Yakuza is one of the most under-appreciated franchises of the last two generations, and we should probably be thankful that Sega continues to localize the entries. Granted, there’s usually about a one-year gap between the Japanese and US release dates for each title, but that’s okay. While Yakuza: Of The End is currently on the Japanese radar, we’re just getting ready to receive Yakuza 4 here in North America, and a demo dropped onto the PSN last week. I’ve been itching to get a look at the game and although I’m a bit disappointed that it’s only a combat demo – just four separate battles with four characters; no wandering around or anything like that – the sample proves Yakuza remains a class act in terms of hand-to-hand battle. It was also clear that Kazuma Kiryu is a bona fide bad-ass; you play as him last, and to me, he seems to be the fastest and most powerful.
The biggest change in this new installment is that we won’t always be in control of Kazuma. That is highlighted by this demo, where we take control of each of the four available characters; each boasts his own distinct fighting style. You really have to dive into the mechanic and take full advantage of what Yakuza 4 has to offer, because that’s the best way of seeing those differences. Even some basic attacks are a little different, though; one of them unleashes a flurry of kicks towards the end of a basic combo. They can also execute various Heat moves, although each character can interact with the same aspects of the environment. For instance, you can always grab something nasty to assist in your relentless beatdown, and when near a wall or a car, you can take a foe and do something extra brutal. To finish off the main opponent, there’s a quick QTE that takes place, but it's well-implemented and isn’t intrusive.
At first glance, it seems like you just jam on the Square button, and maybe throw a few more powerful attacks in with Triangle. But there’s more depth than you might expect: you can take your fighting stance with R1, which is essential for staying focused on a certain opponent, block with L1, and grab with the Circle button. You can’t get a hold of certain enemies (especially the bigger ones), and some may attempt to grab you from behind. When that happens, you just press the X button repeatedly to break free. By grabbing an enemy when in Heat mode and pressing Triangle near an environmental object – like a wall – the character will execute a particularly horrid assault. You can also perform a certain attack when running towards an enemy, and you’ll sometimes have the opportunity to slam on a downed victim. The camera keeps up, for the most part, although I’d still want the view to be a little further back.
It’s just too bad that we can’t get a glimpse of the city we’ll be exploring, and there’s no peek at the story element. It’s just four consecutive battles in a row and that’s it. And while the focus of Yakuza 4 is most certainly centered on the combat, I think it might give those unfamiliar with the series the wrong impression. Heck, some might even think it’s an interesting fighting game of some kind. They may not realize that there’s actually a borderline GTA aspect to these games, and that we can usually expect a surprisingly in-depth and satisfying story. Therefore, download the demo so you can get a good idea of the combat – which is both solid and entertaining – but if you haven’t played other Yakuza games just yet, let it be known that the final product will offer lots more. It’ll be on store shelves on March 15.