The Yakuza games are the closest thing Japan has to GTA. They're crime epics set in huge, fastidiously detailed cities, defined by their lengthily-elucidated TV-style plots and impressive selection of random, optional things to do in their worlds, from karaoke to UFO catchers, restaurants, golf and incredibly creepy hostess minigames. They're more rigid than GTA in both structure and style, and the brawling combat is a long way from the Rockstar's trademark driving and shooting, but Yakuza's Japanese cities are the closest thing to Rockstar's American ones in size, detail, and perceptiveness. Both, too, hold up a mirror - however warped - to their settings' culture.
It's heartbreaking that Yakuza 5, the series' current-generation epitome, seems to have no chance of being translated into English and released abroad. It features 5 Japanese cities - Nagoya, Osaka, Fukuoka, Tokyo and Sapporo - and 120 (!) different optional minigames, which makes even GTA 5 look a little less gigantic. The next in the series, Yakuza Ishin, is a spin-off set in late Edo period Japan, right at the time of the Meiji Restoration. It's a fascinating time in the country's history, and instead of the skeezy streets and neon lights of Kamurocho in Tokyo it transports us to late-1800s market towns, riverside farms and nascent cities and pagoda-style castles. If Yakuza 5 has little chance of ever seeing a Western release, Ishin surely has even poorer prospects, but anyone with an interest in this series will be tempted by an import.
This isn’t the first historical Yakuza spin-off – in 2008, Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan, the third game in the series, took us back to 1605 in Kyoto, Japan's then-capital. Seeing Kazuma Kiryu, Goro Maijima and other Yakuza iconic characters reimagined in samurai-style regalia as historical figured is a kick – Yakuza’s plots have always been entertainingly overblown and punctuated by melodramatic face-offs, and that seems to make a lot more sense when everyone is carrying swords. Kiryu Kazuma is now Ryoma Sakamoto, one of the key figures in the overthrowing of the Shogunate. Late 19th-Century Japan means late late 19th-Century weapons – swords and antiquated handguns join the wince-worthily violent hand-to-hand brawling that is the series’ signature. The TGS presentation shows Kazuma forging these, imbuing them with improbable powers like electrically charged strikes, and complex ability unlock trees like that spiral around a central node.
1800s Kazuma Kiryu is, if anything, even more talented at delivering stylish beatdowns, cutting through crowds with his sword. Finishing moves show him slicing through an enemy before sheathing the sword whilst he drops to the ground behind him, or shattering bullets in the air with the edge of the blade. Late Edo-period Tokyo doesn’t have kerbs, but there’s also a setting-appropriate version of the infamous kerb-stomp. There seems to be a great deal more finishing moves, incorporating all three weapons, and a card-based ability system that looks a bit like Samurai Top Trumps, though I couldn't begin to understand how that worked from a brief glimpse.
Outside of the fighting, Ishin looks like it will live up to series’ reputation for impressive extracurricular variety. For obvious reasons the usual arcade games and sporting activities are gone, but the TGS presentation showed minigames involving fishing, cooking, a kind of skeet-shooting game involving Kazuma slicing cannonballs out of the air with a sword, chicken-racing, serving customers beer and ramen at an izakaya, karaoke and fan-dancing odonburi (and creepy hostess minigames, by the looks of it, but the hostesses have been replaced by geisha) – even, by the looks of it, sumo wrestling, though Kazuma’s hardly the right build for that. There's also a homestead where Ryoma and Haruka, his young ward, live and work. Here the game temporarily becomes Harvest Moon, as Ryoma spends his time growing, harvesting and cooking crops, tending to animals and playing pleasant games of Mah-Jong with Haru.
As ever, it’s the world that looks most impressive, and this is the kind of world that games rarely depict or explore in such a way. Japanese history as depicted by video games is basically an endless sequence of battlefields, ninjas running along palace roofs, and falling cherry-blossoms. Yakuza Ishin’s 19th-Century Japan has towns and farms, restaurants and theatres, hundreds of inhabitants going about their business, as well as all the palaces and temples. The modern-day Yakuzas might have improbable plots but their depictions of modern Japan are stunningly faithful, at least aesthetically. I am greatly intrigued by the possibility of exploring a 19th-Century Japan depicted with the same attention to detail.
Plot-wise, I couldn’t figure much out. There was a dramatic assassination, lots of shouting, supernatural temple guards, ninja-like killers. The opening cutscene showed Kiryu and his posse running silently through a rainy night, red lanterns swaying in the wind, and into a castle where they sliced up all the guards before making it through the top, showing off greatly improved next-generation graphics. Yakuza has always been one of the best-looking games on the PS3, especially in the quality of its digital acting, and the PS4 footage was a noticeable step up.
Yakuza Ishin isn't far off - it's coming out on the 22nd February in Japan on both PS3 and PS4. Given how unlikely it is that Ishin will ever see an official Western release, though, it’s probably wise to start saving for an import - otherwise you might be waiting a long, long time.
After eight years Keza MacDonald is still not bored of writing about video games, which is just as well, as her skills at demon-slaying and pretend guitar are pretty much non-transferable. You can follow her on IGN and Twitter.
Source : ign[dot]com