In its own way, Sega's Yakuza series has picked up where Shenmue had left off by substituting a young, vengeful protagonist in search of his father's killer for an antihero whose criminal background paves the way for beat-downs in the name of street justice. In other ways, it can also feel like a 3-D version of River City Ransom – only with Japanese gangsters instead of high school bullies.
It's an effective sandbox formula that has kept the series alive since its debut on the PS2, especially in the West, where fans have called it the spiritual successor to Yu Suzuki's one-time epic. It's rare to see any publisher gamble on releasing such a distinctly Japanese game in other territories.
At its core beats the heart of a beat-'em-up with RPG attributes and a rich story. The Yakuza series employs a massive number of cuts to explain its key points. The story and its characters share a history that spans across each chapter, intertwining obscure events and unanswered questions in a way that can be intimidating to new players.
Each installment sums up what happened before, but they're not small snippets of fiction that you can digest in a few minutes. With that said, Yakuza 4 overflows with enough to make Metal Gear Solid 4 seem light on content. If you absolutely do not like any story to go along with your action, you may want to think twice before diving into what can often come off as an interactive crime drama.
Yakuza 4 takes place a year following Yakuza 3 and breaks new ground by casting players into the roles of three different protagonists before putting them back into the shoes of the series' established hero, Kiryu Kazuma. A mysterious woman and the murder of a high-ranking yakuza in the streets of Kamurocho threaten to tear apart the fragile peace between the different clans. To find out how everything ties together, players kick, punch, smash and slam their way through nearly 40 hours of action-packed punk busting.
Part of the reason that the game seems so lengthy is that it explores the stories of all four of its key players before putting them together at the end. Each one is also different from the other in personality and fighting style, with each chapters divided into smaller sub-stories. It also helps that each character turns out to be a likeable rogue. It's not as much of a criminal bromance as it might seem to be, since none of the protagonists see each other until late in the game, but their trials add plenty of color to a deeply textured conspiracy that reaches all the way back to the first game. Despite how gritty the main story and its characters can seem, Yakuza 4 doesn't take itself too seriously — especially when you mix it up with a Japanese assassin dressed as the Joker or discover a new fighting move by making a woodcarving of an inspiring scene.
Players start out as Akiyama, an easygoing moneylender whose quick footwork does all of the punching and kicking he'll ever need. Players then move on to Saejima, a hardened yakuza who spent 25 years in the slammer for killing 18 gangsters in a legendary hit during the '80s. His granite fists do all of the work, and he's so strong that he can use motorbikes as clubs to smash enemies. He's followed up by Tanimura, a Bruce Lee-styled beat cop who isn't above taking the occasional payoff from the criminals he shakes down — though he uses the money to help protect illegals who are being taken advantage of. Last, but not least, is Kiryu Kazuma, the former Fourth Chairman of the Tojo Clan and the mainstay antihero through the last three games.
These individual stories also present their own challenges. For example, Saejima's infamy makes it hard to move around Kamurocho without running into police. The backdrop framing the crazy action and some of the silliness in between can also unexpectedly punch you in the gut. Tanimura can follow up on an optional investigation into a human trafficking ring that exploits illegal immigrants from Korea and the Philippines.
Yakuza 4 has also landed in North America largely intact; Yakuza 3's "edited" localization had been widely criticized. When you take control of Akiyama, you manage a hostess bar, though it's been greatly expanded from where it had been in Yakuza 2. There are dozens of options for prospective managers to create a "Number One" hostess. Tanimura can follow up on police reports heard over his radio, though most of these usually involve beating someone senseless for a small reward. Saejima can moonlight as a dojo instructor to train students on becoming skilled fighters in automated fights that you can watch. Successful students can even be AI-controlled, tag-team partners in the arena.
