Sega’s Yakuza franchise has proven both engrossing and stimulating. The lurid, well-drawn storylines combine with the brutal melee brawling, and it always helps to have memorable characters. Kazuma Kiryu isn’t the only playable character this time around but he remains a big highlight, and Kamurocho is a more authentic and visceral city than ever before. The story progresses at a decent clip, there’s always tons to do, and the established fighting mechanic almost never gets tiresome. However, it’s clear the developers recycled many of the crowd-pleasing maneuvers, and the pleasant diversions tend to occupy too much of the presentation. And at some point, we have to assume they’ll take the next step and implement voices in all phases of the game. That being said, Yakuza 4 remains solid on all counts.
These aren’t the most accomplished visuals you’ll ever see, but above all else, Sega wishes to up the ante in terms of atmosphere, immersion and gritty attitude. It’s in every little detail that spices up our environment, from the hostesses to the bums. Character detail excels during cut-scenes and the choreography is excellent, as usual. During gameplay, there’s a certain fuzziness; a lack of shiny clarity that many next-gen titles have long since embraced. Some of the special effects seem a tad lackluster as well, and this seems to be more evidence of the aforementioned recycling. But even though we don’t have a drastically upgraded graphical presentation, this is the best-looking Yakuza yet. Provided you make a few small exceptions, you should enjoy the consistent and mostly appealing style.
In regards to sound, it’s always hard to tell if the Japanese voice acting is any good, and yeah, there are still no voices during gameplay. Personally, I have no problem with dialogue boxes but some might. Furthermore, this is a series that has always impressed me with its great original compositions; the music has always managed to enhance the action. But for some reason, there seems to be more repetition in the soundtrack department this time around, and even the good selections take a backseat to the effects. It’s just not the same sort of all-around quality we’ve come to expect and that’s undeniably disappointing. Even so, the ambient background audio helps a great deal; it terms of creating a believable, fictional city, the sound does its job quite well. And maybe that’s what matters most.
Yes, Kazuma isn’t the only character; if you played the demo, you’ll know there are a total of four characters in Yakuza 4 . Each of them play an active role in an expansive, semi-satisfying storyline, and each has a unique fighting style, which helps to add variety to an admittedly aging combat mechanic. The problem is that we never really get a firm grasp of the overarching plot, although we do get a chance to learn a lot about the four characters in question. It just seems a little erratic and all over the place, if you know what I mean. Still, I don’t want to give the impression that I dislike the story; the writing seems good, the pacing works out well (provided you don’t spend too much time entertaining hostesses), and the emotional intensity is appreciated. I just loved some of those in-your-face cut-scenes.
As you explore Kamurocho, you have more freedom than ever before. You still can’t enter all the buildings, but there are more open doors than you might expect, and your eyes are always drawn to yet another big-city trait that serves to envelop you in the beehive that is a thriving metropolis. Then again, when the time comes, the restrictions and limitations become obvious: when you get a phone call and you answer it, everything stops and a scene begins. And then there’s the standard and ever-annoying “invisible wall” issue that stops you from exploring Kamurocho further. In other words, this isn’t much like Grand Theft Auto but that’s not a bad thing, per se; Yakuza has always been a relatively unique creature of a very distinct design. It combines the arcade-y-ness of Double Dragon -esque combat with a story most reminiscent of RPGs and the appealing element of discovery.
Speaking of discovery, how’s about those hostesses? Talk about a “diversion.” You can enter into a mini-game of sorts that lets you “train” your favorite girl; you can dress her up like your own personal doll and even choose various make-ups. When she’s on your side, so-to-speak, you can trade e-mail addresses and take things to another level. Heck, you can even embark on date-like expeditions that have nothing to do with the main plot. This is all very nice but for some reason, I kept thinking the designers put a bit too much effort into this secondary element of the game. Pole dancing? Massage with tons of innuendo? Sure, it’s a girlfriend you don’t really touch (and one you pay for), but there are several hostess clubs, lots of girls and outfits, and plenty of ways to communicate. It’s just a bit much for a gritty, mafia-oriented adventure, don’t you think?
Thankfully, the combat is just as fun as ever. There’s a whole lot more blood than I remember, too, as stomping someone’s face will result in some definite red spatters. I still think the camera can be better, as it often sits too close to the action and causes many foes to disappear off to the sides. This has been an ongoing issue throughout the series, though, and I believe the fans have long since gotten used to it. The challenge can be significant, but you always feel competent and capable; stringing together combos is a blast, and picking up random environmental objects to spice things up is a plus. The Heat meter is basically the same; it allows you to execute even more powerful moves, and it also lets you use the background to your advantage. In Heat? Grab a foe with Circle, drag him to a car, and introduce his head to the glass.
The finishing moves are cool, too, but as I said before, the entire fighting system does feel a little old as we’ve seen most all these elements before. Still, I’m a big proponent of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy and that being the case, I really can’t say anything against the firmly established combat style. It’s responsive and explosive and the inclusion of an RPG-like system in regards to character advancement is fantastic. On top of which, with four separate characters, you can experiment with four different styles, which keeps the gameplay fresh. And if at any time you do happen to grow tired of endless beatings, there’s always plenty to attract your attention. It’s a good, solid package that should give action fans a lengthy adventure that rewards the vigilant and brutal. And if you just so happen to need some TLC, the hostesses are always around to help. Nice.
Yakuza 4 has a lot to offer and for the most part, it delivers. The fighting is about as refined and diverse as it has ever been, the city of Kamurocho is more detailed and immersive, the story has plenty of highlights, and becoming immersed in urban Japanese culture has never been so entertaining. However, it’s held back by one slightly disappointing fact: the series is starting to show its age. No voices outside the cut-scenes, a combat system that – while perfectly functional – isn’t much different than before, and a camera that can once again be problematic. That, and it really does feel as if Sega spent too much time dealing with the extras; with the unessentials. Yes, the hostesses are an invaluable part of the atmosphere, as are other elements, but this causes the game to lose its focus. After saying all that, I will say that if you enjoyed Yakuza 3 , you’ll love Yakuza 4 .
If you have yet to play a game in the series, this one is worth the price of admission so long as you understand and can accept the drawbacks.
The Good: Meticulously designed and immersive city. Control and combat is tight and rewarding. Story can be very interesting. Exploration and RPG aspects add depth. Always lots to do.
The Bad: Music doesn’t have as much impact. Too many recycled gameplay elements. Camera is still iffy. Extra stuff can infringe on main plot.
The Ugly: “I’m sorry, I really only care about Kazuma.”