Published on March 23rd, 2011 | by Cameron Woolsey
Yakuza 4 Review
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release: March 15, 2011
Pull on that fancy suit, shine those steel-toed Italians and slick back that hair. It’s time to once again hit the mean streets of Kamurocho and introduce your fist to someone’s face. That’s right, Kazuma Kiryu, Japan’s resident bad ass, is back but this time he isn’t alone. Kazuma has teamed up with three other heavy hitters: a street-smart loan shark, an ex-Yakuza convict escaped from death row and a wayward police detective. Four men with nothing in common are forced to cross paths over a mysterious woman and a dead man.
One complaint about the Yakuza (Ryu Ga Gotoku in Japan) series has been the lack of evolution in each progressive title. Hopeful fans eager to know if they should expect major gameplay changes are going to be disappointed. Yakuza 4 plays just like Yakuza 3 which played like Yakuza 2 which suspiciously played like Yakuza 1. As a fan of the series, I stepped into the game and it felt like I didn’t miss a beat. Kamurocho, Yakuza’s digital form of Kabukicho in Tokyo, looked and felt like it had in every game.
I never felt lost; the same shops were there, the same areas and even the same stupid punks that always seemed to spot me out of the huge crowd demanding a fight were in generous supply. Though familiar, Kamurocho is bright and alive and heavily Japan-themed with bustling, organic crowds and colorful neon signs. It sounds odd, but when I first set out onto the streets as Akiyama the loan shark, I enjoyed the familiarity. It was like visiting a favorite hang-out spot.
Not everyone will agree, however. To put this in perspective, SEGA has released four Yakuza games in five years. They give themselves very little time to evolve the gameplay between each title. The game feels very dated. Animations are stiff and typical character interactions still utilize rolling text, heralding back to older times. Honestly, the series felt dated even with the first title. SEGA has done close to nothing to help the game catch up with modern adventure titles, which won’t impress a jaded crowd.
Quite simply, Yakuza 4 is a game for Yakuza fans. If you didn’t like any prior games, the latest release won’t change your mind.
The area has been expanded some to include rooftops and underground areas to travel and fight across.
There are a few noteworthy changes to the usual formula from the third game. The biggest change is that series protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, is now one playable character out of four. He is joined by three men: Shun Akiyama, Taiga Saejima and Masayoshi Tanimura. Each character has a unique personality and fighting style with special moves. Akiyama is quick footed and uses strong leg attacks to print the bottom of his shoe on faces. Saejima is enormous and uses his insane strength to take a lot of damage and dish it out three times as hard. Tanimura has the weakest attack power but can parry attacks with ease, making fools look completely stupid before wasting them with grab moves exclusive to his fighting style. Kazuma uses a balance of strength, speed and lightning-fast dodge/counter moves worthy of the name “The Dragon of Dojima.” The fighting is fast, brutal and oh-so satisfying. Four games in and I still get tickled when I twirl a guy by his ankle into a light pole.
With the shift from one playable character to four, the game puts a stronger fixation on the story. The storylines have always been the highlight of the Yakuza titles, and it’s no different this time around. When a minor fight escalates dramatically, a high-ranking Yakuza member gets involved in shooting that puts two Yakuza families at the brink of an all-out gang war. A Yakuza leader ends up stabbed in the back and a mysterious woman, who is somehow deeply involved, appears. This creates more questions in an already volatile situation. What follows is a tale of secrets, betrayal, loyalty, family and trust. Though the game began slowly, after Akiyama’s part, things began to pick up. I really enjoyed the story of mystery and drama that SEGA weaved. The accomplishment of one character’s part in the story solved some problems but quickly replaced newfound knowledge with even more desperate questions, leading up to the final confrontation where all the pieces fell into place and loose ends tied in a satisfying conclusion.
In a thankful change from the third game, the storyline in Yakuza 4 is more focused and to the point, much like the first two titles. In Yakuza 3, Kazuma was split between two different worlds: one where he was a suit-wearing, highly-feared and respected “Dragon of Dojima” and one where he was “Uncle Kaz,” wearer of a bright red Hawaiian shirt and owner and proprietor of Sunshine Orphanage in Okinawa. Dear old “Uncle Kaz” awkwardly tried to hide his blood-soaked origins but kept getting pulled back into the seedy underbelly of organized crime. Going from “bad Kaz” to “good Kaz” was a jarring transition that, like I said, could have been designed better. Having the game press the fact that time is desperately running out then forcing me to toss a ball on the beach gave mixed messages. Luckily this isn’t the case anymore.
The one low point about splitting the story four ways changes the length of time dedicated to each character. The game is sectioned by character, who progresses through the next major part of the story. Basically, once one character finishes his segment the next character may hear about the previous one’s exploits. After the played character has finished his segment, players jump into the shoes of the next. Playing straight through the story will only set you back around 20 hours, meaning you have around five hours per character. I would have enjoyed spending more time with each character, as all four had interesting personalities, but suffered from not having enough screen time to be fully fleshed out.
There are distractions around Kamurocho that can increase the time you can spend with each character such as hostess clubs, batting cages, massage parlors, blackjack, mahjong, arcade games and more, but they ultimately remain just distractions. An occasional sub-mission will pop up that can offer some interesting new things to do, but not all of them are that great-the real substance of the game is ultimately the main storyline.
Experience points are gained with completed missions and winning battles. The level up system has been completely revamped, granting three upgrade orbs every time you level to use toward abilities and special moves. Because your time with each character is short, leveling comes fast and within a couple hours I was already utilizing some of the best moves.
Character models are very high-quality, especially the faces. SEGA utilized Cyberware 3D scanner technology for character faces and I have to say, the result is astounding. Yakuza 4 has the most realistic facial expressions I’ve ever experienced in a game to date-easily surpassing industry leaders like Rockstar and BioWare. During the game’s many cutscenes, it was easy to pick up on every emotion displayed by the characters. Yakuza 4 being primarily story-driven, some of the scenes would last around 15 minutes. Every emotion spoke volumes-watching anger, surprise, desperation or joy flash across a character’s face made each minute engaging and every character feel real.
Yakuza 2 still remains my pick for best in the series, but by no means is Yakuza 4 the worst. SEGA addressed the problems I had with Yakuza 3 and brought the game back to its roots with a refocused story. Each character is interesting and provides a different take on the dark, twisting story. The game still suffers from feeling far too old to be on the PlayStation 3, but the brutal combat and impressive visual design keeps things from getting stale. All in all, Yakuza 4 is a fun game deserving of attention from fans of crime dramas and slamming faces into pavement.
[xrr label=”Rating: 8/10″ rating=8/10]
+ Great storyline.
+ Impressive visual effects.
+ Stunning facial emotions thanks to Cyberware.
+ Combat is as brutal and satisfying as ever.
– Still feels dated.
– Feels like the game is rushing you through characters.