That Yakuza 4 has been released stateside alone is a miracle. In Japan, it's popular enough to warrant a branded Twitter app. Over here? Not so much. Far from a household name on these shores, the Yakuza series is, to be a tad reductive for those unfamiliar, Japan's version of Grand Theft Auto - but not really. Not quite an open-world sandbox game, though darn close, Yakuza has earned a rabid fan base due to its compelling stories written by crime novelists like Hase Seishu, dovetailed with Virtua Fighter-like brawls. Those are the key components, along with the bustling Japanese cityscapes the games take place in - "Japanese" being the operative word here.
Yakuza 4 is no different in that regard, though it drastically bucks tradition by adding three new playable characters whose tales compose the first three quarters of the game. Their stories within the criminal underworld - and how a murder at a tranny strip club ripples out to the entire city - all fit together unexpectedly in the end, giving a greater significance to your actions when you're finally allowed to control series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu again. Each character’s different fighting styles and narratives take a while to warm up to, but it's refreshing to see a bold move so late into a series' life. (Though the spinoff follow-up, Yakuza of the End, suggests the series will play it safe, but also very crazily, by introducing packs of roving zombies to Japan.) What is a bit frustrating, though, is leveling up a character over about 10 hours, only to be dumped into another character's world, and starting over with no items at level 1.
And though much of each of their worlds take place within the same city, their paths and reasons for getting there are all distinctly different. There's Taiga Saejima, a prisoner who escaped to evade his death sentence and seek revenge on those who framed him, who must sneak around at all times. There's Masayoshi Tanimura, a corrupt cop so dangerous his superiors can't interfere with his actions. Also new is charming loan shark/club owner with a heart of gold Shun Akiyama, who sincerely wants to improve people's lives with his loans but also has a mysterious path. All of their stories might trade in well-worn clichés, but there's so much character development and examination of why people operate on the wrong side of the tracks, but aren't necessarily evil, that it hardly feels like familiar terrain.
Like its predecessors, Yakuza 4 takes place in Kamurocho, a reimagining of the real-world Shinjuku's red-light district. It's the Yakuza 3 iteration of Kamurocho, though massively fleshed out with the addition of rooftops, sewers, and back streets. The city might not have gotten any bigger, but it's a lot deeper with more to explore. It also has different attractions and activities specific to each of the game's four protagonists: hulking yakuza Saejima can train fighters at a dojo in a fully formed Pokémon-esque minigame and Akiyama can train his hostesses on how to speak with clients. But the fact of the matter is, there's no shortage of things for anyone to do in Yakuza 4. It's easy to get sidetracked and suddenly obsessed with playing ping-pong, hitting the batting cages, singing karaoke, or perfecting your putt.
Unlike its predecessors - specifically Yakuza 3, which last year controversially excised elements thought to be "too Japanese" for Western audiences like hostess clubs, scouting girls to join said clubs, sections heavy on Japanese historical trivia, and so on - Yakuza 4 makes no concessions for Western audiences. Back are the hostess clubs and everything else us lazy, xenophobic Americans might not "get."
Depending on how open-minded you are and your familiarity with the series, this unchanged entry is either cause to celebrate or a chance to test how much your sensibilities (and attention span) can be challenged. Though it's a huge, easily 90-hour game to experience everything, you'll spend a good chunk of that reading text boxes and watching cutscenes. Some of the latter are skippable, and as Yakuza 4 wears on, they start to feel truly optional since they often wind up with person X betraying person Y or with an unforeseen street fight. That formula doesn't change often, and hasn't over the run of the series.
That's not to say this story is boring - just predictable - and falls into repetitive holding patterns. Funnily enough, though, in a game this massive the main story is the least of what you'll spend your time on. There are innumerable detours that crop up even when you think you're going where you should be. The more memorable ones include seeking out some jerk who sends you spam e-mail, finding milk for a sick kitty a group of homeless guys are caring for, and getting the perfect rubdown at massage parlors. You'll never be without something to do in Yakuza 4 long after the game is "done."
Unfortunately, that unbridled freedom stands in direct opposition to Yakuza 4's facets that have refused to evolve. In Grand Theft Auto IV, Niko could get cell-phone calls while on the go. In Yakuza 4, if you get a call, you're stuck standing there, button-mashing past each text box. Not only that, but you'll sometimes get multiple calls back to back, and while it's nice to be popular, nicer still would be granted the magical ability to ambulate while chatting.
Another oversight for a game so rooted in city life is the omission of adding custom waypoints to your radar. The game will almost always pinpoint your exact destination for story-based missions, but you're on your own if you want to seek out a specific restaurant or mahjong parlor. Weirder still, some alleys are roped off with an invisible barrier, forcing you to go further out of your way. It's understandable that not every door in the city can be opened - try doing that in real life and see how far you can get - but you should be able to walk where you please.
Speaking of mahjong, it's admirable that Yakuza 4 has been left intact for Western audiences, but we wouldn’t mind if it was made friendlier to Americans in some areas. Screen after screen of tutorial text won't help anyone unfamiliar to mahjong learn how to play the game. Similarly, running the hostess club is a great diversion, but you'll run into the cultural differences on what Asia and the West deem to be beautiful. Catering to your clientele's demands for a "conservative" girl gets lost in translation when you've dulled down your girls' outfits as much as possible, but they still sit by the bar alone, sighing, and not earning yen.
Another niggling issue is how occasionally you'll be stranded without anywhere to save for 30-minute stretches, like when infiltrating a yakuza hideout or seeking out a homeless informant. As Yakuza 4's breadth of content suggests, it's not a game to be played unless you can devote the proper amount of time to it over at least a few months. This isn't a game you can steamroll through in a weekend and fully appreciate everything it has to offer. And frankly, there's a lot of variety here, but much of it is also repetitious: run here, chase that, fight punks, and stop for a few parlor games. That formula becomes most apparent in marathon sessions, which is detrimental to the illusion that this is a living, breathing city.
With the proper dosage, though, everything clicks nicely. The interruptions by randomly occurring street fights and the hilarious translations of instigators' accompanying trash talk ("Watch out, because I'm about to diss you something fierce!") are certainly welcome, because the fighting is so unabashedly fun. You can get by with button-mashing in the easier difficulties, but there's enough variety in learning the different characters' finer points (some are bruisers, others have an intricate parrying system) and leveling of skills that it feels both deep but deeply rooted in arcade beat-'em-ups. Context-sensitive moves, like chucking vagrants against flagpoles or stomping on their faces, help push the combat that much more over the top.
Kamurocho is just as varied, and while the streets aren't as overcrowded as the ones in real-world Japan, there's always an impressive amount of people onscreen at all times. Even when you go to the seedier portions of town, like the sewers or the rooftops, there are the homeless and other strangers doing their own things. You can eavesdrop on almost everyone, and they each have their own lives that may not be as deep as any of the characters you play as, but you can more often than not pick up intel on a restaurant to track down or find trendy topics to discuss with girls when hitting the clubs.
So, yes, we are lucky to get Yakuza 4. Its nuanced and complex characters are offset nicely by the goofy and gory combat - here's your chance to chuck motorcycles, thwack criminals with oversized traffic cones, and body slam some jaws - and the city's ability to feel alive both day and night all add up to something more distinct and intriguing. Anyone can run down innocent bystanders, but Yakuza 4 gets more at the psychology of why.
Mar 24, 2011