Video games have been milking the wise-guy milieu for ages. It's a nice fit for a medium where violence is the path of least resistance for forwarding a narrative. Yakuza takes the idea of economy through knuckle sandwiches to an unfortunate conclusion, reducing the intricacies of organized crime to a series of brainless brawls. Imagine The Godfather relocated to Tokyo, with a fistfight between each scene, and you're in the right prefecture.
The game's lead is Kazuma Kiryu, a former clan golden boy just paroled after 10 years of imprisonment for offing his boss—a crime he didn't commit. See, Kazuma is a tattooed tough guy, but Yakuza plays the honor angle so hard that he hardly seems low enough for his underworld zip code. Kazuma protects an orphaned girl, returns a snatched purse, defends shop owners from shakedowns, and still finds time to save a puppy as he unravels the convoluted mystery at the game's heart. A story this principled feels a tad remedial now that filmmakers like Takeshi Kitano have mined so much depth and depravity from Japanese gangsters. It doesn't help that the game's translation from its native language reworks much of the dialogue in an excessively profane ghetto patois.
Beyond the game: Trash auteur Takashi Miike plans a big-screen version of Yakuza. If your office has a pool for the first movie to outshine the game it was based on, you know how to bet.
Worth playing for: The game's faithful re-creation of a Tokyo red-light district offers fully functional massage parlors, strip clubs, gambling houses, noodle stands, and—talk about meta—a pair of Sega arcades.
Frustration sets in when: Kazuma can't run two blocks without another street gang challenging him to a dust-up. If grappling were a little less clumsy, this wealth of enemies wouldn't seem quite so tiresome.
Final judgment: Yakuza's intricately plotted yarn is so lovingly rendered that sloppy action and shoddy localization only bring moderate dishonor. The pinky can stay.