Yakuza 4 Review

I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the residents of the Kamurocho district. Every year like clockwork the place gets throw into some sort of absurdly convoluted political crisis that’s always followed by a sudden unexplained surge of street violence and missing bicycles. Hell, it’s even gotten to the point where some of the brainless NPCs are beginning to find this annual spectacle oddly familiar.  Funnily enough it’s a sentiment shared by a lot of us in the real world too, considering how (almost) all the Yakuza games look and feel pretty goddamn similar to the point of absurdity.

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that even if you’re already a fan of the series, you might actually struggle to tell them apart at all, and Yakuza 4 is sadly no exception. You’re still exploring the same city, going to the same places, fighting dudes in the street, playing lots of minigames and smashing bicycles over peoples heads. The only major differentiator is the same thing that draws back the fans time and time again: a deeply compelling narrative.

Like its predecessors it spins an epic tale of murder, betrayal, intrigue, betrayal and……..uh……more betrayal in the seedy world of Japan’s enigmatic yakuza crime families. I’d love to be more specific than that, but it’s kinda difficult when every character possess complex intertwining personal narratives so vast that I couldn’t even begin to summarise them here. Seriously, this is some major Metal Gear Solid grade nonsense we’re talkin’ about.

 Although I can’t speak the language I can still appreciate the raw emotion that the superb Japanese voice actors put into their performances. Just be weary that, even to the untrained ear, it’s very obvious that a fair bit of artistic licence has been taken with the subtitles.

Even to the untrained ear, it’s very obvious that a fair bit of (much appreciated!) artistic licence has been taken with the subtitles

In true Japanese video game tradition, most of the story is delivered through the exotic medium of exceptionally long cut scenes, many of which consist of relatively mundane conversations on such riveting topics as: complicated Yakuza traditions, government legislation and tasty watermelons (yes really). While this style of storytelling adds unprecedentedly deep levels of characterisation to the mix, for some people it’s also going to take the phrase “mind-numbingly boring” to a whole new level.

But with that in mind it’s probably still the most accessible Yakuza game yet, in part thanks to the game constantly updating a condensed character bio/plot synopsis screen after literally every minor and major story event. This little innovation finally allows players an easy way to keep track of Yakuza’s mind boggling narrative without having to start from scratch every time they look away from the screen for more than a few seconds.

But more importantly, for the first time in the series you can play from the perspective of 3 brand new characters instead of just the seemingly immortal Kazuma Kiryu. These 3 protagonists are a complete blank slate storyline wise, meaning there’s little to no obligation to have played the previous games if you still want to grasp the overall story, although you’ll miss out on a few shout-outs here and there if you don’t. However, while having multiple playable characters has worked wonders from a storyline angle, it’s not really been integrated too well on the gameplay side of things.

 The “reminisce” mode that lets you re-watch old cutscenes is useful if you blinked and ended up missing something important the first time around (or are trying to get screenshots for a review without making a bazillion saves).

The ability to re-watch old cutscenes is useful if you ended up missing something important the first time around (or are trying to get screenshots for a review without making a bazillion saves)

Each character’s experience points and inventory are completely isolated from one another, and your control over each dude shifts at pre-determined story milestones. So when the inevitable changeover happens, you’re going to lose access to any money, abilities or collectibles that you’ve picked up so far. I suppose that makes sense in context, but that doesn’t stop it from being somewhat infuriating when you’re sent back to square one for the fourth time about 35 hours into the game.

Yakuza 4’s not all just story though; eventually you’re going to have to get your hands dirty with some good old fashioned street justice. Combat is very simple: two attack buttons for building combos, one for grabs, one for blocking, one for taunts, fairly standard stuff really. However once you’ve landed enough hits to built up your HEAT gauge, that’s when the real fun begins. By expending the HEAT you can unleash some incredibly brutal special moves which vary from “slightly ridiculous” to “Street Fighter 4 Ultra Combos” in terms of extravagance. There’s quite a few to unlock through either leveling up or doing crazy side quests, however some of the moves have absurdly specific requirements to activate so you’re unlikely to see them all unless you go pretty far out of your way to do so.

 You’ll spend most of the actual gameplay time fighting with your fists or with whatever junk you can find lying around on the street. But you also have the option of keeping a small armory of traditional weapons provided you’re willing to cash it takes to construct and maintain them.

Bicycles, the ultimate improvised weapon!

