Honor, loyalty, pride, ambition - it is through these four ideals that the groundwork for the latest entry in the Yakuza franchise is set. It's a fascinating struggle to observe because there are good qualities to be found in all of these ideals, yet conflict arises so easily when they cross paths. The murder of eighteen men, which took place over twenty-five years ago, is the key to a looming threat that faces the Tojo Clan and Kamurocho, the red-light district it calls home. Events in both the past and present will affect multiple generations of Yakuza as four men seek the truth behind it all. This edition in the series also focuses on brotherhood in the Yakuza clans. While Yakuza families are usually very unlike those we have in our own homes, they are still as close-knit as one can imagine and the events that affect them can shatter the strongest of bonds just as well as anything. If nothing else the story is another excuse to booze it up, break the jaws of several hundred punks, and play golf. Yakuza 4 isn't just a noire story; it's an alpha-male playground for those of us who never considered getting tattoos all over our backs and fighting dirty.
Yakuza 4 puts together the best the series has to offer in a tight package that can be enjoyed in any number of ways.
I'm not very good with vacations. The time spent, the money involved, the loss of work, it's just too much for me. Still we all need vacations to stay functional in life and that's where part of the appeal of the Yakuza series comes from. It's an escapist fantasy for young adult males, similar to Total Recall. Not only do I play the hero and get the girl, I also don't have to worry about the possibility that my brain is going through a blender when it's all over. Like any good vacation to a foreign country, I also get a taste for the culture surrounding it. Sure first-hand experience is always superior, but for the cost of the average video game it isn't a bad deal. Furthermore, if I attempted to pull off even half the stuff that happens in the average Yakuza game I'd probably be dead several times over.
This entry is divided into four parts with multiple chapters apiece. In each part, you take control of a different hero. Each chapter tends to consist of cut scenes and action sequences as well as an opportunity to explore the city and engage in side quests. It's a formulaic structure, but it works superbly as it is focused and efficient. Unlike the previous entry, Yakuza 4 doesn't have any particularly slow or boring moments to it. This entry won't tease you by having some major event happen and then force you to play Daddy Day-Care at the orphanage for several hours before things get moving. Still there are some aspects of the story that . . . well they have almost reached the point of becoming self-parody. It is impossible to state examples without giving away important bits of the story, so I'll just say that fans of the series will notice them while newcomers will be a little confused as to why things happen the way they do. Then again, it is probably best to not take things too seriously, even when it concerns the story. Unless you're the type that can't bear to continue playing when you see something you think is strange you'll likely find Yakuza 4's story to be compelling, thoughtful, and generally very good. The cast is very well-written and they could move even the most stone-hearted person to swear an oath of brotherhood with a close friend.
The injection of fresh blood in the form of three new playable characters is something the series has sorely needed. While Kazuma Kiryu is a great protagonist, we have already spent three entire games with him. These characters aren't bit players either. Aside from each of them significantly influencing the storyline, they all have their own side quests and fighting styles to explore. In addition there are tons of mini games and challenges to take part in, as well as additional post-game content like a harder difficulty setting and added battles. I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here, so let's talk about the new guys.
I always wondered if a person can be judged by the kinds of cigarettes he smokes. Shun Akiyama is a self-made millionaire who turned his life around when an explosion caused billions of yen to fall to the streets he was sleeping in. It's only natural that he always seems to have only one crooked cigarette in his pack. His occupation is equally peculiar, as it involves giving no-interest loans to people hoping to put their lives back together. Thanks in part to a mysterious woman (a noire tradition), Shun finds himself involved in problems between the Tojo and Ueno Seiwa Clans. Thankfully, he can handle himself in a fight as well as the best the Yakuza has to offer. While his offensive style is suited towards kicking, he feels very similar to Kazuma, which is just as well since Akiyama is the first playable character in this game, lending a sense of familiarity.
Akiyama also happens to own a hostess bar, which makes up a rather involving mini game where the player can raise his own hostess. The most important aspect of a hostess bar is the hostess after all, since a particularly good one will constantly get requested by customers, who will spend millions of yen on overpriced food and liquor in a vain attempt to win her heart. While most gamers will prefer breaking bones over bank accounts, there is a certain appeal to raising an excellent hostess. Maybe I'm just the sort of person who is into that sort of thing. I'm a big fan of the Nintendo DS game Style Savvy after all. Shun can also visit other Hostess bars and, depending on the player, will see more action from those ladies than most people could ever dream of. The appeal is limited since eventually it leads to dates in a video game. Still there is some value in it for players, like a ton of experience points as well as the odd charming moment that they'll probably keep to themselves to avoid embarrassment. If nothing else, at least it gives gamers something to do with all of the money they make beating up low-level Yakuza.
Going back to the cigarette discussion, the easiest tell about Taiga Saejima is that he doesn't smoke, or at least not nearly as much as he used to. This is attributed to the fact that he spent the last twenty-five years of his life in prison - when cigarettes become as valuable as gold, chances of maintaining that nicotine addiction become very slim. Saejima is what anyone would expect from a man who just broke out of prison because he heard he was betrayed, and looks something like a bison on two feet. His fighting style is all about crushing people, leaving just enough of their bodies in working order so they can crawl to the hospital. He's a bit more of a challenge to learn than Akiyama as his brute strength is tempered by ability to control crowds.
