Yakuza 4 - Review

Yakuza 4 can be rather overwhelming, even for the most adventurous of gamers. From the outset you are invited to explore every nook and cranny of Kamurocho - a city filled to the brim with sub-stories, side-missions and mini games which can easily keep you occupied for the best part of 100 hours. It is a distinctive game, one that will delight the converted but fail to win-over critics of the series thus far.

Picking up the story one year after the events of Yakuza 3, we return to Kamurocho, Tokyo for the vast majority of the game. Kazuma Kiryu, reformed Yakuza and hero to many is back to cracking skulls and protecting his kin, only this time he is joined by three other playable protagonists. In a series that has stuck religiously to formula this ranks as quite the change, and it is one for the better.

Shun Akiyama is the well-meaning loan shark and man about town who, despite not being Yakuza, has plenty of dealings with the mafia. Taiga Saejima is the imposing gangster who is serving life for an infamous hit in the Eighties, the details of which are shrouded in mystery. The final Kamurocho-ite is Masayoshi Tanimura, a police-officer who tows the line between good cop and bad cop, being protective of his community yet not averse to turning a blind eye when his palm is suitably greased.

This appealing bunch is supported by the standard crew of cops and Yakuza, many of whom will be familiar to fans of the series. They are the typical cast of a Yakuza B-movie - which is exactly how Yakuza 4 plays out. Each main character enjoys their own section of the game, but their intertwining stories are convincingly drawn together for the final chapter when each character becomes available.

The City is the real star of Yakuza 4

Akiyama is our opening hero, and although he is interesting and the most likeable of all four, his slice of the game does become repetitive rather quickly and feels too much like a long-winded tutorial. Yakuza 4 really hits its stride at the start of the excellent second chapter, recounting the actions which lead to Saejima sitting on death row, soon to escape and embark on a quest for vengeance. This introduction is cut-scene heavy, but sometimes Yakuza is at its best when it’s not trying to be a game at all. Some of its finest moments come when it is telling its convoluted story through beautifully crafted cut-scenes, requiring nothing from the player but sit back and enjoy the ride.

Tanimura is the focus of part three, and he allows us a view of events from an outsider's perspective, concentrating on the lives of the non-Japanese community, but he is definitely an acquired taste. Kazuma finally becomes playable in the closing quarter, and it’s more fun than ever to step into the shoes of the living legend.

The final and perhaps biggest star of Yakuza 4 is Kamurocho city. We are treated to a virtual tour of the neon-lit streets of Yakuza’s impersonation of Shinjuku’s real-life red light and entertainment district, Kabuki-cho. It is a city that is as alive and vibrant as any urban sandbox that has come before, feeling both lived-in and characterful.  Traversing the streets you will come across young couples chatting about the latest phone app, a solitary salaryman sat in the corner of the burger shop despairing, shady looking men loitering in the park, savouring a cheap beer and looking for trouble, and the non-stop hustle of an izakaya employee trying to usher customers into his restaurant. You feel like just one of thousands of inhabitants in a city that would carry on without you.

Between beat-downs, Kazuma loves nothing more than belting out a tune at Karaoke

The authenticity of the setting is aided by the decision to retain the original and excellent Japanese voice acting, including a number of movie and TV personalities shoe-horned in for good measure, and the localization comes across as being natural and well scripted. On occasion a conversation will be lost in translation, and that is to be expected from a game so rich in dialogue, but for the vast majority of the time the subtitles feel like the words that should be coming from the mouths of these men.

The city has changed very little since Yakuza 3, with the exception of a few new stores and a subterranean labyrinth of sewers and abandoned malls. But more than the landmarks themselves, it’s the varied activities you can access within that are of interest. Mini-games and sub-stories, which for the most part have absolutely no ramifications upon the narrative, are plentiful and the average gamer will likely only scratch the surface of what’s on offer. In the same vein as Shenmue, mundane events like eating lunch or a trip to the convenience store become mini-adventures – as worthwhile as you are willing to make them. 

This time around the hostess bars have made the journey to the West intact, offering a charming but rather repetitive Hostess Maker management-sim. Boxcelios 2 is the main draw at the SEGA arcades; an excellent shooter which merits your attention, and between bowling, karaoke, batting cages, casinos, massage parlours and a game of steamy table tennis, there is no shortage of time-wasters to enjoy.

Who knew table tennis could be so sexy!

Yakuza’s unique sense of humour is front and centre during many of these optional distractions. Japanese comedy is usually very slap-stick in style and doesn’t tend to translate very well, yet there are no shortage of laugh out loud moments here to break up the violence and betrayal to be found elsewhere. Revelations are a major source of comic relief, with the bizarre actions of local denizens proving useful in learning new abilities, and you are likely to stifle a giggle the first time Saejima produces his chosen method of recording these rare events.

For all its lighter moments and quirky characters, Yakuza 4 can be ruthless in its depiction of violence and nowhere is this more apparent than in its brutal street fights. Much like world-map or dungeon encounters in an RPG, you will constantly be the target of over-zealous street gangs and Yakuza looking to start a ruckus. Just as the A-Team before them, our leads seem incapable of killing anyone – one of the few traits which set them apart from the majority of the villains – no matter how fatal their skull crushing finishers appear. Blood spurts from shattered noses and faces contort as teeth fly across the screen and bones are snapped. The unapologetic violence and gritty realism of these street fights (outcome aside) does make the moments when characters catch fire or jump twenty feet into the air that much more jarring, though there has always been an element of the absurd to Yakuza’s violence, especially during boss encounters.

Akiyama introduces a street thug to his knee

Each character has a distinct fighting style as well as a varied set of moves which helps keep the combat interesting. However, this does mean that you start back at zero once you switch characters, temporarily taking away all your hard earned progress and leaving you frustrated as you move back from powerful combos to elementary strikes and grabs. There are plenty of moves and upgrades on offer, but with the exception of a couple of fights it’s easy to survive by just spamming punch and kick. Overall, the combat is satisfying yet far from perfect and, with no lock-on feature to speak of you will be lashing-out at thin air far too often

Any series set largely in one location, with each game spread over tens of hours, will run the risk of becoming stale. There are times when you will sigh at the sight of yet another agitated chimpira making a bee-line for you, or lose interest in an uninspired delivery mission. To combat this Yakuza 4 expertly utilizes its riveting narrative, knowing just the right time to drop another well-directed extended cut-scene, or when to shed light on another aspect of the story or introduce a new player to the intrigue. The new protagonists also help to keep things fresh, where if it were only Kazuma Kiryu yet again, it may have fallen short.

Yakuza 4 is like an ultra-violent marmite. Most people will either love it or hate it, and chances are you already know if you are likely to enjoy it. If you appreciate a good story, are drawn to Japanese popular culture and city life, enjoy RPG-like mechanics and repetitive grinding and don’t feel that every activity must have a meaningful outcome, then Yakuza 4 could end up being your favourite game of 2011. It certainly has the makings of being mine.


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