You’ve got to admire how Sega has yet to pander to western tastes and mass appeal by watering-down the quirky, Japanese-flavoured Yakuza experience. Some six years after its original debut in Japan, Yakuza is still a sprawling, action adventure full of bizarre mini-games, violent combat and cinematic quick time events (QTEs.) Likewise, its storyline is still rich with the country’s history of the infamous Yakuza gangs, while its colourful aesthetic and unorthodox side-quests represent the colourful culture of its people perfectly. From Japan’s obsession with karaoke and girls in school uniform, right down to the captivating, quintessential Japanese soundtrack – made up purely from home-grown musical talent – Yakuza 4 couldn’t be more Japanese if it tried; and it’s all the more better for it.
The dubbed English translation of character’s voices in the first Yakuza game was quite horrible, but in Yakuza 2 the authentic Japanese experience was complete with a cast of believable characters that spoke in their native language. These authentic characters worked perfectly alongside the eccentric gameplay and brutal violence. It’s really this combination of the Japanese experience and hard-hitting combat – as well as the enticing neon-lit location (based on Tokyo’s Kabukichō district) – which makes the Yakuza series a cult favourite among many gamers. Yakuza 4 slots quite comfortable into that same cult classic bracket without ever really breaking a sweat, or trying too hard to be any different to its predecessors. As such, Yakuza 4 is essentially Yakuza as you probably already know it; a familiar and enjoyable mish-mash of brawler, Japanese eccentricities and general oddness.
In Yakuza 4, players once again venture out onto the dangerous streets of Kamurochô. This is a place where noodle bars and movie theatres sit side by side next to the city’s more seedy sights, including love hotels, gambling arenas and hostess bars. Combining exploration, combat and crazy mini-games, Yakuza 4 follows the same formula of previous games, but it opens up the existing neighbourhood with some brand new rooftop areas and an underground location where you can access the shopping arcades and city’s parking lots.
To the naked eye not much has changed visually from Yakuza 3. Disappointingly, Sega hasn’t come close to pushing the power of the PlayStation 3’s GPU, but Kamurochô is still a dazzlingly bright, effervescent city and an appealing place to explore. The fact that you never really know what you’re going to be doing next – whether it be scouting for girls at the hostess bar, chasing a punk down a side alley after stealing your wallet, or fishing for eel and prawn in the middle of night – is part of Yakuza’s appeal. Fortunately, the game largely paces itself well between lengthy cut-scenes and the ability to explore or take part in one of the dozens of fights you’ll inevitably get caught up in.
Though gameplay will be instantly familiar to fans of the series, the big change this year lies largely in the storyline, and the fact that you can now play with one of four characters. Yakuza 4 is already likely to take up 20 hours+ (a conservative estimate) of gameplay time, so the replay value is taken to an unprecedented level with these four new story arcs. And it really is worth exploring these different characters. All four stories intertwine, and although it takes some time to get there, the way that each character’s destiny links and how everything comes together proves to be a real highlight. By playing through individually with each of these characters you get to experience one of the finest aspects of any Yakuza game – its colourful characters and the way the writers draw you into the game world so incredibly well.
It isn’t always easy going, though. Yakuza 4 is just like the other games in the series in which you need to invest a lot of time to get the full experience. This largely involves sitting through reams of un-skippable text translated into English from Japanese. For some people this will undoubtedly be a really hard grind, especially when you hit sections where Sega has over-complicated things and characters just jabber away for the sake of it, adding nothing at all to the plot. Stick with it though, and these scenes serve well to really build up the backstory and familiarize you with these new characters.
Alongside the familiar face of series staple Kazuma Kiryu is Masayoshi Tanimura, a corrupt police officer and heavy gambler; hostess club owner and loan shark, Shun Akiyam; and former Yakuza and escaped prisoner, Taiga Saejima. And, while Kazuma’s storyline provides the most entertainment – perhaps because we’re so familiar already with his past – the three new additions are all charismatic folk that bring their own unique character to the game, and add even more depth and twists to the engrossing tale of death, honour, betrayal and lots more death. Furthermore, each of the four playable characters offer a different combat style, which adds some variety to a game that features a hell of a lot of fight sequences.
Combat is enjoyably brutal and fluid. Though many of the animations stem from Yakuza 3, rarely does head-stamping, smashing objects over heads and using the environment around you to beat up folk, get boring. Heat moves are back too, allowing you to fill up your gauge and then pull off some jaw-breaking manoeuvres. There’s a lot of fighting in Yakuza 4, and it can get annoying when you’re just trying to explore an area, or just want to head to the shops when another punk challenges you to a fight. However, the lure of being able to improve your character, as well as the satisfaction of cracking some skulls in the cinematic fight scenes proves to be enough motivation to make it all worthwhile.
With the EXP earned through these fights and side quests, you get to build up your character with skill points. There are tons of new active and passive abilities that give you access to crazier combos and heat moves, so there’s a lot more to fighting than just button-mashing. The new characters also take a bit of getting used to and provide a new challenge away from Kazuma’s familiar move set. The larger frame of Tanimara, for example, means that he can pick up heavier objects and has strong parrying skills and a heck of a punch, but can’t move as fast as the agile Akiyiama, who can down an opponent with a swift flurry of punches and kicks. Though we’ve seen the way that Sega blends brawling with QTEs and cinematic finishing moves all before in Yakuza 3, there’s still a lot of satisfaction to be had out of Yakuza 4’s brutal fights – and having the option of these different fight styles gives you choice.
Outside of combat and some tough duel challenges – where you face the game’s bosses – there’s plenty more to get embroiled in. Chase missions, where you might have to run through the streets after someone throwing bottles at them, or race to a finishing point, often prove to be quite frustrating if you miss the button-prompts, but there’s a variety of side-quests to appeal to every type of gamer. There’s arcade games, card games, sports games, everything ranging from the traditional to the downright bizarre. The ‘Create a No. 1 Hostess!’ quest, for example (playing as Akiyama), takes you scouting for girls and allows to dress them up and train young ladies to become the number one dancer at the caberet club. Similarly bizarre is an utterly pointless massage game, with a young (very young-looking) girl who relieves your tension in return for you twiddling your analog sticks. More traditional pursuits such as poker, bowling and fishing also make an appearance alongside Japanese past-times such as mahjong, pachinko, and visiting hostess bars, where you pay women to simply flirt with you – Japanese men really do need to get out more.
Nonetheless, there’s an extensive list of things you can get up to in Yakuza 4 and like the previous games it’s an immersive game world that is either going to frustrate you, or totally engross you for many hours. Playing the mini-games alone, you could idle away the days and totally forget what your last objective was, but if you did you’d miss out on the enjoyable storyline, the interesting characters that you meet along the way and some funny interactions with the crazy folk of Kamurochô. Nonetheless, we are already fans of the series and with our objective hats on, it’s obvious that Yakuza has and always will be an acquired taste – a game for the patient player who likes to listen and throw themselves totally into a game and its world. Even though we’ve done this with Yakuza 4, it is all starting to feel a little too familiar; and though we’ve yet again thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Kabukichō, we do think it’s a formula that now needs a new injection of something else…a zombie invasion, perhaps?