Roaming around an interactive environment, sometimes exploring, sometimes fighting, sometimes just soaking up the scenery around you. Shenmue was a game franchise that had these things in abundance and it was a shame that the trilogy was never completed with a 3rd installment in the series. Although the franchise was Yu Suzuki's labour of love, Ryu Ga Gotoku 1 (hereafter RGG) can be seen as an inheritor of the best elements of the former franchise whilst at the same time making the action and fighting intense and wrapping it up in the captivating world of the Japanese yakuza.
The story of RGG begins by introducing players to the main protagonist in the game, member of the Tojo clan (a yakuza organised crime family) called Kazuma Kiryu. It is here that we get brought into his world of dirty dealings that take place in Kamuro-cho (a fictional take on Kabuki-cho, next to Shinjuku in Tokyo) and are introduced to Kazuma's world. The game then proceeds to give you a tutorial on the game's play system, introducing you to the regular attacks and moves at Kazuma's disposal.
It brings you nicely into the game proper and a couple of cutscenes later and the player is already being introduced to the other major players in the story, such as Kazuya's oyabun (a yakuza family branch head) named Fuma as well as Kazuya's friends from a young age, Akira Nishiki and Yumi. As the story progresses and the player gets through their first hour of play they encounter the kidnapping of Yumi by Souhei Dojima, his murder by gunshot at the hands of Nishiki and Kazuma consequently taking the fall for the incident. The game then has you pick up from 10 years later as Kazuma is due for parole after serving for a crime he didn't commit and the plot unfolding from there on out.
The story for RGG is written by famous Japanese author Hase Seishu (a writer of yakuza crime-orientated novels) and as you play the game you can expect the relevant twists and turns to unfold as you progress through RGG's chapters. Graphically, the game looks great for a PS2 title with due care and attention having been paid to the characters and the world they inhabit. It is nice to see companies such as SEGA achieve such great results out of the PS2 hardware so far into the machine's life cycle and is testament to the fact that it wont take a back seat to its current-gen younger brothers just yet.
It is a shame that you can't interact with as the environment as much as you may like in Kamuro-cho (as nice as it looks you can only access a limited number of stores and talk with certain NPCs). However, what there is to interact with is by no means poor. In addition to progressing through the game's main story you can go and sing karaoke, play in the arcade, eat at Yoshinoya, go visit a hostess, become a host yourself, among other things. The game provides enough variety to allow you to deviate from the main story but not to the point where you wont want to get back and progress through the main story of the game once again (if you want to beat innocent people up this is not the game for you (and for that I am thankful)).
There will be occasions where when the game requires you to go to a destination you will inevitably be apprehended by members from various street gangs or yakuza. It is here that the game will then change into a battle area and rightly allows you to run wild with beating your opponents down. Thankfully, playing as Kazuma gives you a character to control who has many moves at his disposal. Movement is controlled with the left analog stick with buttons designated for punching, throwing, sidestepping and blocking. Once you get to grips with the controls available you will find yourself wanting to start fights as this is by far the most satisfying part of the game.
Yakuza, street gangs and thugs alike will apprehend you as you journey around Kamuro-cho, forcing you into a brawl that granted takes time to load (noticeably) but once the reigns are returned to you the ability to cause enjoyable destruction is all yours. Kazuma can beat down on the punks, throw them, pick up various weapons to batter them with as well as use the 'heat gauge' when this has been built up enough. This is possibly the most enjoyable aspect of battling in RGG as by carrying out enough attacks on your opponents the appropriately named 'heat gauge' begins to flash (under your health bar) and you can unleash a heat attack. These are various and brutal as you can punish punks by ramming them into walls and cars face first, smash signs over their heads and then jump on top of them, smack them whilst in a headlock with a hammer, stamp on them whilst on the ground, among other. It adds an extra dimension to the fighting and makes it more than just a button-mashing friendly fest.
The levelling up system also encourages players to get experience from fights and choose which of the three elements of Kazuma's psyche to strengthen, allowing him to take a beating longer, to increased dodging to learning new combos and moves altogether. By the game's end players can expect to have a battle-hardened and versatile brawler at their control.
Although attacking particular opponents can be difficult sometimes and the English dub is overdone in certain areas (you thought GTA had lots of swearing) the game as a whole is a very comprehensive and satisfying package, allowing players access to what can be deemed as bringing the best of old-school beat-em-ups such as Final Fight and Streets of Rage into the modern day with gusto. To take the words of Kazuma Kiryu, kakatte koi yo! (it means "Come on!", as said by a rough-edged type of guy, possibly a yakuza). Kakatte koi yo indeed!
Ryu Ga Gotoku offical Japanese website (Japanese only): http://ryu-ga-gotoku.com/one/main.html
Yakuza official website: http://www.sega.co.uk/yakuza/en/main.html