Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Was Yakuza 2 the most overlooked game of 2008?
No, probably not the most overlooked game of 2008, but you have to admit that's an attention-grabbing title. Besides, I'm trying to write a blog post here, so let's go for it. Yakuza 2 garnered only "honorable mention" status on GameSetWatch's list of 2008's most overlooked titles, taking a backseat to games with names like "Soul Bubbles" and "Roogoo." With the exception of Pure, almost everything that GSW mentioned was an indie game -- a niche product.
I haven't played or even heard of most of those games (lending credence to GSW's argument -ed.), but I want to make a devil's advocate argument: It's hard to say it's surprising for independent games to be overlooked, because that's their nature. We live in a world where enough marketing muscle can make a million-seller out of even the crappiest games, so what are the odds that an independent game with no budget will ever get any attention? I don't like it either, but that's how things are. It may be unfair in a cosmic sense that these games never gained any traction. You may as well say it's unfair that gravity only causes things to fall down.
Yakuza 2 is a little bit different because it is a big-budget game, a game that incorporates most of the features that "hardcore" gamers respond to, and a game that does those things very well. It's got a sweeping, multi-layered storyline, an immersive setting that's packed with sidequests, and brawling combat so brutal that it makes you wince. This should absolutely be a hit.
It's not a hit, of course. I'm not sure most people even realized it had been released in this country (and I only knew thanks to Steve Gaynor's tireless Twittering about it). The original Yakuza was superb -- even made my top 10 for 2006 -- and sank like a stone in the marketplace. Maybe better marketing would have helped, or maybe the inherent problems in localizing such a culturally specific game put Yakuza behind the eight-ball from the start, but by the time Sega decided to release the sequel Stateside, they hadn't even bothered recording an English-language track. They may as well have affixed stickers to the front of each copy saying, "Even we know you're not gonna buy this."
Strangely, though, the lack of Americanized speech makes the sequel seem even better and more authentic than its predecessor. The guttural cadences of the Yakuza members are hypnotic to listen to. The storyline is still easy to follow, albeit filled with more twists and turns than a daytime soap opera, all of it anchored by its stoic, pure-hearted protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu. I can't help but think that if Sega had really tried, they could have made this series a hit. Maybe that's what they have in mind for Yakuza 3, but if history is any guide, it's not likely.