Review: Yakuza 4 (Sony Playstation 3)

Yakuza 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 03/15/11

Around this time last year, Sega brought us the third chapter in its rather enjoyable Yakuza franchise, creatively dubbed Yakuza 3. It was a substantially well done effort in the franchise, albeit one that didn’t please many American fans of the series. For cost-cutting reasons and localization concerns, Sega removed several parts of the Japanese release from the US port, including hostess bars, Mahjong parlors, missions tied into these locations, and other things, which ended up annoying the fanbase of the franchise more than anything else. Well, let it never be said that Sega doesn’t listen to their fans, as the first thing the floor rep at the Sega booth said to me when I approached the Yakuza 4 demo at E3 was that the sequel would, in fact, have ALL of the content from the Japanese game in its US release. Now, that in and of itself would probably be a pretty solid selling point, but Yakuza 4 also features four playable characters, not just series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu. Further, the game places a big focus on multiple city levels, including underground locales and rooftops, allowing for different ways to travel around the city depending on what’s best at the moment. That said, however, we just saw the last entry in the series last year, and the question of, “how much could you change in a year?” has to come up when discussing the game, sight unseen. Well, the good news is that there’s enough new to the game for fans and those who were casually interested in the series to give them a reason to check it out, but unfortunately, for as much as is new in the game, there’s a whole lot that isn’t, so for those who were hoping for something more, this may not fit the bill.

Yakuza 4 once again tells the story of a vast yakuza conspiracy, but this time it centers around four different main players in the story: Akiyama Shun, a loan shark with a heart of gold and fists of fury; Taiga Saejima, an imprisoned Yakuza known for having pulled off one of the most amazing hits in the history of the Yakuza family known as the Tojo clan; Masayoshi Tanimura, a morally ambiguous cop known for taking bribes and spending his off time gambling; and aforementioned series mainstay Kazuma, the former chairman of the Tojo Clan who has a gruff exterior and a heart of gold. Each of the four characters follows their own individual plotline through the story, though it becomes fairly obvious early on that the plotlines are obviously intertwined, and involve long past conspiracies, the theft of billions of dollars, and a whole lot of dead people, so really, it’s no different from any other day for the Tojo Clan and their affiliates. The plot this time around is sharply written, and while it relies on the, “thing that happened years ago that we’ve never told you about until now” retroactive continuity crutch to build the framework of its plot, the overall storyline doesn’t suffer for it in the least. The new protagonists are all likable enough, surprisingly, and while they all come across as a bit more honorable than your average member of the criminal element would be expected to be, the game at least makes the effort to showcase exactly why they are and to make them convincing, likable characters. Overall, the plot here, while it relies on some occasionally transparent clichés and obvious plot twists, is still shocking enough at points to be interesting and well written enough to be enjoyable, and it’s a solid improvement from the plot of Yakuza 3, all in all, though the ending is a bit more ambiguous and seemed a bit awkward, all in all, so it kind of evens out.

As was the case with its predecessor, Yakuza 4 is one of the more visually impressive games on the console, and while it doesn’t hold up against the top tier players on the system, visually, it’s still excellent both technically and artistically. The game world still looks fantastic, and the characters are as well designed and animated as ever. The new characters easily look as good as Kazuma, and animate as well as he does as well, to a point where players will enjoy playing as all four characters on aesthetic values alone. The battle animations are fantastic, and combat is especially satisfying because of the way enemies buckle and react to a good old-fashioned ass-kicking. The walking and running animations are better this time around, though occasionally it still looks a little odd here and there. The game is also insanely stylish. Between the awesome recreation of various locales in Japan and the well-done cutscenes that pop up as you progress the story, and little touches that pop up here and there, like teeth flying out when you crack someone’s face open or Sailor Moon-esque transformation sequences when you customize the clothing of your hostess, make all the difference. The audio is also as excellent, as usual. The voice acting has the right tone and the appropriate feel that it needs to keep the story interesting, and the voice actors sound right for the roles they play throughout the game, as many of them are also returning actors and actresses from the prior game. The music is as awesome as ever, as the music has a very funk/electronic/rock sound to it that’s fun to listen to while splitting heads. The splitting of said heads also sounds as satisfying as ever, and the various combat noises overall are very powerful. These things sell the combat to a level that makes it satisfying the first and the fiftieth time you get into a gentlemanly sparring match with some idiot who decided that he wasn’t find of his nose anymore.

