Yakuza 2: Enter the Dragons (*)

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imageIf there’s one label that’s misplaced in gaming, it’s “mature.”

There is nothing so deeply ironic as gamers wishing a given console had more “mature” games like Grand Theft Auto or Devil May Cry, titles which would be considered at best adolescent in any other form of media. In book or film, maturity means thoughtfulness, originality, new and provocative ideas. In games, it has come to mean explosions and gore, tits and ass.

Gaming is still going through its adolescence, that time when the forbidden fruits denied in childhood become irresistible. It doesn’t help that the loudest voices in gaming tend to be adolescents or those with a similar mental age, pouncing on the slightest affront to their cool. Reading any given gaming forum (except, of course, the very wise and mature The Escapist Forum) can be no different to being on the playground – this is gay, that is awesome, I could totally kick your ass, if I wanted to. It’s enough at times to make a seasoned gamer cry.

But there is hope. Ryu ga Gotoku 2 is a game that could credibly be thought of as mature. Although it has blood and violence, and yes, some T&A, it also has that thoughtfulness few other games have matched.

In Japan, Ryu ga Gotoku is becoming one of Sega’s strongest franchises. The first game sold on excellent word-of-mouth, making waves only when it was re-released as a budget title. The sequel did even better, selling over 500,000 copies, despite competition from the PS3 and Wii hype, making it one of the biggest sellers of 2006. A movie directed by the esteemed pervert Takashi Miike is due out later this month.

imageBut while Ryu ga Gotoku is soaring, its Western version limped to mediocrity. The translation, Yakuza, became as prosaic as its title suggested, with the beauty of Ryu‘s dialogue drowned in a sea of f—s. While Sega’s attempt to draft some high-level names for the voice acting was admirable, they ended up with an array of has-beens and never-weres, unconvincingly reading lines that were written without conviction.

To give to the localization team their due, much of this wasn’t their fault. The nuance of the gangster language used in Ryu is near-untranslatable anyway, and besides, the game is reduced to a shadow of itself simply by the virtue of being dubbed. The only way to do it justice was to subtitle everything, but following in the always cautious, usually wrong footsteps of Hollywood studios, game publishers seem convinced that gamers are too simple to enjoy subtitles.

All this means, if and when Yakuza 2 does appear, not only will it be facing a console generation gap, but not many fans will be lining up to find out what happens in one of the most convincing gaming worlds ever created.

This is definitely Western gamers’ loss, as Ryu ga Gotoku 2 is an excellent sequel, improving on the areas that needed it, leaving alone what should remain untouched, and following up one superb story with another.

Ryu and its sequel were written by Seishu Hase, a Japanese crime novelist of some esteem. It’s not quite like EA hiring James Ellroy to pen their latest, but it’s not far off. Ryu‘s developers then backed this up with a voice cast of professionals – professionals not in the sense that they once played the kid on some ’80s TV series, but seasoned actors who have taken on these kinds of roles before.

The caliber of talent, including household names like Tetsuya Watari, may be a reflection of the higher regard gaming is given in Japan compared to the West, or a tribute to the reputation of the author, but either way, comparing the acting in Ryu to that of Yakuza is like comparing Star Wars to Spaceballs. At least Spaceballs was intentionally funny.

Unusually prescient, the story opens on the brink of an all-out war between two opposing Yakuza gangs, Kazuma’s Tojo-kai in Tokyo and the Oumi-rengo in Kansai. Sensing opportunity at the weakened Tojo-kai, the rival gang is looking to move in on Kamuro-cho.

Life imitates art, as this is exactly what is currently happening between Japan’s largest Yakuza gang, the Yamuguchi-gumi, who are based near Osaka in Kobe, and their smaller Tokyo rival, the Sumiyoshi-kai. It’s this true-to-life feel that helps make the story in Ryu so convincing.

imageBad games and bad books have one thing in common: Both use plot as a device, something to get us from one place to another as quickly as possible. Badly plotted games feel like the levels were decided first and the plot tacked on to move the player from one to the other.

