Yakuza Is The Most Perfect Video Game Series Of All Time, Except For Its Awful Combat
I started my first Yakuza game in November – Yakuza 0. I played for several hours straight the first day I downloaded it, but had to put it on hold to concentrate on more timely releases like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Cyberpunk 2077. I went back to it in early 2021 and completed it lightning fast, bulldozing my way through legions of Kuze’s muscle in order to earn my notoriety as the Dragon of Dojima.
Last week, I started Yakuza Kiwami, which I finished last night. Similarly to 0, I absolutely adored almost everything about this game – the story, the characters, the sheer suit-and-cigarette flair of it all. Yakuza games juxtapose phenomenal soundtracks with immensely stylish art direction, flitting between campy graffitied objective instructions and refined cinematographic set pieces as if it’s nobody’s business. In fact, that’s exactly what it is – nobody’s business. Yakuza’s attitude is raucously loud at all times, even in its most somber moments, due to how unflinchingly unpretentious it is.
So why on earth is the combat so god-awful?
I know that a lot of Sega kids will disagree with me on this purely because Yakuza is an homage to classic arcade games. I can see why that might cause certain people’s nostalgia to flare up, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. Yakuza’s combat is bad – and not just in terms of specific mechanics. Those are all pretty terrible, mind, but level design isn’t great either, nor are the mobs, the bosses, the healing item economy, the narrative integration of combat scenarios, or the overall skill system at the heart of it all. Speaking as somebody who came to this series nostalgia-free in 2020, Yakuza’s combat is irredeemably outdated – which is probably why Sega swapped to a turn-based RPG system for Yakuza: Like A Dragon. Thank the Lord (of the Night).
I’ll predominantly be talking about Yakuza Kiwami in this piece, as the sheer frustration of having to button-mash my way through crap fights in between excellent storytelling sequences is still pretty fresh in my memory. I also think that despite the similarities between 0 and Kiwami, the latter is somehow unbelievably worse – probably due to the regeneration system brought in to entice you into different styles. Anyone with even a slight interest in the game probably would have alternated between styles depending on enemy speed and aggression anyway – this just introduced another unnecessary padding gimmick that converts even the most unimportant bosses into gargantuan damage sponges.
Also, what’s wrong with having a favourite style? You only earn a certain amount of skill points, so it makes sense to specialize in a specific fighting stance. I played through most of Majima’s sections in Yakuza 0 as slugger Majima because I genuinely liked the feel of it. You know, outside of boss fights, or yakuza HQ multi-encounter runs, or anything other than a scrap with three street ruffians, which is still utter shit but is at least over in less than 500 hours.
I’m exaggerating, but that’s just because of how frustrating it is. When you’re in the moment, minutes feel like hours because of how absurdly tedious combat encounters shape up to be. I regularly allowed myself to die twice in a row purely so I could get the “Would you like to change the difficulty to Easy?” prompt. If you’re wondering why I kept relying on this temporary difficulty swap, it’s because every fight is followed by a lengthy run of cutscenes, all of which are amazing. By the time I resumed control, I’d forgotten about how furious I was with the previous boss fight – but that just made the next fight even more infuriating, because I remembered I’d have to die twice before I could temporarily change the difficulty and stop them from having one trillion HP.
Admittedly, my biggest qualm is with the boss fights and mini-boss fights. The most damning element of this is the fact that bosses try to grab you every five seconds, which triggers a stupid animation where you need to rapidly tap a button to escape. No blows are exchanged, no damage is dealt, and because your animation for wriggling free is longer than their animation for recovery… well, half the time you can’t even dodge before they just grab you again.
On top of that, I don’t think clever combat design or measured difficulty regulation lies in ramping up an enemy’s health and damage resistance. Yakuza bosses have multiple health bars superimposed on top of one another, with each individual one being denoted by a certain color. When I see someone has a green health bar, I’m like, really? Three? Blue is four and purple is five. Five! Bear in mind that unless you consciously conserve your Heat action – generated from momentum in combat – for when a regen animation triggers, they’ll restore the vast majority of the last health bar you whittled down. These regeneration sections happen at fixed points in each combat encounter, but the reasoning is arbitrary, meaning you won’t know when they kick in unless you’ve done the fight before. The result of this is that the best strategy your first time around is to conserve a full Heat bar at all times – but Yakuza isn’t even remotely defensive, lacking any kind of parry system, which means halting your offense translates to painfully long sequences of pure tedium.
That’s another issue: why isn’t Yakuza defensive? There are occasions where you come up against massive mobs all at once. Most of the time these will predominantly consist of weak enemies who you can take down with a combo or two, but it’s difficult to orchestrate said combo when you’re simultaneously being attacked from nine different angles. If one enemy blow lands, your combo is interrupted and your Heat meter gets tanked. It’s normal enough for your momentum to decrease in any game, but it’s just handled so poorly here. You can dodge, sure, but you’re not given iframes, which means that even if your dodge is off by a mere millimeter you can get stun-locked into a five-part combo. What happens at the end of this? A laboriously slow falling animation that sees you drop to the floor and have to button-mash to stand back up. Every time I saw the prompt for this I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to button-mash my controller through the telly.
