Review by sfcalimari

"Still the Yakuza series we have grown to love, but just too much of a retread of the previous 3 games"

I've always been a pretty big fan of the Yakuza series. Its main appeal to me has always been the great stories and characters that you find in the Yakuza games, as well as the great sense of place that it gives by setting the games in faithfully recreated Japanese neighborhoods. The first Yakuza game, on the PS2, introduced us to the hero of the series, Kazuma Kiryu, and the made-up Tokyo neighborhood of Kamurocho (a facsimile of Kabuki-cho). It had a pretty good story but also had inconsistent dubbing (why would you find Japanese characters with New York accents and Southern accents in Tokyo?) and the combat system felt clunky and could be frustrating. But the story was just about the best I'd seen in a video game. Yakuza 2 tightened up the combat system and also added in a new location set in the Osaka region as well as mainly being set in Kamurocho, and it also had another compelling story with great characters. Yakuza 3, the first Playstation 3 game in the series, gave us a new setting in Okinawa but for the most part was set in a Kamurocho that was barely changed from the Playstation 2 games other than the fact that you could move the camera around. Same restaurants, same video game arcades, same buildings. The combat system was still just about the same as in Yakuza 1 and 2. The main change was the upgrade from PS2 graphics to PS3 graphics. The storyline was still pretty good but dragged a bit early on when you had to do a lot of chores in Kazuma's orphanage in Okinawa. Overall I enjoyed Yakuza 3, and it was one of the main reasons I got a Playstation 3, but I got a sneaking feeling that the series was getting too stale, and that Sega was repeating too many aspects of the series without introducing anything new or bothering to vastly improve the series. Finally in early 2011 Yakuza fans get the English version of Yakuza 4, the latest in the series. Overall I enjoyed the game mainly for the story and the characters, and as always I enjoyed the attention to detail in the game's settings, but there's just too much reuse of Kamurocho yet again, and the combat system is in serious need of revamping.

One of the few new things about Yakuza 4 is that instead of only playing as Kazuma Kiryu, you play as four characters (including Kazuma) over the course of the game. You start out as Akiyama, a Kamurocho moneylender with a heart of gold. When you are done with his segment of the game you play as Saejima, a convicted hitman on death row with a heart of gold. Then you play as Tamimura, a somewhat corrupt cop with, you guessed it, a heart of gold. Then you wrap up the game as our old buddy Kazuma. While I liked the new characters and their storylines, I didn't really care for the way that switching between four characters breaks up the flow of the game. Each character upgrades his health and unlocks moves by gaining experience from battles with enemies, and when you move to the next character you lose all those moves and start with a new character who starts out with totally different moves and a tiny health bar, and you have to level up the new guy all over again. I kind of preferred in the previous games the way you just stuck with Kazuma and got more powerful as you moved through the game rather than in fits and starts. The introduction of the new characters is generally a welcome change, I just wish there could have been a way to make their segments blend together more seamlessly, maybe by letting you switch between them during the game, or having their segments be separate and longer so each segment felt more like its own game.

If you haven't played a Yakuza game before, I guess the easiest way to describe the general gameplay is as GTA without cars and with combat focused on fistfighting rather than guns. You have main story objectives that you need to complete to move the main storyline along. There are also side-missions, 62 in all, which you find by wandering around on the Kamurocho map and talking to specific people. I would recommend using an online guide for instructions on how to trigger the side-missions and how to complete them, because without any help it's hard to know what to do. I liked the side-missions in this game, they are often pretty funny or just plain weird and often give you some insights into the four characters you play as throughout the game, each of whom gets his own set of side-missions. Some of the side-missions are fetch-style quests where you have to get something for someone, but most of them involve you beating up someone for some reason--they stole someone's purse, or they're going around harrassing homeless people, or whatever. Generally I preferred the side-missions in this game to the ones in Yakuza 3 which I felt tended to be unimaginative and focused too much on repetitive fetch-style quests.

Your main goal to move the game along will be the main missions. You'll get a message saying you need to go someplace and meet someone or do something in Kamurocho, and when you go there the mission will start. Generally you'll be fighting a bunch of enemies and sometimes end up fighting a boss. Then once you're done with that you'll get juicy cut-scenes that advance the story. While the storyline is about as good as previous Yakuza games, and the cut-scenes are as usual pretty well done, something that is crappy about them is that pretty often the game will start out with a full-animation cut scene then suddenly switch to a text-only segment without voices where it just shows your character sitting motionless across from someone else as you hit the X button to scroll through the text of your conversation. Often the game will switch between full-animation segments and text segments several times within the same cut-scene. I don't remember such a high reliance on text sequences instead of animation in previous games but I could be wrong. It just makes the game feel more rushed and low-budget than it usually does, and for one thing you get a lot more out of a cut-scene where you can hear the actor's voice and see their facial expressions (which are very detailed in this game) during a full-animation cut-scene, but you get none of that when you're just reading text and your character is standing still. Oh, and the game is entirely in Japanese with English subtitles, which I really prefer because the Japanese voice work is pretty good and gives you a lot of emotional cues that you usually don't get in a dub.