Graphically Yakuza 4 is a bit of a mixed bag, main characters look fantastic but minor NPCs can look extremely rough round the edges. Individual static props don’t look quite so hot either, but there’s so damn many of them that I can’t help but still be impressed at the gameworld as a whole. Sure it might not be the biggest sandbox by any standards, but it’s unrivalled in terms of sheer density. Wherever you look, your senses are being constantly bombarded with the lights and sounds of Kamurocho’s meticulously crafted storefronts or the innumerable pedestrians just wandering about their daily business. It’s about as lifelike a city as I’ve ever seen in a video game by a long shot, and the sense of immersion it provides just gives the already captivating story all the more impact.

However you do have to keep your wits about you when exploring; some of the pedestrians are actually aggressive street punks who are more than happy to engage in a bout of fisticuffs if you get too close. They’re are basically Yakuza’s equivalent of RPG style random battles, but just not nearly annoying as that sounds. Once you have a good idea what all the trouble makers look like, it’s easy enough to avoid combat if you’re getting a little fed up with it. Oh, and the odds are you WILL get fed up with it.

 Most fights are short brawls that take place in an enclosed area, but on rare occasions you’ll get these one-off continuous battles set in a much lager environment. I really wish there had been more of these, but I've been saying that since the original Yakuza.

On rare occasions you’ll get to fight long continuous battles set in a lager open environments. I really wish there were more of these, but I’ve been saying that since the original Yakuza

Each character plays differently has their own exclusive moves sets, but in the end it makes very little difference to how most battles are going to play out. Pro Tip: mash the two attack buttons over and over until you have enough HEAT, then just do the most convenient HEAT move available, rinse and repeat until you win. Unfortunately most of the games huge number of side quests are resolved in a similar way, the only difference being that you have to wade through few pages of un-voiced dialogue before you get to start cracking skulls. I suppose the shear spectacle of the combat is probably enough to keep it interesting for a good while, but considering the main storyline probably clocks in at well over 15 hours, the lack of variety is going to hit you pretty hard sooner or later.

That is, if you can stop yourself from turning your PS3 into scrap first. Some aspects of the combat system are exceptionally frustrating for totally absurd reasons: frequent stun-locks, AI that cheats like crazy, awkward contextual commands, everything about it is just downright clunky and dated. These sort of issues were barely justifiable in the first game way back in 2005, but 5 years later the fact that they’re still there is an absolute disgrace.

 It can often feel like luck rather than skill is governing the outcome of a battle when the AI can instantly counter your every move at a whim.

It can often feel like luck rather than skill is governing the outcome of a battle when the AI can instantly counter your every move at a whim

Sadly combat isn’t the only aspect of Yakuza that’s failed to evolve over the years. I’ve got no doubt that the consistent usage of the Kamurocho District as a setting is a key part of the Yakuza franchise’s appeal, and in Yakuza 4 it’s as visually striking a as ever. But that’s still no excuse for the truly laughable lack of new locations since the orginal PS2 outing. The few that they have added are extremely spartan, with little reason for you to ever to give them a second look unless a side quest demands it.

But at least there’s a small collection well-crafted minigames to help alleviate some of the pent up frustration and boredom. And by a “small collection” I mean: Shogi, Mahjong, Koi-koi, Baccarat, Chasing, Blackjack, Roulette, Pachinko, Pool, Hostesses flirting, Cee-lo, Mixed Martial arts coaching, Ho-han, Massages parlors (?), Oicho Kabu, Table tennis, Hostess training, Toba, UFO Catchers, Karaoke, Batting cages, Bowling, Golf, Fishing, Darts, and even a side scrolling shooter. Yeah. If you let them draw you in, you could easily end up spending more time with all those than you do with the actual story missions.

For better or worse that’s just how Yakuza rolls, and Yakuza 4 is essentially just MORE Yakuza pure and simple. It’s more of what makes the series so interesting and unique, but in turn it’s also more of what makes it really fricking annoying. I’d say the good parts defiantly still outweigh the bad parts, and that this is easily the best Yakuza game yet, however that doesn’t stop some of the more archaic mechanics requiring saintly levels of patience to endure. But so long as you can get past that, then you’re in for an interactive gangster movie epic like no other. Well ok, maybe like a few others….

The Good

  • Dense engrossing storyline.
  • Huge number of minigames and side quests.
  • Very long.
  • City feels lifelike.
  • Brutal special attacks.

The Bad

  • Very few new locations.
  • Combat feels clunky and dated.
  • Isolation between the playable characters until late game.

Recommended similar games
Shenmue 1 (Dreamcast) & 2 (dreamcast/xbox)
Way of the samurai 1, 2 (PSP/PS2) & 3(PS3/Xbox360)
Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble (PSP)
GodHand (PS2)

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