Ryu 2 is just the opposite – it’s story-first, and it shows. At times, it can feel like you’re just moving around to trigger parts of the story. The important plot action all happens in the movie-quality cut-scenes, which seem longer than in the first game, and it does have the occasional Metal Gear Solid moment, where you are given control at the end of one cut-scene and end up moving five paces before another one starts up.

With a number of Ryu‘s main characters having met their maker at the end of the first game, a whole raft of new ones are introduced with machine-gun speed at the start of the game. Chief amongst these is Ryuji Koda, Kazuma’s new rival. Called the “Dragon of Kansai” (the area of Japan that includes Osaka and Kobe), Koda also sports a spiffy dragon tattoo to rival Kazuma’s own.

The other main character is the possible love interest, Kaoru Sayama. An orphan like Kazuma, she believes that the Tojo-kai killed her parents and begins following Kazuma to solve the mystery of her hidden past.

A detailed plot summary at the start of the game, with Kazuma “remembering” what happened in the first game, makes Ryu 2 accessible even to those who skipped the first game.

Sadly, however, it is not accessible to those without a decent grasp of Japanese. While it would be possible to get through the game by muddling through, it would also be incredibly dull. The move to Kansai does no favors to Japanese learners, although you’ll definitely come out of this knowing a lot more of the native’s dialect than when you went in. (If you want to imagine the difference, think how hard it would be for a non-native speaker of English to understand a game spoken almost entirely in Ebonics).

Indeed, the language barrier is likely to be the biggest obstacle encountered in the game. Like its predecessor, Ryu 2 wants you to play to the end of its story and is endlessly forgiving in getting you there. Hints, health and retries are all in such abundance that you’re never stuck for long. This does prevent boredom, but it also lessens the need to wander around the perfectly-created city streets while you’re stuck, which is at least half the fun of the game.

And what streets they are. As well as the first game’s Kamuro-cho, Kazuma can explore the streets of Sotenbori in Osaka, a recreation of the real-life Dotonbori area. As before, local goons will attack you at the merest slight. The fighting can be a bit easy for veterans, which can make the random street brawls even more tiresome than before. Fortunately, the loading times and intro screen for each fight have been trimmed, making it a cinch to dust down street thugs and have them cough up their money.

The fighting has been tinkered with but remains much the same as the first game. As before, the main attraction is the eye-wincing special moves, using the environment and nearby items to maim people in ways you never imagined.

imageThe sheer amount of things to do can be a little bewildering. With twice the cities to explore, there are twice the hostesses and mini-games, twice the bars and restaurants. New additions include the ability to become a “host” (a sort of male companion, not quite a gigolo but not a million miles away) and even run your own cabaret club, designing the layout and the menus. There are also more sub-quests, one of the most fun parts of the first game, and you can play just about any game you like – mah-jong, slot machines, shogi or UFO catchers.

Unlike with the original, which erroneously appeared to be a lot closer to Shenmue than to Streets of Rage, with Ryu 2 you know what you’re getting into: a well-plotted storyline, never-ending street brawls and hidden mini-games.

This can also be Ryu 2‘s biggest disappointment – while it has corrected all the flaws of its predecessor, it has failed to really add anything to the first game, and it rarely surprises you.

But that’s a niggling complaint – the surprises are meant to come in the story, and they do. Ryu 2‘s story had some big, yakuza-sized boots to fill, but it does so admirably, and the voice acting is again beyond comparison to just about any game you’ve played.

Ryu ga Gotoku 2 shows it’s possible to have violence, swearing and nudity and still be “mature.” In that respect, it’s akin to HBO series like Deadwood, dealing with adult themes in an adult way. Western developers, get taking notes. Much of the gameplay may be from yesteryear, but this is the future of gaming.

* = what we imagine Sega’s imagination-free Western division will end up calling the sequel

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