Last week we gave a quick overview of what the Yakuza series was about, and this week we will begin to explore some of the aspects of the game that have made it such a success.

I mentioned last week that Yakuza is a brawler at heart, with roots in classic side-scrolling beat em ups such as Streets of Rage and Final Fight. Don't expect to see any fancy martial arts here - Yakuza is straight up brawling street violence , beating your opponent to a bloody pulp and then kicking them when they are down, just to be sure. 

And you know what? It feels AMAZING.


Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master

Combat in Yakuza is usually a one vs many affair, except during certain boss battles. The basics involve hitting combinations of the square and triangle buttons (light and heavy hits, respectively) with the order and timing of the button presses determining the combo sequence. Circle is also used but is generally for engaging in grapples and picking up weapons. Learning the input timings is relatively easy at first, but as you delve deeper into the system, you realize that mixing things up and knowing when to commit into a full combo is key to maintaining advantage during combat..

As you continue to fight, you build HEAT, a signature gameplay element of the Yakuza series. Think of HEAT as your special meter - the more you continue to fight without getting taken down, the more it builds up, until you reach a state where you can then perform a "HEAT move;" a brutal finisher move where you will need to perform a short QTE in order to pull off successfully. The type of QTE varies; some might be a simple single button press, some multiple buttons in succession, while others might have you just mash on a single button repeatedly. The beauty of HEAT moves is that they all start off the same,  so starting one off is relatively easy - it's being able to successfully complete it that is challenging.

HEAT moves are also context sensitive, Depending on a variety of factors - the positioning of your opponent, any weapon you might be holding, the surrounding environment - the HEAT move will change accordingly. You might smash your opponent's face into a brick wall, or you might simply soccer kick him in the face while he's down, or perhaps you'll toss him off a bridge into the ice cold river below. It's actually interesting to try and find as many HEAT moves as you can, and some can be quite specific to pull off.

Fight with Style

Of course, all this comboing and building up of HEAT can be interrupted by the fact your usually fighting multiple opponents, some of which have an armor state (most bosses also have an armor state) or are wielding a weapon. Getting interrupted will usually put you at a disadvantage since your opponents can also combo hits together, so learning to time your blocks and dodges while maintaining your HEAT is crucial to success, and where the real mastery of the system comes.

Your opponents generally also have unique perks to them. Some of them are heavyset, with large health pools, armor state and difficult to throw due to their weight, but are slow and clumsy when engaging. Others will dart around you quickly, hitting you with quick sets of kicks before escaping back. Knowing how to approach each type of enemy and how best to deal with them, while at the same time remaining aloof of his friends, is another level of depth to the combat in the game.

As you gain experience, your inventory of moves also begins to increase - allowing to pull of more and more stylish moves and access to new HEAT moves as well. Given the game continues to ramp up the challenges as you play, you'll want to master these new moves quickly, as you never know what circumstances the game will throw at you.

Fight with Rage

As mentioned, the fighting in Yakuza don't involve fancy martial arts - this is street fighting in the most literal of senses, and the time and effort SEGA has put in to make the player FEEL the impact of each attack really comes through. There is a certain weight to each button press, and small animations such as sweat and blood as well as enemy recoil and appropriate weighty sound effects all lend credence to the fact that every hit you do is doing bodily harm to your opponent.

Your opponents feel this too, and seeing their comrades get taken out by a well timed combo or a devastating HEAT move does impact the enemy AI's behaviour. Sometimes it will cause them to retreat in fear, or they might whip out their cellphones to call for backup. The more impressive your combat prowess, the more at a disadvantage your opponents start having, despite their numbers.

But what really sells the combat are the HEAT moves - these are absolutely brutal, cringe inducing moves that give the player a little sadistic joy each time you perform them. And the best thing is, there's a lot of variety to them - whether it's smashing your opponent's face literally into the pavement, or slamming them headfirst into a wall, each of the HEAT moves are worth watching over and over again.

Because HEAT moves are context sensitive, it also adds another level of depth to the combat - do you fight your opponents closer to the wall, or perhaps nearer to the bridge? Can you smash them through that storefront window? How about that alleyway filled with trashbins? Each of these areas provide context sensitive moves to perform, and they are all quite satisfying to explore within combat.

Use Anything and Everything

The final element of Yakuza combat that makes it so fun is the sheer number of weapons available to use. These aren't your standard weapons (although you do have your selection of knives, tasers, batons and other standard weapons) but simply using items on the street as improvised bringers of pain. A traffic cone can quickly become a handheld weapon. A street sign a polearm. a trash bag, an empty bottle crate, a salt shaker; Some of these can even verge on the ridiculous. Ever used a freshly caught tuna fish as a club? You can in Yakuza!

The game also includes a mechanic for upgrading weapons - taking regular items such as baseball bats, golf clubs and chopsticks and turning them lethal. Want a barbed wire wrapped bat with an electrical battery? You can probably make that. How about tonfas that shoot out fire? Sure, why not - all you need is to find the correct recipe and ingredients and you put them together.

It has to be mentioned, although there are firearms in the game, they are few and far between and generally run out of ammunition quickly. This is likely due to the extremely strict gun laws in Japan, and from what is understood, even real Yakuza rarely if ever carry firearms on them. 

Did I mention all these weapons also have their own context sensitive HEAT moves?

Next week we'll explore some of the non-combat related activities to explore in Yakuza, including the infamous hostess clubs!