Insofar as the gameplay goes, fans of Yakuza 3 will know how most of this plays out, so you can skip the next five (yes, five) paragraphs and pick up with me then. For newcomers to the franchise or those who skilled the last game because of the missing content, however, let’s go over the basics. A good portion of your time is spent alternating between what the game calls Adventure Mode and Battle Mode. Adventure Mode essentially boils down to wandering around town, talking to folks, completing missions, playing mini-games, and other such activities. In this mode, the left stick moves around, the right stick looks around, X interacts with objects, and Start accesses your menu, allowing you to look at the map, upgrade your character, use and equip items, and so on. Battle Mode boils down to kicking the hell out of whoever is stupid enough to get in your way, either in random encounters or in fixed plot battles. In this mode, the left stick, right stick and Start button act the same, but Square acts as your regular attack, Triangle acts as your heavy attack, Circle allows you to grab foes and pick up weapons, and X allows you to dodge around. The L1 button allows you to block incoming attacks from the front, the R1 button puts your character in a combat stance which allows you to lock on, and the D-pad allows you to cycle weapons you have equipped at the moment. This is all pretty intuitive, whether you’re a fan of the series or not, and picking the game up should take no time at all.

Adventure Mode is where you’ll spend most of your time, as you wander around Kamurocho accomplishing the story missions and performing various other tasks. This mode presents you with a pseudo-sandbox environment where your character can wander about, but unlike something like Grand Theft Auto 4 or Red Dead Redemption, the environments are a bit smaller and the boundaries are more obvious than “the ocean.” Wandering around town, at its most basic, allows you to get from place to place to accomplish various storyline missions, which will be highlighted on the mini-map in pink to make them obvious most of the time. However, there are many, MANY things for you to do aside from the storyline missions, so much so that you might find yourself spending hours just doing everything the game allows you to do. There are various side missions, which the game calls Sub-Stories, you can take on in most of the game’s seventeen chapters as you see fit. The missions can be as simple as talking someone into or out of doing something or as complex as finding the best restaurant for a critic, and each pays out a good amount of experience points in addition to various wonderful prizes. There’s also the option of stopping in at various stores around the two cities to purchase various items, be they for healing, Heat Boosts (which we’ll get to in a bit) and other useful stuff. The city also contains a weaponry vendor who can sell you weapons you can carry into battle and a weaponsmith who can upgrade and repair your weapons as needed, which will be useful when your fists need to do the talking.

You can also spend time goofing around with various mini-games, like a crane game that allows you to collect stuffed animals, a batting cage, a bowling center, and other fun things. You can also look around in first person by pressing in the R-stick, which allows you to inspect the environment for various things. Obviously, you can look around for points of interest or landmarks, but there are two major reasons for first person view. The first is to allow you to find hidden items (marked as shining blue lights) in out of the way places so you can claim them, which is basically just a way for the developers to hide locker keys in more confusing places, which makes them more challenging to find. The second is to allow you to scout for “inspiration” in town. You’ll meet various characters who teach your characters how to draw inspiration from scenes in the world, generally by taking pictures with their cell phone cameras, except for Taiga who, I shit you not, CARVES OUT A STATUE OF THE SCENE for no adequately explained reason except that it’s completely hilarious. This, in turn, allows you to learn nasty new techniques for battle, if you get the right sort of inspiration from the sights seen. This is an interesting addition to the game that pops up here and there and makes acceptable use of Active Time Events, since failure doesn’t equate to death or the inability to learn the technique.

