Version tested: PlayStation 3
Made in less than a year with the same engine as Yakuza 3, you'd be forgiven for thinking Yakuza 4 would be a rehash or a lazy update. The similarities are plain to see; there's not much to differentiate the teeth-smashing, limb-snapping combat or fastidiously detailed setting from its predecessor's, at first glance. The differences, though, particularly the introduction of three new characters with which to roam the neon-lit streets of fictional Tokyo, have a huge impact on a series that's notoriously resistant to change. It's a notable improvement.
Practically everything that was true of Yakuza 3 also applies to Yakuza 4, which makes it rather difficult not to repeat myself. Its visual representation of Japan is astonishingly accurate, and though its endless series of street-brawls and bizarre side-missions can hardly be called a true-to-life portrayal of everyday life in Tokyo, the game does offer a fascinating insight into Japanese attitudes and melodramatic storytelling culture - right down to the institutionalised sexism, unfortunately, but we'll get to that. It'll fulfil your Japan fantasies, even if those fantasies merely involve actually winning something from a UFO machine.
But Yakuza 4's four-character structure completely changes the pacing, turning the game from a soup of open-world tasks interspersed with six hours of cut-scenes into a structured, episodic story. The Yakuza series' enduring problems - irritating random battles, ponderous story, repetitiveness and lack of direction - are mostly alleviated by the variety that four different characters bring to the fighting system and plot. It's a bit of a revelation.
The story, as always, involves a lot of sinister suited gangsters in boardrooms and dead bodies and enormous piles of money and topless men fighting. But each of the four characters has his own story, too, and these are actually far more interesting. The game's divided into five parts, one for each character, and a final chapter where they all come together, letting you switch between them. It feels like four smaller Yakuza games in one.
Kiryu Kazuma makes his return after Yakuza 3's cliffhanger ending, but only after about fifteen hours. First you're introduced to Shun Akiyama, a homeless dude turned moneylender with a maroon suit and an excellent sense of humour. (All loan companies in Japan are essentially run by the mafia, by the way, in case you're wondering why a charming finance man spends so much of his time kerb-stomping gangsters.) Taiga Saejima is an enormous mafia man who's just escaped from prison, having supposedly killed 18 people in a ramen bar in the eighties, and is the star of the game's best and most shocking cut-scene. Masayoshi Tanimura is a young ex-cop.
All of them have their ties to the yakuza, and to the main plot thread, but it's their individual back-stories that you find yourself caring about. Ryu ga Gotoku, as the series is known in Japan, involves an awful lot of watching - hours and hours of it - and previously it was possible to get weary of the story's complicated mafia families and hostess-bar fights and incessant smoking, however well-shot and acted the cut-scenes were. Having four different plot threads caters far more effectively to people with normal attention spans, and Akiyama and Tanimura particularly are much less boring personalities than staid, responsible Kiryu.
Their different fighting styles bring variety to the Yakuza series' simplistic yet satisfying brawling. Combat is a little easier than it was in Yakuza 3, which removes much of the frustration of its random battles, and it's massively violent. There's more blood, more visible damage, and the new finishing moves are brutal - snapping arms, smashing bicycles into street punks' heads, kerb-stomping, flinging them into lampposts. Teeth and blood go flying. When Akiyama stamps on someone's face, it really messes them up.
The levelling-up system has been simplified. You earn medals with each new level that can be used to unlock new abilities, spicing up the combat as the game goes on. Despite the huge variety of weapons to stove gangsters' heads in with - everything from baseball bats to golf clubs, bikes, traffic cones and tables, most with their own unique finishing moves - combat does begin to grate after a while. Happily, whenever it does, you get a new character to play with, with a new fighting style and new abilities. Akiyama is quick and straightforward, smashing heads into walls and pummelling with quick punches; Taiga's massive, so he can pick up scooters and desks and chuck people around, and charge punches; Tanimura's quite technical, with a lot of grapple reversals and bone-breaking holds.
Switching between the four characters' stories throughout the game rather than playing through them all in sequence might have upped the storytelling tension a little, but Yakuza 4 isn't a game lacking in excitement. There's no slow start on an Okinawan island, and no crying orphans. The game takes place almost entirely in Kamurocho, the same fictional version of Tokyo's Kabukicho that formed Yakuza 3's urban backdrop, though there are a few flashback interludes.
