Released just a year after the wonderful Yakuza 3, the only curve-ball Yakuza 4 throws is not running with Kazuma Kiryu as the game's primary protagonist, instead introducing three new playable characters. Yakuza 4 might be a structurally familiar game, but its multiple protagonist approach actually turns out to be the game's hidden strength.
Split into four digestible "mini-campaigns" in the picturesque city of Kamurocho — a seedy fictional representation of the Japanese red-light district — Yakuza 4 offers a much more direct narrative than its predecessors. The intertwining plot-lines give the game a much more abrupt pace than previous entries, which often served as the barrier for impatient to get into the franchise. Make no mistake, this is still the same franchise, with deliberately plodding character development and soap-opera plot twists, but everything about Yakuza 4 feels accelerated because of the segregation of the content.
You start out as Shun Akiyama — a casual, likable loan-shark with positive intentions and a bemusing personality — who appears to be the catalyst of a war between the Ueno Seiwa clan and the series familiar Tojo clan. This kicks off a chain of events that touches all four of the characters' individual plot-lines, before the group unite for the game's final chapter. As with previous games in the series, the narrative is slow — and at times clunky — but utterly engaging throughout. It rarely gets mentioned, but the Yakuza franchise is easily up there with the likes of Uncharted when it comes to basic character and plot development. Moving through the layers of Yakuza 4's nuanced storyline forces you to see the game through to its conclusion. The introduction of fresh characters also makes the game the most accessibile in the series, although the game is absolutely packed with references to previous fiction for the hardcore fans.
The game's also constantly changing tone. Despite the overarching narrative being a tale of corruption and deceit, each of the characters' campaigns have a unique tone. Akiyama's campaign is quite light-hearted and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, while the follow-up character, convicted murderer Taiga Saejima, opts for a much, much darker storyline. Rookie cop Masayoshi Tanimura's plot swings between corruption and loyalty, while the reintroduction of Kazuma Kiryu provides a fitting conclusion to the game's layers of fan-service. Each character has its own unique mechanics, sub-stories and quests to participate in, and the whole package comes together in a way that keeps the familiar nature of the gameplay feeling fresh — despite the same hooks being present across all four games in the series.
Yakuza 4's main campaign last around 25-30 hours, though there are stacks of additional sub-quests and mini-games to tackle once you've completed the main story. Upon completing the campaign for the first time, we'd progressed through just 11% of the content. There's easily upwards of 150 hours in the game.
While people lavish the likes of Uncharted and Heavy Rain with praise for their respective character development techniques, the Yakuza series frequently gets pushed to the side. If you're the type of gamer that's constantly bemoaning the lack of good narrative in games, you owe it to yourself to play Yakuza 4. Despite being voiced entirely in Japanese (with sub-titles provided to keep you on top of the action), Yakuza 4 does character and plot development better than almost all of its peers. The dialogue, pacing and nuances in animation make Yakuza 4's cut-scenes some of the best out there, and while the story-line can get a touch convoluted at times, keep on top of it and it'll keep you guessing right through to the narrative's conclusion. Yakuza 4 hooks you with believable characters, and a plot that slowly peels away the layers of the game's complex but engaging fiction. Discovering the connection between each of the game's protagonists is a real treat, and it keeps the plot moving at a faster pace than previous titles.
There is so much to do in Yakuza 4 that it's hard to believe that the game was built in just a year. Sure the engine has been left untouched, but there's a serious amount of content layered on top of the familiar mechanics. One of the most noticable additions is the introduction of verticality to the city of Kamurocho. You can now explore the rooftops and underground sections of the city. The game's sandbox environment still feels a touch claustrophobic, but these additional areas give more room to explore and, naturally, pack additional content. After being publicly removed from the previous title, Yakuza 4's hostess missions return in the sequel. These play a big part in Akiyama's campaign, where you'll stumble upon a kind of hostess management sim. Here you'll need to recruit and dress girls to appeal to the tastes of customers at Akiyama's privately owned club. It's a bit weird, but it adds a substantial amount of content to the title and would hold up as its own mini PSN release. Likewise, Saejima's dojo management sim, and Tanimura's gambling sub-quests add an alarming amount of content to the game. Of course, this is all layered on top of the usual selection of Yakuza mini-games: darts, pool, table-tennis, mahjong, golf, pachinko and more all add variety to a game.