What’s worse is that so many of the arenas are tiny. I understand the need to cordon off an area in development so that NPCs can behave with proper AI while certain other invisible conditions are met, but you can hardly rotate the camera in half of the arenas, which means you’re fighting opponents who are completely off-screen. Also, remember what I said about being attacked from nine different angles? That, except also you can’t move now. It just becomes a war of boring, button-mashing attrition. I haven’t played Like A Dragon yet, but wow am I excited for a change of pace. Don’t even get me started on quick-time prompts, which need to be eradicated from game design for all eternity. My hands occasionally hurt when I play games due to the onset of repetitive strain injury from needing to type quickly for work – QTEs and button-mashing make me not want to play your game, like, ever.
I mentioned iframes earlier – you can actually unlock skills that add these (to an extent), as well as bonuses that partially increase the distance of your dodge. These skills, however, take forever to unlock. Loads of other games lock iframes behind an ability, but they do it with tact and present you with a reasonable means of quickly obtaining it. Yakuza – at least 0 and Kiwami – wants you to grind for 50 hours to complete a 10-hour story. And when the story is as good as it is, I have no idea what on earth that structure serves. I get that this is a game about the literal Yakuza and it’s important to have combat, but making me grind to make said combat slightly less awful is ridiculous. The only reason Yakuza gets away with it is because of how excellent every other aspect of the games are – but it shouldn’t be a tradeoff like that. It’s like Radiohead putting a detuned bagpipes section in the middle of every track on In Rainbows, except you can’t even fast-forward past it. If you want to listen to Videotape’s iconic outro, you have to force yourself through what sounds like 20 minutes of cat-squealing first. And you can’t mute it – you have to listen or Thom Yorke comes online and IP bans you from all of Radiohead’s streaming accounts for ten years.
To be honest, I feel as if I could keep building on this argument indefinitely. The healing item economy is stupid – especially in Kiwami given that money travels much further in 0 – and having to pull up a menu every time I get combo’d instead of simply mapping a button to “use healing item” is ridiculous when it comes to pacing. It makes no sense to me that Kiwami is dead-set on trying to convince you to change styles for flow, but wants you to press start and scroll through menus every time you take a hit. I haven’t even mentioned level design aside from touching on small arenas, so how’s this – why, Sega, do you position two gunmen at the end of a linear corridor? I understand placing them in an open area, right, because target prioritization is conducive to making me think of a strategy. But when they’re at the end of a straight avenue that is approximately one meter wide, even if I dodge, the animation and lack of iframe means I am inevitably going to get shot by the other one, at which point I have to watch the stupid falling animation again.
Also, before you claim I’m just not good at combat-oriented games – I’ve Platinumed Bloodborne. I’ve beaten The Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mass Effect, and more at the highest difficulty. I’m pretty good when it comes to combining mechanical precision with quick-time strategizing, and have played competitive shooters at a relatively high level as a result of that. Yakuza doesn’t reward being good – it rewards sheer stubbornness and a willingness to say, “This is fucking stupid, but I suppose I’ll give it another go.”
Even the layout of spawns – I’ve just been told somebody is bleeding out, right, and they’re in an abandoned warehouse surrounded by people trying to kill them. I’m on my way there to progress the story when, all of a sudden, I have to fight three street ruffians. Why, Sega? I know it’s possible to temporarily switch off random encounters. I also know there’s an argument for saying, “Realistically, you could get stopped on your way somewhere.” Sure, but like I argued about the eradication of mechanical flow earlier, this completely derails pacing. I don’t care about pressing “square, square, square, square, triangle” three times while I’m on the way to save my friend, thanks. On top of that, I’m from Dublin. It can be pretty rough here sometimes, but there aren’t 500 thugs waiting to stab you to death within 100 meters squared.
Look, as I said earlier – I know that arcade kids love Yakuza’s homage to Sega from however many years ago. But I’m not an arcade kid, and I can confidently say that this is really bad design by contemporary standards for literally anyone who didn’t grow up on arcade games. And before you go saying, “Well, you’re the one playing a Sega game” – this is completely impenetrable! And to be honest, not all Sega games are. This is a Yakuza problem, not a Sega one. I’m just glad that Like A Dragon is shaking things up a bit, because a Yakuza game with even slightly better combat is destined to be one of the best games ever made by default. Every other aspect of these games is astonishingly good – it must be all a great big joke or something. “Haha!” laughs Toshihiro Nagoshi. “You want an amazing story? Well, you’ve got to work for it. Here’s 20 hours of combat that is pure, unfiltered poison.”
Cheers. Thanks for switching to turn-based eventually, I guess.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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