underworld in this latest version of the series. The “fashion health massage” parlors are the rare mini-adventures in a very dark game that actually have a happy ending.
If you’re interested in the yakuza, the Japanese police, loan sharking, or the underworld of Tokyo–the game is worth playing. The details are amazing and the story-line, while convoluted is compelling on its own. It smacks of conspiracy theory but then again Japan is such a strange country and the ties between politicians, entertainment, yakuza and major industries are so tight and complex–that what seems like a conspiracy theory sometimes turns out to be the truth. However, in this case, it’s just a game.