One of the main advantages of having multiple protagonists spread across Yakuza 4's campaign is the addition of a variety of fighting styles. The game's primary gameplay draw aside from exploration is its battle system, which plays a bit like a three-dimensional Streets Of Rage. The fighting is never outstanding, but the addition of differing styles prevent the action from getting repetitive. Akiyama, for example, has a fast fighting style, while Saejima opts for slower, charged attacks. You can get by hitting the buttons with these characters, but Tanimura has the most radically different style, opting for counters as opposed to brute force. This means you constantly need to adjust your fighting technique as you switch between characters. The frequent introduction of new characters also means you level-up in an accellerated manner, constantly unlocking new moves and attacks as your progress. It definitely does still get repetitive when you're trying to explore the city and you get embroiled in an unwanted random battle, but these usually only last for a few minutes at most.
Yakuza 4's side-quests never step out of the confines of the game's gameplay hallmarks — fighting, exploring and talking — but they are still amongst some of the most fun elements of the game. These are usually enhanced by the game's brilliant dialogue which, as far as we can tell, has been localised to really capture the semi-sarcastic tone of the franchise's nod-and-wink humour. One side-quest saw us go out in search of curry for a group of angry construction workers, while another challenged us to drum up a throng of attractive ladies to work at a local hostess bar. The side-quests are totally optional, but they keep you tuned into the world, which really does feel like a real city packed with interesting and layered personalities.
Yakuza 4 is a game that's best experienced fresh, so we really don't want to give too much away about plot specifics. That said, we think it's worth stressing how well the game manages to tackle a range of unique subjects that just don't get the spotlight in other games. Unlike so many other titles in this industry, Yakuza 4 is not about macho space-marines saving the world. In fact every single character in Yakuza 4 is flawed in different ways. You're never entirely sure if you're playing as the good guys, and that's an important distinction that sets it apart from other releases. Yakuza 4's packed with motives and emotional bonds that blur the lines of what is right and wrong. The game never presents anything as black and white, instead considering a range of greys and using each character's personality to make decisions — regardless of whether it's right or wrong.
Because it couldn't have been much worse, right?
When you're strutting down the neon-lit streets of Kamurocho, the glow reflected on the pavement's rain-slicked floor, you'll think — "This game looks alright." The rest of the time you'll wonder how on Earth SEGA's getting away with putting out what is essentially a PS2 game on the PS3. Yakuza 4 looks pretty awful. Outside of cut-scenes, the character models are chunky and undefined, the animation is laughably bad and the whole image is masked in a sub-HD resolution that makes the game look like its been rubbed in vaseline. Of course, SEGA get away with it because the game is utterly brilliant despite its technical shortcomings, but imagine if Yakuza 4 looked on par with some of the other gems of this generation...
Yakuza 4 is a Japanese game and at times it shows in a negative way. "You found something." Press X. "It's a locker key." Press X. "Do you want to pick it up?" Press X. "You got the locker key." Press X. Four button presses for an action that could have been completed in one. The whole game would benefit from being stream-lined.
Good grief Yakuza 4's map is terrible. Some of the game's side-quests tell you to head to a certain location. But the map doesn't show you where those locations actually are. Nor does it allow you to set a way-point. So you're left kinda guessing your way around the city or referring to some kind of map online. Sure, not really knowing where you're going lends an explorational vibe to the side-quests but c'mon, this is 2011 now SEGA.
Urgh. Don't you just hate it when a game says, "Oh look, you've played all the way through to the end so now we're going to make it really hard." Yakuza 4 does exactly that. The very final boss battle — of which there are four — is the epitome of cheap boss design. We're still raging over it to be honest. Hey, at least the final cut-scene is hilarious though.
Yakuza 4 is technically flawed but utterly captivating. Its melodramatic tale is supported by a believable cast of interesting and likable characters. Despite its evolutions being slight, Yakuza 4 is potentially the best game in the series — even if its narrative does take one twist too many.