The difference in fighting styles also creates a nice layer of variety, but so many hours of beating down the same punks can get repetitive. As nice as Kamurocho looks, as multifaceted as the story can often be, and with as many activities as there are to do, Yakuza 4's meat and potatoes —beating endless numbers of wannabe street thugs and yakuza hopefuls — can feel stale after a while. After settling on a few key combos, most every encounter can be dealt with in relatively the same way; the sheer number of them drags down the pace. Even with special HEAT moves to smash enemies in fancy ways, it's hard to avoid feeling like a button-mashing robot. It would have been nice to occasionally see some of these wannabes run away from your character after earning so many levels. Instead, beyond the main story, it can feel as if your street cred simply evaporates after every fight — a problem that the series hasn't quite tried to address.
The overall story isn't all cherry blossoms, either, despite the strength of the more personalized ones centered on each of the characters. Parts of the arc simply drag on, as if it's only there to extend the player's time in the game. It doesn't come off as strong a story as the first three entries in the Yakuza series, partly because of the inconsistency in quality between those told with each character. Akiyama's was the most interesting one, and Kazuma Kiryu was seemingly thrown in at the end to appease fans. Tanimura's cop saga seems to have enough potential to be spun off as its own game, and that might very well be the case. Even though the game provides plot summaries, newcomers to the series definitely won't get as much of a punch from the references or character changes as veterans who have played through the previous titles.
On the gameplay side, longtime fans will notice the slimmed-down upgrade system for characters. Yakuza has always had RPG elements that worked toward making Kiryu Kazuma a towering hardass, but with Yakuza 4, that effort is split four ways. Most experience is earned by completing small side-quests, which are usually found by wandering around, getting into fights, and simply following the story. Instead of spending experience points on three main statistics (as it was in the old system), leveling up automatically gives characters a small and permanent health and HEAT gauge boost for special moves.
Soul points are also earned with every level, and they can be used to unlock additional abilities and passive improvements, though there are plenty of others that can be found by completing in-game challenges. As a result, the system feels a lot more customizable by focusing so much on only three routes. Points can also be saved up for some of the more powerful skills, allowing the player to grow each character in the desired way.
Unfortunately, the game does this four times in a row. As soon as you finish Akiyama's story, for example, and leave him at Level 18, you'll start out the next chapter as Saejima at Level 1, and so on. On the one hand, it encourages the player to explore the game as the given character and find tailored opportunities for growth, often leading to interesting side stories. On the other hand, and with as many ass beatings as there are on the streets of Kamurocho to wade through, it can also feel like an overdose of déjà vu.
At least the controls make it simple to plaster baddies across concrete sidewalks. Fighting feels much like it did in the last three games, still trademarked with Yakuza's traditionally bloody heel-stomping now spread across four different fighting styles. It's still a system that rewards button-mashing and combos, leaving special moves open for use for when you want to end things quickly: bounce enemies off asphalt, crash heads into cars, and crush enemy bones with objects from the environment, ranging from signs to bikes.
Weapon customization is also back, as long as the player has the cash and ingredients to build or repair them. Even guns are available, and ammo can be refilled for a price. Karaoke also returns, providing a music rhythm game filled with J-pop and ballads for anyone itching to be the best virtual idol in Kamurocho. Doing all of these extras, especially for those that have leaderboard support, can easily stack up to RPG-like gameplay of 30-50 hours, and Yakuza 4's post-completion options guarantee even more beat-'em-up action, such as replaying the game with everything that was earned in the last playthrough.
The series still feels as if it has hit something of a plateau. Sure, it's a blast to come back to Kamurocho and see how things have changed and play some of the in-game arcade games and burn minutes or hours on many of the other distractions to earn cash, experience or special items. By the time the dust settles at the end, it's like saying goodbye to familiar digs. Behind the newness, it's still dragging along old luggage, whether it's how the in-game journal doesn't quite record everything that you see and hear, the linear conversations, the sameness of the combat, or the unwavering morons who love to hurl themselves at you at every opportunity.
Fans will rejoice that Yakuza 4 has made it largely uncensored to these shores and that Sega has supported it with a solid localization. Beat-'em-up fans who haven't jumped into the series yet shouldn't be put off by the number after the name. Kicking through this door into a heavily fanciful, and sometimes bizarre, take on the Japanese underworld is still as good a time as any. By sticking to what it does best, the game delivers everything that veterans have come to expect from the series. At the same time, though, it can sometimes feel as stale as Kazuma's fashion sense.
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