Other than main missions and side-missions, you can wander around Kamurocho, checking out sights and going to bars to drink or go to restaurants to eat. There are a wide variety of other mini-game things you can do that are totally unrelated to the main storyline missions or the side-missions, like playing video games in arcades, playing ping-pong at a hot springs, getting a massage, singing karaoke via a button-mashing mini-game, etc etc. Unlike in Yakuza 3, Sega fortunately chose not to cut a lot of these types of content from Yakuza 4. While I didn't particularly care about the cut content in Yakuza 3 because it was stuff I wasn't really concerned about, a lot of people were angry with Sega for doing that, and they should be happy with the content in Yakuza 4. One trivia mini-game called Answer-x-Answer was axed because it apparently had a Japanese-text interface that Sega couldn't figure out how to modify for English, but supposedly that is the only major cut from the original Japanese version.

As you wander around Kamurocho you will have to deal with one of the most questionable legacies of the Yakuza series: random fights. Yes, apparently when you walk down the streets of Tokyo, random thugs and gang members walk up to you and pick fights with you. I wouldn't mind it other than that you have to sit through a brief delay as your character and the thugs glare at each other before the fight begins. 99% of the time, at least on the Normal difficulty, these random thugs will barely put up a fight and will just stand around doing nothing as you destroy them with your fists and feet. I really would have liked more of a challenge from these random guys. But a problem is during main story missions the enemies can be a lot tougher to the point of being very cheap and frustrating to fight, especially bosses, making the game's overall difficulty really uneven and making selecting a harder difficulty at the start of the game less appealing. I don't like having most of the game's combat feel really unchallenging to the point of being boring then have short sequences that are rage-inducingly hard here and there--it seemed like low-level enemies in previous Yakuza games weren't as mind-numbingly easy, but they've always had that sort of uneven difficulty where certain bosses are much tougher than most other enemies.

During combat you start by using punches and kicks to fight enemies, and as your hits connect you fill up your "heat" gauge which is basically a special attack meter. Once you fill up the heat gauge enough you can do special moves, like if you stand over an enemy that has been knocked to the ground you'll see a "heat" emblem flash at the top of the screen, then you can hit the triangle button and pull of a heat move which causes a short cut-scene of you beating your fist into your poor supine enemy's face. There are a large number of heat moves, and each character has specific heat moves although most of them are unfortunately pretty similar to one another. You can also pick up and use a wide variety of weapons that are lying around on the ground or get them from defeated enemies, like traffic cones or knifes, and if you fill up your heat move you can do brutal heat moves with them too. Each of the four characters also has their own fighting style. Kazuma's style is pretty much the same as in the previous three games. Akiyama's focuses on kicks and he can do a long series of chained kicks. Tanimura's specialty is parrying enemy attacks and martial arts grips. Saejima is built like a tank and is slow but very powerful. While the different fighting styles adds a bit of spice to the game, the way you fight enemies with the four characters is pretty similar. Combat in the Yakuza series has always been a bit of a weak point because the combat system just feels kind of stiff and outdated. And smashing bicycles into the faces of your enemies was a lot of fun the first time, but after 6 years and 4 games it's getting a bit old. I really wish that Sega would get rid of the current system and come up with something that feels more visceral and fluid and challenging instead of just reusing the same fighting system from the Playstation 2 era.

Finally, a disappointment I have with Yakuza 4 is that it reuses Kamurocho yet again when the series really needs some new settings. The Kamurocho in Yakuza 4 is exactly the same as it was in Yakuza 3, but at least Yakuza 3 had long stretches set in Okinawa. Yakuza 4 adds in some rooftops and an underground mall and parking garage and sewer that weren't in previous games, but they're pretty boring and small areas that don't make up for not providing us with a totally new neighborhood to run around in.

Again I generally enjoyed the game for what it is, but I just couldn't help but wish Yakuza 4 could have been a fresh revamp of the series instead of a timid retread of settings and a combat system we've already dealt with three times before. The storyline and characters are great and better than anything you see in most video games. The attention to detail in Kamurocho is stunning and mesmerizing, even if most of the details we've already seen in the previous games. But the combat still feels dull and repetitive, there's too many unexciting text sections that break up the cut-scenes, and the series really needs a new setting.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 04/21/11

Game Release: Yakuza 4 (US, 03/15/11)

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