Structurally, the Yakuza series has always defied easy pigeonholing. The main storyline through the game is delivered through regular cut-scenes, which are directed with flair and acted with assuredness. These scenes are interspersed by fistfights in which punch and kick combos can be strung together and bloody context-sensitive finishing moves executed on the street furniture around.

The updated engine and this is a far better-looking game than its predecessor gives these battles renewed authenticity, and while the speed of encounters and the use of unlockable moves is decidedly video game-esque, the exploding noses and brutal, dynamic direction of battles is often affecting.

In the downtime between watching cinematics and mashing your way through gangs of goons, you are free to explore Kamurocho, but it'd be too generous to describe Yakuza 4 as a true open-world game. Where SEGA ably matches Rockstar's cut-scene direction and writing, the frequent artificial limiting of player freedom is anachronistic.

When, for example, your phone rings, you cannot answer it on-the-go a la Niko Bellic. Instead your character is frozen to the spot till the scene plays out. Likewise, invisible walls prevent you from exploring any part of the city that the designer doesn't want you heading down, a design restraint wholly at odds with the creative freedom elsewhere.

Nevertheless, when you are given the keys to the city, the number and range of interactive sideshows is dizzying. The series has always relied heavily upon its extra-curricular activities to provide interest, and in Yakuza 4 there are more side-quests and mini-games than ever before.

As with Shenmue, these have had a rare level of attention and polish lavished upon them. So, head to a karaoke booth and you're presented with a fully functioning karaoke interface screen complete with multiple song choices, local leaderboards and, of course, a functional rhythm action mini-game at its core.

While you still won't be able to play the latest Virtua Fighter cabinet if you frequent one of the many arcades in the district, you can try to nab a cuddly toy via one of the crane games, while many an hour (and fortune) can be lost pumping balls into a Pachinko machine.

Not only can you visit the local hostess club and make light conversation with the preened girls therein (even exchanging emails with any who take a shine to you), but there's an entire mini-game in which you can select and train up your own hostess girl, choosing her outfits and make-up to suit the tastes of the club's clientele.

But it's at the point that you realise you can take a cab to an out-of-town links course to engage in a golf tournament when you begin to wonder whether the developer's time could better have been spent polishing the core experience, rather than bulking out the supporting materials to such an outrageous extent.

That's not to say that the game's ambition outstrips the capabilities of its creators. The opportunity to, say, head to the baseball batting nets to attempt a high score when you're tired of chasing the storyline is a welcome one.

But these additional distractions surely pulled development time away from the core game, and rarely do enough to fuse themselves into the wider game structure. Prizes for excelling at mini-games are almost exclusively weapons or equipment to bolster your fighting capabilities, a telling fact that reveals the limitations of the in-game economy: the only real meaningful intrinsic rewards here must be tied in to the system of violence.

These wide-angle reservations dissipate close up, however. Yakuza 4 succeeds in offering an inviting window into a meticulously observed world. The dialogue and story are strong for a video game, maintaining interest over the hours it takes for the plot to fully unfurl.

A significant step up from Yakuza 3 in terms of visuals and story, Yakuza 4 still lags behind the genre's leaders, lacking the polish in interactions to make it a classic. But this is still a strong, mesmerising video game, an offer that none should refuse.

8 /10

About the author

Simon Parkin

Simon Parkin

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Simon Parkin is an award-winning writer and journalist from England, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The Guardian and a variety of other publications.

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