Yakuza 4 Hands-on Preview: The Eccentric Foreigner

From its one-year localization delay and quirky mini-games to its stylized city setting and flashy melee brawls, everything about Yakuza 4 screams Japan. Some Western-oriented gamers might find it alienating, but many will relish its gory (and often goofy) take on the yakuza underworld.

At SEGA’s recent spring showcase event in New York City, I checked out this latest entry in the Yakuza franchise. Yakuza 4 features four protagonists: Shun Akiyama, a moneylender; Masayoshi Tanimura, a cop; Taiga Saejima, a runaway criminal; and series vet Kazuma Kiryu. The highlight of the game is undoubtedly its combat. All four characters consistently find themselves in brutal brawls with (surprisingly well-dressed) thugs. Though you routinely face as many as a dozen foes at once, they’re not very aggressive; most enemies circle slowly around you, occasionally stepping forward to take a swing.

Each character plays a little differently. The balanced Kazuma is able to wield a wide variety of weapons; the fluid Shun is skilled at chaining combos together and can perform running attacks; the nimble Masayoshi is able to parry and perform immobilizing grabs; and the burly Taiga can pick up, use, and throw heavy objects.

The combat, which involves performing combos with square (weak attack), triangle (strong attack), and circle (grab), is easy to pick up. If you dish out more damage than you take — dodging attacks with the ‘X’ button is key — you slowly build up a “heat” meter that allows you to unleash special attacks. There are dozens (hundreds?) of these specials to pull off, since each is contextual. The attack you pull off depends on your which character you are, the weapon you have (or don’t have) in your hand, and the enemies’ physical locations around you. These brief cinematic sequences, some of which act as quick-time events, are absolutely brutal. Many opt for the old foot-to-face standby, but others show you hucking foes off rooftops, smashing in faces with baseball bats, performing vicious dropkicks and so on.

You won’t spend all of Yakuza 4 beating up thugs. While roaming through the city of Kamurocho (a recreation of Shinjuku’s red-light district), you’re able to participate in mini-games like pachinko, fishing, table tennis, and karaoke. I played a game of table tennis with one of the game’s hostesses. When I reached eight points, she loosened her kimono so she could move around more effectively, revealing her cleavage. To charge up my smash hit, I had to stare at her chest. Who knew ping-pong could be perfect fodder for softcore eroticism? SEGA’s CS1 Team did, apparently.

It’s eccentric, sure, but Yakuza 4 seems like a worthwhile experience based on my time with the game. Some of its content is definitely superfluous — a SEGA rep told me it would take roughly 80 to 100 hours to complete everything in the game, and I can’t imagine playing all of the simplistic, overly sexualized mini-games — but the game’s core combat is visceral and rewarding.

Yakuza 4 arrives on March 15, 2011 in North America and March 18, 2011 in Europe.