I distinctly remember being disappointed with the concept of Yakuza when it was first announced. Here was the designer behind one of the most pure gaming experiences ever (Super Monkey Ball) and for some reason he was now making another Shenmue. I skipped it entirely, being reminded of the sour aftertaste of Yu Suzuki's project and the splash Grand Theft Auto III made. Yakuza felt like Sega's attempt to wrestle back in on a booming genre it helped create, rather than an authentic game.
I'm also known to be a complete idiot at times.
I'm now playing through Yakuza Kiwami and I'm rather happy to discover I'm wrong. It's probably helped by getting to play this for the first time with all the touch ups of a remaster, but the idea that I once thought this not to be authentic is just painful.
If anything, walking through Yakuza's virtual streets gives me a pang of vacation nostalgia for having walked through similar districts in Japan. From the outlandish approach to signage to an impossibly cramped collection of miniature bars, everything feels real. Sure, graphics, animation and such might still be mediocre, but that's not the point. This is the vibe of an entertainment district carbon copied. The only disappointment is that I can't enter every building.
It feels so authentic even, that while Final Fantasy VII Remake's Wall Market gave me some recognisable chills, it absolutely pales in comparison to Yakuza. That's despite Remake's graphic prowess being better in every other aspect.
The story is also way more engaging than what Shenmue attempted. It goes from riches back to rags, neatly taking away your skills and abilities in a way that makes sense (long-time incarceration). When it does put you back on the streets, it does so in a district that has moved on, giving you multiple strained relationships to boot.
Video games often hark on movie clichés to facilitate their own storylines, but also have trouble making them work within their own framework. Yakuza manages to use them and retain the atmosphere of such films at the same time. Layered on top of a glorious entertainment district it feels right. It certainly has a more film-like feel to it than I expected. Even if it is peppered with comical interludes.
I do have to note that I didn't start off well with this game. Combat during its opening hours felt sluggish, unfair, and superfluous at the same time. There's no proper introduction to get you into the flow of combat. Instead it throws you into life or death situations, without providing much low-stakes training beforehand. For a couple of hours I struggled to understand its combat system, getting beat up by the gloriousness that is Majima over and over again. Frustrated, I left it, picked it up again a week later, and presto! No problems whatsoever. Maybe playing some Street of Rage 4 before that first attempt wasn't such a good idea.
In any case, I'm now pretty happy to roam the alleys and streets, taking out street punks wherever I can, whilst sampling nightlife food and drink. Guess I just needed to have some sense knocked into me first.