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.
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.