The Yakuza series has always been stuck in a perennial time warp. The most notable change you could attribute to the games has been its constantly expanding story and cast of characters, all the while keeping the mechanics of gameplay largely intact. Some would see this as enough reason to write the series off, but Yakuza somehow consistently turns what would be a death-kneel for other franchises into one of the primary reasons to invest into its intricate world.

You're going down!

You're going down!

For those starting off on the series, rest assured that there has never been a better time to do so. Just about everything that could be improved on, has. Expect a deep quasi-RPG that trades high fantasy for a baseball bat and an old-fashioned beat down on the streets of Kamurocho. While the previous games had you playing Kazuma Kiryu, an impossibly cool ex-Yakuza type, who now runs an orphanage in Okinawa, Yakuza 4 mixes it up with four main characters to take control of and play as.

There’s the kind-hearted loan shark, an unorthodox cop, a man-mountain of a prison-escapee, and lastly, Kiryu himself. Each of these characters have their own parts to play through with multiple sub-chapters, mini games and side stories to enjoy, while still being tied together with an over-arching plot. To top that off, you’ll be able to switch between the characters when they come together for the fifth and final act.

Each of your crew also comes with a different set of combat skills. Akiyama, the loan shark fights with his feet, whereas Tanimura, the cop is an expert at countering and evasion, and Seijama is an old fashioned brawler who steam-rolls through the lower rungs of the Yakuza ladder. Sega smartly saves the best for last though, as playing though Kiryu’s story-beat last is the proverbial icing on the cake. In a nice touch, all his combat upgrades from previous games have been carried over with even more outlandish moves to unlock with which to clean up the streets.

Yakuza 4 seems to have finally taken on and conquered the little niggles that kept the previous games from reaching their true potential. The story that took way too long to get going in Yakuza 3 now has a lot more happening in each of the four parts. There are better characters all around, more plausible (well, for the world of Yakuza anyway) antagonists, and most importantly, the main cast is fleshed out enough for you to empathize with. You’ll spend a lot of your time watching several beautifully directed and scored cut scenes, and reading reams of conversational text boxes. The voice acting is still best of class, with every character done justice to. Don’t be surprised if you go more than an hour without actually throwing a punch. This is a game that demands patience and (eventually) rewards you for it.

An explosive surprise?

An explosive surprise?

Each playable character has almost all of the district of Kamurocho at his disposal, with certain areas such as the rooftops, the immigrant quarter and the sewers being opened up by the act (all being new additions to the series). In GTA fashion, you have a mini-map at your disposable as well as a cellphone, with missions spread out across the district. You’ll do your fair share of running (sorry, no vehicles.), while stopping to fight the random yakuza that stop you for often-hilarious reasons. Unlike other RPGs, you’ll love these random events because the combat gameplay and combo system is rock solid, and because these fights always net you XP that you use to level up and unlock new moves and abilities, as well as cash to spend in the many shops dotting the district. You also have weapons to purchase and craft and certain confrontations also let you use firearms with limited ammunition.

Yakuza 4 is as close to a slice-of-life experience as gaming can get.  While the graphics may not hit the highs of Crysis, it looks perfectly fine for what it tries to do.  There are improvements, as well, with textures and load times much better now than the last game.  The streets, rooftops and alleyways of Kamurocho are dense and detailed, with licensed stores selling licensed merchandise, arcades with working cabinets, pachinko parlors, hostess bars, pawn shops, restaurants, and lots more. The streets teem with crowds going about their lives and with enough sub-missions to make other games blush. There are also activities to partake in, such as bowling, golf, baseball, hostess management, dojo management, karaoke, and so much more.

With just the story alone clocking in at 30 hours (discounting side-quests and other sundry pastimes), this is a game that you don’t just play, but lose yourself in. With high profile titles such as Bulletstorm and Homefront striking out, there’s more than enough reason for everyone to sample this oft-forgotten jewel in Sega’s knuckle-duster.

Publish date: April 13, 2011 2:25 pm| Modified date: December 18, 2013 7:36 pm

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