Every time that we mention Yakuza 4, or indeed, the Yakuza series as a whole, there's always at least one person who chirps in and says that they've never played it – and in the worst case scenarios, that they've never even heard of it. Well, it's time to educate yourself, because Yakuza 4 is heading to PlayStation Plus this month, and it's about darn time that you gave it a go.
At its core, SEGA's creation is a role-playing game – it just doesn't wear the guise that you'd expect from the genre. Slapped onto this foundation of usable items, unlockable skills, and experience points, is a combat system that's halfway between what you'd find in a technical fighter and a straight-up action title, a semi-sandbox world littered with mini-games, and cutscenes that make the serious drama in big releases like Grand Theft Auto V appear disappointingly lacking. It's a beast that's made of up many bits and pieces, but it all comes together superbly.
The fourth main instalment in the series introduces four playable protagonists for the first time, and each of their stories intertwine as you work your way through the rather lengthy narrative. Tough guy with a heart of gold Kazuma Kiryu is the franchise's main man, but he takes something of a back seat this time around as the release focuses on the charismatic loan shark Akiyama, ace cop Tanimura, and escaped convict Saejima. Our heroes are all developed equally well as proceedings move on, and they even boast their own fighting styles, which keeps the gameplay feeling fresh, as you're tossed from one character's perspective to the next.
The whole thing takes place in a fictional representation of Tokyo's red light district, named Kamurocho. As you'd expect, it's a pretty seedy location, and there are gangsters and mobs running everything from behind-the-scenes. By and large, it's the perfect backdrop for beating up thugs and generally walking around neon-lit streets like a badass, and it's brought to life by dozens of often weird and wonderful side quests. But where the district really shines is with the range of activities that it has to offer.
It's no exaggeration to say that we've wasted countless hours sampling Kamurocho's finest attractions, from karaoke and table tennis, to romancing hostesses and competing in underground fight clubs. It's all incredibly Japanese, too – not just by design, but the feel and atmosphere of the title as a whole is unlike anything that you'll come across from a Western studio. As such, it can be a real breath of fresh air if you're a bit tired of gritty shooters, sprawling open worlds, or even fantasy epics.
We've wasted countless hours sampling Kamurocho's finest attractions
There's plenty of humour to be found as well. The aforementioned side quests are usually stuffed with dumb jokes and even dumber personalities, while little sprinkles of comedy can be found everywhere, from the over-the-top way Kazuma types on his mobile phone, to the fact that when Saejima witnesses the inspiration for a deadly new attack, he quickly carves a small wooden statue to make it official.
The game's a bit crazy, then, and the same can be said of its storyline, which has more twists and turns than an omnibus of your favourite soap opera. The whole thing's delivered in Japanese, but this at least keeps the plot feeling authentic, although long cutscenes are understandably plastered in subtitles, which aren't everyone's cup of tea.
Still, the way that you can go from laughing at how seriously Kazuma takes his karaoke performance to being totally engrossed in the intriguing world of organised crime is a testament to how well made the game is. It hardly puts a foot wrong over its 30 hour running time, and even if the plot doesn't manage to capture your attention, you can always hit the streets and lay down some meaty justice on petty criminals.
The combat's bound to be many people's favourite part of the release, and with good cause. Each protagonist is a wrecking ball of destruction when you're used to their fighting style and you've unlocked a good amount of techniques and skills through levelling up. As mentioned, battles are quite technical, and because you're usually outnumbered, you'll have to bash heads with some efficiency. However, the stars of the show are the heat moves.
By pummelling your opponents, your heat gauge increases, and when it's full, you'll be able to unleash a variety of attacks that make sure that your enemies won't get back up in a hurry. Some are satisfyingly simple, like smashing someone's face into a brick wall, while others are flamboyant showcases of martial might. To top it all off, combat's made even better by the soundtrack, which is full of hard rock, funky tunes, and electronic beats. Emotions will run high as you stomp baddies to begin with, but when you pull off a move right as that hard-hitting guitar riff kicks in, you'll really feel the magic.
So, in conclusion, you should probably give Yakuza 4 a shot. It can take a little while to get going, and it might be some time before you get to grips with the way that things are done in Kamurocho, but there really isn't much else like it on the market. If you're interested in Japanese culture, decidedly wacky misadventures, addictive mini-games, or just want to bust some skulls, you could easily end up being best buddies with Kazuma and the gang.