Playing Yakuza 4 is an eerie experience. The series is principally admired for its hyper-real Japanese setting, and wandering through the fictional streets and alleyways of Kamurocho is rather disconcerting knowing what the real-life citizens of Tokyo are currently going through. Indeed, the sequel – the European release of Yakuza games is generally a year after their Japanese debut – has just been put on indefinite hold, so this is an ideal time for Western gamers to show support for one of the most overlooked franchises in videogames.
Yakuza 3 had an irritating tendency towards cloying sentimentality, but its solid performance in other areas more than made up for its assault on good taste. In Yakuza 4, the narrative is far more ambitious. There are four playable characters: Shun Akiyama, a loan shark with a heart of gold; Taiga Saejima, a physically imposing escaped convict; Masayoshi Tanimura, a policeman who has become too familiar with the Kamurocho underworld; and Kazuma Kiryu, whose retro-suits and designer sideburns you’ll recognise from previous games in the series.
You play through each character's scenario in order, picking up with a new character when another’s story ends, culminating in a final episode where you control all four. Each character has a different combat style, a unique set of side-quests, and a distinct personality that affects the way they react to the story and their surroundings.
At first, the decision to include more playable characters struck me as cynically motivated, but it really works in favour of the story, adding a sense of energy and unpredictability that Yakuza 3 lacked. As ever, the tone is crime melodrama, and the chosen delivery method is expertly crafted but long and overwrought cut-scenes, which won’t be to everyone’s taste but I find utterly delightful – love those furrowed brows and epic, tortured pauses.
And if you ever want a reprieve from the main story, there is a bewildering array of in-game diversions to occupy your attention. Kamurocho is replete with shopping centres, bars, restaurants, hostess clubs, and entertainment facilities, and the addition of new areas to explore – the Kamurocho rooftops and some unusually thriving underground communes – gives series fans some areas to explore.
There are also new places to have fun, including a Pachinko parlour with accurately recreated Sega arcade machines, and an oddball scientist with an experimental combat recreation device to help you train. What's also noteworthy is that, unlike Yakuza 3, none of the side content was cut this time around, regardless of how potentially offensive to Western sensibilities Sega deemed it to be. If you want to chat up girls at hostess parlours or play Mahjong, you're absolutely welcome to do so.
However, like its predecessors, Yakuza 4 has significant flaws. The more frustrating elements from previous games are present and correct – frequent and inescapable battles with uppity street punks, the trial-and-error "revelation" system for learning new combat skills, pointless journeys across the city for the most trivial of objectives, the gang’s all here.
In other areas, there’s a disappointing lack of obvious progress. Combat and character development is more streamlined and user-friendly, but essentially the same. Visually, there is little difference, which is to say that the Yakuza series still lags behind many other games of this type. And the action is entirely confined to Kamurocho, which feels more restrictive than the new locales in the two previous games.
All things considered, though, Yakuza 4 reinforces the series’ appeal. Yes, its problems still seem so howlingly obvious and easily fixable that their continued existence simply boggles the mind, but there’s nothing else out there that offers such a curious and beguiling variety of gameplay. It isn’t the leap forward that the series seems destined for, but as they say on the streets of Kamurocho, a fix is a fix.
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