I forgive you for ignoring Yakuza 2. It appeared last month with little fanfare, designed for a console on its last legs, stuffed in a box that screams "generic Japanese PS2 game." Whatever excitement it generated on its release in Japan dissipated over the nearly two years it took Sega to bring the game to North America. When you ignored it, you weren't alone. The game has sold less than 50,000 copies in the U.S..
Sega does this sort of thing. They occasionally make a game that reminds us why they're one of the premiere developers in the industry, and years later we look back and write "Say, that Jet Grind Radio was a damn fine game," or "Hey, that Shenmue was a real groundbreaker, wasn't it?" "Too bad nobody outside Japan bought them."
I have a feeling we may say the same things about Yakuza 2 in a few years. It may not break ground like JGR or Shenmue, but it exhibits every bit of Sega's commitment to excellence and attention to detail found in those games. Its ambitions are modest compared to the bevy of AAA games on the way this month, but Yakuza 2 manages to make good on every promise it makes.
Yakuza 2 (Ryu ga Gotoku) is the best narrative game I've played this year, by a wide margin. Better than GTA IV and way better than MGS4. It can't match the the toys in Liberty City's sandbox, nor can it compete with Snake's superlative stealth. But in terms of pure storytelling finesse, Yakuza 2 conducts a clinic on how to deliver a rock-solid, minimally-cliched tale featuring characters that earn our empathy through their choices and vivid personalities, rather than via tortuous backstories, rambling expositional dialogue, or overreaching attempts at profundity. Yakuza 2 does storytelling the old-fashioned way: sound dramatic structure, compelling characters, convincing performances, and a good story worth telling. It helps that the game also happens to be a blast to play.
Yakuza 2 makes no effort to incorporate dynamic story architecture, AI-based emergent narrative, or any of the other current interactivity buzzwords. Thus, Yakuza 2 makes a hypocrite out of me and my "Narrative Manifesto" notion that games must move away from cutscene-driven storytelling. In many ways, the game is thoroughly backward-looking: an old-school brawler mixed with simplified RPG elements and sandbox-style mini-missions - all punctuated by a series of cutscenes responsible for delivering 90% of the story.
But, oh, what cutscenes they are. Sega wisely jettisoned the stilted and embarrassing English-dubbed voices from the original Yakuza, replacing them with generally well-written colloquial subtitles and preserving the performances of the original Japanese cast, including Tetsuya Watari, one of Japan's most respected actors.
Without casting aspersions at actors like Michael Madsen or Mark Hamill, both of whom have done fine voiceover work in video games, I can't help but wonder what a first-rate, well-trained English-speaking actor might contribute to a video game from the beginning of the process. Watari and rising star Satoshi Tokushige are both fixtures in the series, and it seems clear the writers built their roles to take advantage of their emotional range and expressiveness as performers. Seldom, if ever, are video game actors afforded the kind of room these actors were given to flesh out their characters over the course of a lengthy and complex story. These are not one-note performances. They are personal and nuanced characterizations (embedded into well designed animations) the likes of which we almost never see in video games.
Games usually contain weak narratives because their stories are tacked onto pre-existing gameplay structures. Yakuza 2 conveys the impression that the opposite approach was adopted here. The brawling is fun and well-implemented with plenty of special combos and tough bosses to keep the beat-em-up gamer happy. The sandbox elements work well too, highly reminiscent of Shenmue's atmospheric rendition of Yokosuka's shops and restaurants, with mini-game opportunities throughout.
But all these features have been woven around the true centerpiece of Yakuza 2: its narrative. The utterly regressive, unrelentingly linear, cutscene-driven, genre-derivative story that I swallowed hook, line, and sinker. The one I was genuinely sad to see end.
Did I mention that I never finished GTA IV and only limped to the end of MGS4 through sheer stubborn will?
Should we eliminate cutscenes in video games? Should we move beyond the sender-receiver relationship between gamed designer and player? Should we fully integrate gameplay and narrative to exploit the unique interactive power of video games? Probably. But Yakuza 2 reminds me the old dog still has life in her, and I'm beginning to think I might miss her when she goes.