Yakuza 3 had quite the controversial localization when it released. Some thought that cutting out host clubs from the game was a grave injustice. Well, don’t worry guys, Yakuza 4 has made it to the states with barely a scratch. Prepare to lose hours trying to woo women you could never possibly have a relationship with (I’m getting flashbacks to my High School years just thinking about it).
Kazuma Kiryu has taken a bit of a back seat in Yakuza 4 as there are actually four main characters and Kiryu isn’t even the first. There’s Shun Akiyama, the money lender who believes that everyone has a dream and money is usually the means to get it. Not surprisingly, Akiyama’s storyline revolves around his lending business and the strange tests he has prospective clients perform. Next we have Masayoshi Tanimura, a detective assigned to Kamurocho as a beat cop and who has a particular interest in helping out the less fortunate illegal immigrants that come in to Japan from other Asian countries.
Taiga Saejima was initially the least likeable of the protagonists since he’s a convict, sentenced to jail for 25 years for murdering an entire group of opposing Yakuza at gun point. Obviously as a main character his full story makes him much less of a monster than he initially seems and he turns out to have almost as strong a sense of honor as the series’ classic protagonist. Lastly we have Kiryu, everyone’s favorite ex-yakuza with a heart of gold, spending all his time managing an orphanage in Okinawa.
Since all of these characters are a part of the Japanese criminal underground in one way or another, they start out seeming pretty devious, but before long you get to know them better and they turn out to pretty decent, relatable guys, except for Kiryu who already starts out the game like that. At first the four stories seem largely unconnected, but one woman connects all of their lives and not surprisingly they end up banding together against a common foe. One thing I liked about the story was that most of the antagonists in the story were very relatable and no one came off as totally evil, besides one guy. The negative aspects of the story are when it gets a bit over-the-top. Like letting a subdued enemy get two separate shots off at you with a gun. I understand that hearing the gunshot and seeing the reaction of the main characters is usually great for tension but why would you leave a gun near the guy? The characters can also get a little long winded at points, but many adventure games have that issue. Yakuza 4 is definitely at its best when going with silly over serious, and each of the discoveries to learn a new move is hilarious. There’s something about Saejima taking out a stone hammer and chisel and carving his moment of discovery out of wood that makes me laugh every time.
Combat is largely unchanged from Yakuza 3, with a similar system of brawler/RPG. Separating the game into four main characters was simultaneously a benefit and a detriment. The good part is that the four characters play completely differently, with Akiyama being the speedy agile guy, Saejima being a lumbering Andre the Giant type bruiser, and Tanimura the grappler. Kiryu is more of a Jack of all Trades, but since he is easily the best fighter out of the bunch it might be more accurate to call him a King of all Trades. All of these differing fighting styles help to give the battles in the game some variety but each character gets his own 3-4 hour section of the game, so you’ll still spend more than enough time with each fighting style for it to start to feel repetitive.
The clear detriment to this split is that each of the four main characters feels like a piece of a single normal main character. Progression and customization options feel significantly shallower than if the game had focused on a single main character. It isn’t all bad though, because the increase in characters allows for a greater variety of side missions and objectives to complete while you run around the city. For the uninitiated, Yakuza games play out kind of like the Grand Theft Auto series. This means that there is a notable focus on side activities and not just the main storyline.
Many of these side activities can be completed by any of the main characters, like bowling or going to the batting center, but there are also a good number of side quests and character specific activities, like busting up disturbances as Tanimura or trying to train a hostess to be No. 1 as Akiyama. Sure, most of these probably could have been given to Kiryu if he was the only character, but it’s nice to get different perspectives on Kamurocho. Walking around as Saejima requires that you look out for police, random gangs like to pick on Kiryu, and Tanimura gets radio messages about public disturbances so even just walking around town is different for each one.
Although I feel like the brawling aspects of the gameplay are somewhat weak, one thing I think Yakuza 4 does better than any of the Grand Theft Auto games it tries to emulate is all of the mini-games and side activities. Side quests have fully fleshed out stories that help to give your actions meaning and draw you into the quest, so you actually care about the conclusion (no “go get me five chickens because I said so” type quests). The side activities like the batting and bowling centers feel almost like a full game in themselves (at least a PSN game anyway), with multiple modes in each. I have sunk hours into the training dojo as Saejima in a Monster Rancher-esque mini-game. Assigning my students with training regimens and trying to work around each one's little eccentricities is surprisingly fun. The only mini-game that I attempted and really didn’t find fun at all was dressing up and training hostesses as Akiyama. There was very little guidance on how to get your girl to look a certain way between the four descriptions and apparently my taste in make-up is trashy.
If there’s one facet of Yakuza that could definitely use an upgrade it would have to be the visuals. Thematically, I like the game area and it looks just like I’d imagine a red light district in Japan to look. There are even a number of real life stores and companies that get into the mix, though using some of the NPCs' conversations as an advertisement for various different sites was kind of weak. On the technical side, Yakuza’s visuals are definitely weak. Character animations look stiff during a number of the in-game cut scenes and all of the textures and character models look mediocre for this generation.
Sound design is a mixed bag, depending on what you want. If you wanted to hear all of these Yakuza speaking perfect English then you’re out of luck again, since the localization only includes subtitles and not new dubs for the characters. This is probably for the best and I’m sure most fans of the series agree, but it’ll be a detriment for some. For what it’s worth, as far as I can tell the voices were well acted and none of the main characters had annoying voices. The music is mostly muted but I really liked the intro and menu music.
Like I mentioned before, there is a definite focus on side activities in Yakuza 4, so even though the main story mission took me 21.5 hours (which doesn’t compare well to a similar game like Grand Theft Auto IV), I still feel like Yakuza 4 offers fantastic value. Whether you end up bowling, training your disciples, or trying your hardest to mack on the hostesses, you’ll probably sink a multitude of hours into the game.
Yakuza 4 might be the most Japanese game I play all year, and I specifically try and review every JRPG I can. It's an interesting look at Japanese criminal culture and similar to the Grand Theft Auto series but doesn’t quite live up to those high standards. Yakuza 4 is definitely a good game and it even borders on great, but some repetitive battle mechanics and sub-par visuals hold it back. It’s still definitely a game that fans should get (and probably already did) and anyone else with a love of Japanese culture should look into. Heck, even if you aren’t either of those things, go buy Yakuza 4, so maybe we can get the Yakuza zombie game.