Yakuza 4 is clearly cut from the same code-cloth as its predecessor, particularly in the setting. This is hardly a problem, as Yakuza 3 was a beautiful-looking game, but we're wandering around the exact same shops, streets and arcades as we were a year ago. Even the dances in the strip club are the same. As before, the presence of real Japanese shops, brands, drinks, snacks and magazines contributes greatly to an incomparable sense of place.
Significantly, though, you get to go up onto the roofs and down into the shopping arcades, car parks and subways underground. It makes Kamurocho truer to the vertical structure of real Japanese cities, with their bustling overground streets and deserted underworld, and also makes the once-infuriating, QTE-interspersed Chase Battles much more fun. Leaping over the roofs of Tokyo is surely a fantasy that anyone who's spent time amongst Japan's angular urban architecture has entertained.
The episodic structure does make Yakuza 4's world less open. It's more difficult to come across sub-quests naturally, and there are far fewer of them. But Yakuza 3 had over a hundred sub-plots, and it's actually good to trim them down a little. There's still so much opportunity to waste your time messing around in arcades or at the batting range or, especially, in hostess bars that you can hardly criticise Yakuza 4 for a lack of content. All of the mini-games from Yakuza 3 make a return, and there's a smattering of new ones.
The paltry selection of arcade games in Club SEGA still disappoints - the options are limited to Boxcelios, a simple but pretty shooting game, Answer X Answer, an immensely popular trivia challenge, and those blasted UFO catchers, which I'm convinced are a SEGA ploy to endow players with a false sense of prowess and convince them to waste their money attempting to get anything at all out of the stupid things in real life. Elsewhere there are gambling joints with card and dice games, including poker, and a golf range, and billiards and darts.
Pachinko, meanwhile, is as entirely baffling as it is in real life. It'll be worth Yakuza 4's purchase price alone for a few Japanese people, I'm sure - the Volcano pachinko parlours have several different incomprehensible machines to play on, exact replicas of their real-life counterparts. Ball-bearings fall from the top of the machine whilst you turn a dial, lights go on and off whilst slot-machine numbers turn and turn and completely baffling images flash up. Meanwhile you're randomly hammering buttons whose function is entirely mysterious, and sometimes you end up with more balls and sometimes a genie or a parrot appears on the screen and takes some away from you for no discernible reason. It's indescribably bonkers.
The frighteningly detailed hostess grooming that SEGA (perhaps wisely) removed from Yakuza 3 for its release in the West is also back, and has now been integrated into the first character's story. God knows how they'll manage to take it out now. Essentially you pick a girl, and adjust every conceivable aspect of her appearance so that you can sell her company at the hostess club for a higher price. It's not Yakuza 4's only troubling depiction of women's role in Japanese society - there's also an onsen ping-pong mini-game where the objective isn't so much to win as to aim the ball at your date's breasts so that she falls over and sprawls provocatively on the ground. I've not managed to find it, but I suspect the erotic massage mini-game is still in there, too, somewhere.
Still, that's Japan - you can either get into an existential crisis about the weirder and more troubling aspects of the country, or try to laugh it off. Something that's rarely acknowledged about the Yakuza games is that they can be really, really funny. They counterbalance their melodrama with ludicrous nonsense like roof-jumping bra thieves and mobile-phone speed-blogging and the hysterical karaoke mini-game and transvestite hostess bars. (I can attest that those do actually exist, but please don't ask me how I found out.)
Yakuza 4 is made from the exact same parts as Yakuza 3.Tthere are no significant changes to the core combat or the setting, and it looks unerringly similar. But that same mixture of brutal fighting, storytelling, exploration and random nonsense is framed much better this time around. Adding three new characters has changed the pacing completely and given the game structural discipline and variety that makes it a lot more palatable.
Besides that, beneath its melodrama and street-fights,Yakuza 4 is genuinely a fascinating cultural artefact. There's no other game that roots itself so firmly in the reality of its setting - its ubiquitous restaurant brands, convenience stores, vapid magazines, cacophonous pachinko parlours and arcades, underground shopping centres, seedy hostess bars and invisible but omnipresent criminal organisations. Yakuza 3's eventual release gives hope that this series may yet enjoy a bright future on these shores, too.
8 / 10
Yakuza 4 is only available in Japan, with no current plans for a Western release. It's enjoyable with no knowledge of Japanese thanks to its excellent cinematography and helpful map markers that almost always show where you're supposed to go. But it's impossible to glean much from the sub-quests or storyline without a good grasp of the language (or to play Answer X Answer, but that's hardly a massive loss). Subtitles make the Osaka-ben and gangster language less befuddling if you can read kanji.