Since Taejima is fueled by vengeance and anger, he doesn't have much interest in dating. That doesn't mean he won't enjoy the occasional visit to the bath house or even a massage parlor, but it's obvious he has more important things on his mind than trying to win over a hostess. It would have been a challenge worth undertaking though. I think I'd have a heck of a time trying to date someone after telling them I killed eighteen people and I just busted out of prison. Taejima also doesn't engage in any hostess-raising; instead, he takes over a dojo and trains fighters to win tournaments. In a way it is two sides of the same coin as fighter-building is just as much a hands-off affair as hostess-raising. All the player does is provide the training and the fighter/hostess must make the most of it. It'd probably be too easy if the fighters could be controlled on their own, but it is frustrating when they aren't performing moves and losing fights.
Detective Masayoshi Tanimura may smoke, but his real addiction is gambling. For practically the entirety of the game he has a radio keeping him updated on horseraces and most of his finances come from illegitimate means. When Tanimura isn't cleaning up at the local mahjongg, parlor he is collecting hush-money from the sorts of businesses he should be shutting down. This is the exactly the sort of person you want on your police force. It is difficult to stay angry with him though, because he has those good looks and he frowns on the exploitation of the Asian community in Kamurocho. His side quests typically involve helping out foreigners who are forced into jobs where they are paid barely enough to survive. Tanimura also has perhaps my favorite fighting style in the game. It involves lots of counterattacks, grapples, and overall just feels like a more technical method of brutality than what the other characters offer.
Like Akiyama, Masayoshi also has a talent for winning over hostesses, and if the player hasn't tried the gambling out it probably couldn't hurt to give it a shot. Aside from offering practically every major game one can expect from a casino, Yakuza 4 also has mahjongg and shogi. Considering that good mahjongg simulators are few and far between, it's certainly a welcome addition. Thankfully for the unlucky, there are many items that the player can attain, so that beating the odds and making a fortune becomes something of a triviality. I prefer collecting money from random punks on the street as well as the monetary rewards that come from responding to reports of criminal activity happening in Kamurocho.
And then there is the legendary Kazuma Kiryu, "Dragon of Dojima" owner of Sunshine Daycare - and he's better than ever. I was worried at first because some of the previews made it out like Kazuma had lost moves so that the other characters could use them, but it's clear that it isn't the case at all. If anything, he has grown in power due to the addition of several new moves and abilities. He has an everyman style in that it's a style that is used to destroy every man. Despite this, he still gets challenged by the lowliest of thugs and even a handful of gangs will attempt to topple the Dragon at certain points. There is hardly any visiting Okinawa in this entry, so all of the orphanage-related nonsense is out. Still those gamers out there who get their kicks playing a doting father will get their chance eventually.
The battle system in Yakuza 4 is still faithful to its earlier entries while flaunting a gamut of improvements. The most obvious is the revamped skill system. The early games forced the player to expend a lot of experience just for simple upgrades like more health. This system has undergone a revision where every level-up gives a health upgrade and the player is given points to unlock whatever abilities he likes. This makes customization less of a chore and the battles become more entertaining as the player accumulates moves at a faster pace. The differing fighting styles are also very well-developed and there are even more brutal ways to finish off foes. Otherwise the core fighting system hasn't really seen any major changes, which is good news, because it's still quite solid. One thing I noticed but am not absolutely sure about is that heat seems to rise faster in this game, leading to more finishing moves being available. It's a subtle change that helps move fights along faster. There's a serviceable combat-oriented demo of this game available on the PlayStation Network that's handy because it will take awhile to get adjusted to the unique mechanics of this brawler. Unlike other action games, the focus isn't on stylish combos; instead, it's all about managing space and capitalizing on openings, a style of play seen in early arcade beat-'em-ups.
I'm not sure if it's a limitation of the graphics engine or what, but after certain moves it really looks like the opponent's face has been ruined beyond any hope of repair. I'm not sure how anyone manages to survive some of the attacks in this game. Being driven head-first into a brick wall should at the very least lead to a concussion; nevermind getting sliced to pieces by a sword or thrown off a roof. Guns don't kill people in this game either, unless of course it's a cut scene, and even that doesn't guarantee if the bullets will be fatal or not. Thankfully, this is about the height of the self-awareness this game has. There's enough to point out that, yes, you are playing a video game but it isn't to where you have to worry about your fourth, fifth, and sixth walls being broken. Though there are at least a few side missions for those weirdoes out there who dig into that sort of nonsense.
The biggest thing to keep in mind is that Yakuza 4 is massive. In my play-through, which took 28 hours, I managed to complete only 28% of the game. The way it looks is that it might take one hundred hours to do everything. That can be a painful experience for those gamers out there who feel the need to complete the entirety of the game. In order to get the full experience, one would have to do everything from dating every hostess to eating all of the available meals in every restaurant to doing the more ridiculous challenges like achieving a turkey in bowling or managing to play a game of golf without falling asleep. Still, it can be a rewarding experience, as all of the mini games are sufficient in their design and do not in any way feel half-baked. Though I have to say I really could have done without Boxcelios 2. I'd rather have gone the Shenmue route and gome with some classic arcade games instead of a dull "shoot-the-core!" marathon. It would have required far less effort for the developer and I'd be having far more fun.
In any case, it's your call how you want to approach this game. Fans of the series should have picked this game up at launch and everyone else would do well to consider giving the game a look. As far as I'm concerned, it puts together the best the series has to offer in a tight package that can be enjoyed in any number of ways. Some players will focus on the brawling aspects, where the harder difficulties and optional fights should satisfy. Others are more likely to be swayed by the opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of a recreation of Tokyo's Red Light District and will enjoy the easier settings. No matter how you go about it there's something waiting for you in Kamurocho. I highly recommend paying a visit.