Yakuza 4 on PlayStation 3 Half-Time Impressions.

The homeless people that appealed for our help tell our character that they think the animals may be injured, and have attempted to tame them without success. Our character tries to reason with the animals, making recognisable "miaow" sounds, which appear to work. The kittens step forward, seeming to respond. Our character observes that the kittens might be hungry, recommending to the gathering homeless crowd that some milk might do the trick. The homeless people relay downheartedly that they can hardly afford to feed themselves, let alone a litter of kittens too. Our character states he'll take care of it, and takes off into the streets of Kamurocho to buy milk. Our character is Taiga Saejima, a man convicted of murdering eighteen Yakuza clan members before being sentenced with the death penalty.

It's these startling contrasts in characterisation that make Yakuza 4 utterly captivating. When critics lament the lack of good story-telling in video games, they really should stop to reference SEGA's often overlooked Japanese crime-drama. Certainly the franchise can succumb to soap-opera levels of melodrama, but the series is packed with layered and engaging characters. Quality writing and great voice acting make you believe in each character's personal drama, which ties together naturally across Yakuza 4's intertwining campaign.

Yakuza 4 is split across the campaigns of four main protagonists. Series veteran Kazuma Kiryu shares the spotlight with loan-shark Shun Akiyama, Masayoshi Tanimura and the previously mentioned Taiga Saejima. We've only experienced the campaigns of Akiyama and Saejima, and are about 15-hours into the game. But why are we taking so long to review Yakuza 4? Well, as a publication we have a duty to you, the readers, to give you coverage in a prompt fashion. But we've always been adament about respecting our own personal passion for games. Indeed, we probably could have finished Yakuza 4 within that 15-hour time-frame, but we would have missed part of the magic: wandering around the game's open-world setting, soaking up every little last scrap of conversation. Consider this article a stop-gap between the main review. Realistically though, unless the second half of the title transforms into a real-time strategy game, we whole-heartedly recommend Yakuza 4. Ahem... Four squares... Ahem.

The game opens with the story of the slightly suave, slightly arrogant loan-shark, Shun Akiyama. Akiyama's blundering, casual manner is irritating, but the character is ultimately likable. As the introductory component of Yakuza 4's narrative, Akiyama's story is quite splintered, but it's also the catalyst for the entire campaign. At first certain plot elements don't make much sense, but it all comes together brilliantly. Akiyama's role as a debt collector and humanitarian is treated with contempt by the people of Kamurocho, but his arrogance supersedes perception. Ultimately, it is Akiyama's arrogance that kick-starts the entire storyline. Taking it upon himself to silence a couple of rowdy Ueno Seiwa clan members, Akiyama initiates a chain of events that connects each of the protagonist's campaigns together. The story-line can be a bit bloated at times, but it's otherwise brilliantly pieced together. It's also a pretty intelligent move by SEGA. Breaking the campaign down into four separate stories makes the game much easier to digest than the previous Yakuza title, in which you spent 15-20 hours with just Kazuma Kiryu. Here there's variety in each of the character's fighting styles, and additional activities.

For example, when you're playing as Akiyama you can opt to manage the character's hostess bar. This involves picking up girls, dressing them in clothes that suit the customer's tastes, and managing them in an RPG-lite manner to maximise the club's profitability. Is it a bit weird playing Barbie with digital characters? Sure. But it's surprisingly in-depth, and worryingly addictive. As fun as the hostess bar management mode is, we're currently absolutely hooked on Saejima's side activity. Here you manage a commercially unsuccessful dojo, and train the gym's one returning apprentice into a fighting machine. The mode is crazy complex, allowing you to create custom training schedules, build relationships with your apprentice and upgrade the facilities of the gym. What's more, when you eventually get around to entering your apprentice into a fight, you'll have such an attachment to the character that you'll be willing them to win. Training a fighting machine has nothing to do with furthering the main plot-line, but it's just one of the game's many side activities.

All the usual sights of Kamurocho return: bowling, karaoke, baseball, darts, pool, arcades, pachinko, mahjong, etc. The game's open-world setting might be small, but SEGA's packed that world with content. The addition of accessible underground malls and rooftops do add to the spacious capacity of the city, but it does still feel a little bit claustrophobic. Furthermore, SEGA really hasn't done much to further the core of Yakuza 4's gameplay. If we have one complaint about the campaign, it's that it does very little new. If you're looking for more of the same, then you'll ultimately be satisfied with Yakuza 4. But if you tired of the previous game before its conclusion, there's not much the sequel has to offer. The smaller, more focused campaigns may hold your attention better than Kazuma's epic, but the pacing and gameplay has been largely left untouched.

That's not to say there aren't tweaks though. For example the fighting — which is one of the pillars of the Yakuza franchise's gameplay — is tight and varied between the characters. Akiyama has a fast style, while Saejima is more of a tank, mixing jabs with charged attacks. Because the campaigns are much shorter, you level up much quicker in Yakuza 4, which means you're frequently unlocking new moves and keeping the fighting fresh. It's still gets repetitive when you're constantly encountering random battles when all you want to do is move through the environment, but the bouts aren't particularly lengthy so you're never taken out of the game too detrimentally.

Perhaps more exciting than the contrasting fighting styles is the differing tones though. Saejima's prison campaign is extremely dark compared to Akiyama's angsty, good humoured story, and it gives the narrative a good sense of variety. We're fully expecting the game's subsequent campaigns to be just as mixed and interesting.

We're 15 hours into Yakuza 4 but the game's progression meter paints a staggering picture of the amount of content available in the title. According to the stats page we're about 4% complete. As with the previous Yakuza games, there's a staggering array of side-stories to explore. All of the side-quests we've completed thus far have been well-written and engaging. None of them attempt anything particularly unique from a gameplay perspective, but it's pretty staggering how well SEGA flesh out even the most minor of characters.

And that's ultimately the strength of Yakuza 4. It feels like an epic experience featuring a world of likable, believable and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny characters. The plot-line is melodramatic and cliched, but it tackles a range of subjects that few other games dare to explore. There's a moment when Saejima — after 25 years in prison — makes first contact with a female, drawing a reaction we hadn't even considered. Yakuza 4 isn't afraid to touch on awkward subjects, but it does so with sensitivity and reverence for Japanese culture that ultimately makes it captivating.

So no, we haven't finished Yakuza 4 yet. And yes, we will write  a full review soon. But do we think you should buy it? We imagine this write-up should speak for itself.

Yakuza 4 is available now on PlayStation 3.