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 further delight the converted but is unlikely to win-over Yakuza detractors.

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 living legend, is back helping the weak by cracking skulls and protecting his kin, but this time he is joined by three other playable protagonists. Each of the four characters enjoys their own section of the game, but their intertwining stories are convincingly drawn together for the final chapter. In a series that has stuck religiously to its established formula this ranks as quite the change, and it is one for the better.

The fifth and perhaps most important star of Yakuza 4 is Kamurocho City. You will be treated to a virtual tour of the neon-lit streets of a very convincing take on Shinjuku’s 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 it, 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 despair in the corner of a burger shop, shady looking men loitering in the park looking for trouble, and the non-stop hustle of an izakaya employee trying to herd customers into his restaurant. You feel like one of the thousands of inhabitants in a city that would carry on without you.

The City is the real star of Yakuza 4

The authenticity of the setting is aided by the decision to retain the original and excellent Japanese voice acting, 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.

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

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.

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.

Akiyama introduces a street thug to his knee

Any series set largely in one location with each game spread over tens of hours runs the risk of becoming stale. There are times when you will sigh at the sight of yet another agitated gangster 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, when to shed light on another aspect of the story or introduce a new player to the intrigue.

Yakuza 4 is like violent Marmite. It’s liable to split opinion 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, repetitive grinding and don’t feel that every activity must have a meaningful outcome, then Yakuza 4 just may end up being your favourite game of 2011.

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Written by Matt M

Matt has been a gamer ever since Father Christmas left him a Master System II in the early 90's. Santa was clearly a Sega fan, as a Mega Drive and Saturn would follow in later years. Matt has long since broken free from the shackles of console monotheism and enjoys playing a wide range of games, almost as much as he enjoys meticulously ordering them on his living room shelves.

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