Sooner or later, of course, it’s time to throw down, either in a random battle or a scripted event, and that’s when Yakuza 4 is its most fun. Your characters are all beastly fighters in their own way, and your enemies are often numerous and painful in their own right, so combat is a blast all around. The Square button, as noted, uses your character’s light attacks, which can be comboed together with multiple presses, and you can use the Triangle button on its own or at the end of any regular combo for a high damage final hit, though said hit is slow enough that enemies can block it if you’re not careful. You can switch the direction your character attacks in with a press of the stick and a button, allowing you to attack enemies on all sides when you’re surrounded, which is often. The character can grab enemies when they’re close, and assuming they don’t fight him off (which they can), he can toss them or lump them up for big damage. You can, as noted, also use weaponry in battle as needed, either from your inventory or the environment. Weapons break after a certain amount of uses, making them unusable, though if the weapon is one from your inventory you can take it to the weaponsmith and have it repaired. Equipped weapons, as noted, can also be upgraded with various items and such you’ll find from defeating enemies, completing missions, and unlocking coin lockers, making it easy to upgrade a weapon if you can find the right parts.

Of course, the characters aren’t all regular attacks, thanks to the awesome power of the Heat Gauge. Put simply, the Heat Gauge charges as you lay waste to enemies, and when it’s full, you can press Triangle in certain circumstances to lay a vicious beating on an enemy. Smashing an enemy’s face into a wall, breaking a sign over their head, or just plain stomping on their face and rubbing it down with your heel are among the more amusing things you can do with Heat power, allowing you to heavily drop an enemy’s life assuming you can set them up appropriately. Also, as you complete missions and wreck people, you’ll earn experience points which you can commit to leveling up each character’s abilities and combat skills. As you dump experience points into building up the characters, you’ll learn new combat abilities, expand your health and Heat meters, add additional strikes to the end of combinations, and other such things, which allow you to ruin people better than ever. Of course, the enemies will also improve as you progress, making leveling up a vital tactic if one values life. There have been a few additions to the combat system, such as random events that pop up where the characters can charge up their Heat and nail an enemy with a wicked shot in an Active Time Event styled cinematic event, but the most noticeable addition to combat is the Chase Battle system. Chase Battles are exactly what they sound like: you either chase down an enemy, blasting them with some shoulder tackles when you can, while dodging pedestrians and obstacles, or you run from someone, while dodging around and throwing things into their way. These are interesting and break up the pace of the game in a positive fashion.

So, to those of you who skipped down here, welcome back. Let’s talk about the new stuff. So, as noted, you have four different characters to play as, and each offers a surprising amount of variety from one to the next, both in and out of combat. Outside of combat, Akiyama can play a mini-game to build a top hostess and date girls in the hostess clubs, Saejima can lift manhole covers and train fighters, Tanimura can go into the Chinese district and take on police dispatch missions, and Kazuma can fight gangs and date girls, among many other things. In battle, Akiyama is a fast character with lots of chain attacks, Saejima is a heavy hitter with lots of power moves, Tanimura can unleash brutal counters, and Kazuma is a good, well-rounded character. Also, each character has weapons they can and can’t use, depending on the character, so you’ll find their combat styles change further depending on the weapons used. Aside from that, you can now take part in the elements that were removed from Yakuza 3, such as building up a top hostess, using hostess clubs in general, playing games in Mahjong parlors, and other things, so you’re pretty much getting the game as it was meant to be experienced, meaning there’s even MORE content to mess with. The game also stays strictly located in Kamurocho with a couple minor exceptions, but underground and above-ground locales have now been added, allowing for travel between areas and new locations to play around in, as the case merits.

The story missions can be completed in around fifteen to twenty hours, depending on how well you do at them, but if you look to complete all of the various side quests you could easily triple that amount of play time, if not take even longer thanks to all the added content. There are seriously a ton of regular missions to complete in the game, once again, as well as numerous other sub missions to plow through, mini-games to play around with, locker keys to find, hostesses to date, fighters to build up, and more, giving the player PLENTY of stuff to see and do should they wish to take a break from the plot. Aside from that, there’s also a New Game Plus option here that allows you to start over with all of the characters intact from the previous playthrough, minus any storyline specific stuff, should you wish to keep building them up or try the game on a higher difficulty, of which there are several to choose from. There are also supposed to be various updates added to the game, as per the update listing in the game itself, which will add new little things to play around with, as well as mini-games to goof around with outside of the game. As such, once again, there is a TON of content in the main game itself, there are multiple options to play around with once you’ve completed the game, both in the core game and outside of it, and Yakuza 4 is, quite simply, robust and lengthy to a level where it’s practically amazing that Sega crammed in all of this stuff for you to do.

