The Yakuza franchise is something of an oddity in the world of games today. The series has an extremely large following in Japan and despite nearly the whole series featuring only Japanese voices with English subtitles has accumulated a large following overseas. The Yakuza franchise may only be around five years old but SEGA brings us Yakuza 4 and with it a few changes to the formula and plenty of new things that we have yet to see in an international release. The question is, has enough been changed between Yakuzas to make Yakuza 4 stand out on its own?
Yakuza has always been a game with a very driven storyline that brought it many of the fans it has today. Of course the most recent game, Yakuza 3 only had players taking control of Kazuma Kiryu but this time Yakuza 4 lives up to its name in more than one way. Rather than having only one protagonist the game instead has four different heroes that take the stage at different times in the story.
Players will step into the role of Shun Akiyama, a loan shark with mysteriously charitable loans, the recognizable Kazuma Kiryu of course, Masayoshi Tanimura a cop who has corrupt ties to the underworld, and Taiga Saejima, an ex-Yakuza hitman who is finally out of jail and looking into a case of his own. It is worth noting that newcomers to the series shouldn’t feel too worried about jumping in to the series because there are a number of videos that explain key plot points for the first three Yakuza games.
Each of these four characters has their own separate storyline which weave into one another’s throughout the actual game itself but the direct correlation between these stories is only noticeable near the end of the game when everything starts to intertwine. The best part of a story however isn’t the ending, but the journey and that is certainly what Yakuza has in spades. The stories are complex and emotional with plenty of twists to leave the player guessing as to what will really happen next. Which means of course that you will find it hard to put down your controller simply because you want to find out what is happening next. That is until you stumble upon the character’s side stories of course.
Each of the four characters has their own separate side stories to go along with their main storyline. For example Akiyama has the ability, being as he owns his own Cabaret Club, to scout and train girls to be Hostesses in his club. This feature as well as the other side character’s missions, which include training a fighter, gang battles and police disputes not only help tie-in to the character’s personality but provide plenty of things to do in Yakuza 4.
A story is only as good as how it is told however and unfortunately Yakuza 4 has a few setbacks in this department. The story is told through various voiced cutscenes that pop up here and there, but unfortunately everything else is not voiced and instead is delivered as text boxes. There are a few occasions where the game will cut from a cutscene, into a few text boxes, and then return into a cutscene with zero actual change. This means that players may find themselves a bit bogged down at times with text and will have to watch out for skipping important information as they tap away at the X button which feels like something that should have been left in the past many years ago.
Like past games Yakuza 4 takes place in Kamurocho which is based on the real world Shinjuku’s red light district. Shades of Yakuza 3 are everywhere in the game and it is quite obvious that plenty of the environment will seem maybe a bit too familiar as you travel through the streets. So familiar that it feels almost confining despite the addition of a handful of new areas such as the rooftops, back alleys and sewers to explore. One thing I did notice however was the inclusion of bits of Japanese culture included which may not appear familiar to the average gamer but when I noticed a billboard on the rooftops of popular website Nico Nico Douga it was a nice realism tie-in as well as other various Japanese websites sporadically placed around the city.
Despite a mostly recycled environment the characters themselves have top notch expressions and considering the vast narrative that Yakuza 4 tells this is a must. SEGA has utilized something known as Cyberware 3D scanning technology and Magical V-Engine which has allowed the characters to have realistic looking facial emotions and responses to the story giving them a more realistic feel. When cutscenes can reach up to being ten minutes long easily without a break this helps smooth out what sometimes can be a bit too long of a break from gameplay.
Earlier I mentioned that the story is divided into spoken word through cutscenes and written text for everything else. Unfortunately the game itself does not have an English Dub so that means that all of the voices are still in Japanese and the only way to understand what they are saying, unless you know Japanese of course, is to read the subtitles that are displayed under the cutscene itself. In the end it means that there is sure plenty of reading involved.
Regardless of the reading however the Japanese voice casts sound splendid and the voices accurately match the character they are playing as with no oddities mixed in. The game’s background music is mostly forgettable except for a few areas with interesting music such as the Cabaret Club.
As you walk around the streets of Kamurocho you will find yourself in quite a lot of fistfights. The majority of combat takes place through fists alone with guns being a rarity. Well… fists and anything you happen to pick up off the street that is. Combat has been made a bit smoother since the last iteration of the series and this is evident with how easy it is to string together combo attacks and leave your foes in a bruised and blood pulp on the ground.
As you pound away at the enemies you will fill up a Heat Meter which will allow your character to perform brutal finishing attacks ranging anywhere from a punt kick to the side of the face to using whatever weapon you picked up in a very painful fashion. My favorite is the sword finisher which you will have to find out for yourself. The final blow of any battle is done in slow motion to emphasize the finale of the fight. Afterwards you will be given experience points that may level you up and give you the chance to unlock more skills.
Of course there is more than fighting to be had on the streets of Kamurocho. Lots more. Characters can heal up by buying food or drinks of all kinds from many different minimarts that are surprisingly well detailed and also partake in perhaps one of the game’s many sidetracking options. Players can choose to enter arcades and play claw machine games or even games within the game itself, as well as pachinko parlors (a slot machine type gambling game).
One of the more noticeable and perhaps best mentioned diversions from the main story is the inclusion of the cabaret clubs to Yakuza 4. Originally censored from the Yakuza 3 release this is the first time gamers outside of Japan will get to access these for the first time. In this mode the player can, by playing as Akiyama, you can change everything about the girls you are training to be the No.1 hostess from her hairstyle, clothes, how much makeup she wears and more. As any of the other characters, or even as Akiyama, you can choose to instead spend time with the various girls at the clubs.
Cabaret Clubs (another name for hostess or host bars) are places in Japan where clients can spend time with girls (or guys depending on the club). There is no nudity involved in the game or likewise as the girls are mostly there for the character to either get a massage from or talk to and try to romance each of the girls.
With the large amount of distractions and side missions that can be done there are a ton of things to do in Kamurocho outside of the main storyline. Players can gather locker keys to unlock lockers around the area and get the items inside, train or romance the hostesses, train fighters and even more which adds plenty of length to this already lengthy title.
Yakuza 4 has it all upfront. A few new additions to the series which we have never seen before, a new deep storyline with four different characters’ lives intertwining around the events and even plenty of distractions from the main quest. On the other hand, much like most dealings in the underworld, it all is a front for the fact that the game feels dated with the very familiar environment and the fact that despite a great Japanese voice cast, much of the game is unvoiced and relies on plain textboxes.
I give Yakuza 4