That said, Yakuza 4 comes with its own set of flaws, both old and new, for players to deal with. The biggest issue of the lot is that, outside of the four playable characters and the multiple tiers to the city, there is really nothing new to the game; all of the “new” content was stripped from the previous US release and, while it’s new to us, it hardly counts. Further, they’ve stripped out an entire city, relative to what Yakuza 3 offered, and having some rooftop walkways and a few underground locales hardly makes up for that. Further, the game hasn’t really evolved much from the first game, as was the case with Yakuza 3; a lot of the mini-games, battle mechanics, and optional sidequests feel familiar, if not outright repetitive, when one recalls the prior games, to a level where having another game in the series a year later makes it obvious that this is the case. The weapon customization system, while better, still feels somewhat useless, once again because the weapons don’t seem as useful or powerful as whipping the crap out of someone with your fists, and while this is less of a problem this time around, it’s still not at a point where you’ll go out of your way to build gear. Random battles still feel overly frequent, and while there are items you can get that reduce the amount of fights, just reducing the AMOUNT of fights and making them more meaningful in general would have been better than getting jumped four times walking across the city. Finally, once again, if you’re the sort of person who strives for full completion of any game you play, you’ll find the game to be a bit repetitive as you come closer and closer to full completion. It’s nice that there are all sorts of mini-games and such stuffed into the main game, certainly, but most of the game comes down to punching people in the face, and while the boss battles can be very interesting, most of the battles against random thugs ultimately feel the same, which is unfortunate since you’ll spend most of your time plowing through those.

Yakuza 4 is still a great game, don’t misunderstand, and as an exclusive title it’s a shining light in the PS3’s library, especially if you haven’t played any of the previous games. It’s only if you’re a big fan of the series that the cracks in the product begin to show, as they’ve been developing for a while now. The story is well written, again, and the game looks and sounds fantastic at pretty much all times. The game is simple to learn and understand, the game world is varied and interesting, and the combat is fast-paced and brutal without being brutal to the player. There are a ton of things to do around Kamurocho, both the first time through and beyond, and with so many missions to complete, games to play, battles to fight, people to train and so on, as well as the option to play through the game again with your gear intact or take on various special modes post-game, there’s an insane amount of replay value to the game, as it was with its predecessor. The ending sequence of the game for some of the characters feels kind of awkward and open-ended, unfortunately, and while the fact that the missing content from Yakuza 3 has been faithfully included in this release, the weapon customization system still feels somewhat pointless. As well, little has been done to reduce or otherwise mitigate the amount of random battles in the game, and the added above and underground segments and new playable characters don’t change the fact that the game is largely untouched from its predecessor, leaving the game at times too familiar for fans and too repetitive for newcomers. For those who can’t get enough of the series or who haven’t been introduced, Yakuza 4 is a fine starting point, as it’s massively in depth and a great deal of fun that manages to get you up to speed as a new player while keeping things interesting for old fans, so long as they don’t expect anything new and different.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: UNPARALLELED
Balance: GREAT
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: GREAT

Short Attention Span Summary:
Yakuza 4, like its predecessor, is a great exclusive Playstation 3 game that’s well worth checking out for fans and newcomers alike, and while it’s not without flaw, it makes a good argument against its issues. The writing is as strong as ever and the characters are convincing, and the visual and aural presentation are among the best the console has to offer. The gameplay is simple to learn all around, and the adventure mode offers plenty to see and do, while the combat is in-depth and robust overall. The game is even more content-packed than its predecessor, with a lengthy story mode, lots of side quests and mini-games to play, and a ton of extra content to plow through. As such, there are plenty of reasons to come back to the game once you’re done with it, making it worth owning if you’re the sort of person who likes their games to be involved and packed with content. On the downside, the weapon customization system still feels somewhat pointless due to the damage ration between melee and fisticuff damage, the ending isn’t especially satisfying all the way around, old fans may find the feeling of déjà vu the game inspires to be hard to ignore, and new fans may be annoyed by the repetition that pops up late in the game. Yakuza 4 isn’t going to be for everyone, but it’s a fine enough effort that most people should be able to appreciate what it does and how it does it to make it worth a purchase, so long as you can deal with the minor issues the game still possesses.



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