The Yakuza series has always pushed the boundaries when it comes to classifying it. It’s has many of the ingredients of Shenmue, mixed with equal parts GTA and Streets Of Rage, with a whole host of mini-games thrown in. Despite never doing particularly well over here, the series is a big hit in its native Japan, and is now in its fourth incineration.
Unlike Yakuza 3, this fourth outing doesn’t simply star Kazuma Kiryu as the protagonist, but instead flits between four main hard boiled heroes, including Kazuma, Shun Akiyama, a loan shark with a heart, corrupt cop Masayoshi Tanimura and Taiga Saejima, a no-nonsense former Yakuza.
Each character has their own main story, which, as expected, eventually intertwines with the other characters as the game goes on. I won’t go into the main stories here, as they’re as deep and complex as ever, but I can say that, as usual, they’re well written and are presented with the usual sparkle and aplomb that the series has demonstrated previously.
The cut scene direction is spot on and the improved visuals in this outing (which are far more impressive than Yakuza 3) really hit home.
Thanks to this hefty plot, the game is heavily story-focused, and you’ll be quickly moved from one plot point to the next, with the usual range of fights and chases breaking up the many cut scenes.
The combat engine has received little in the way of improvements this time, aside from a slightly adjusted character progression system and the additional moves and tactics that come from playing as four characters. The core of it remains the same as the previous game, which is no bad thing, per se, as the combat is still fast and fluid, with some mean environmental takedowns. But at the same time, it’s an aging system that really needs an overhaul if its to stay entertaining.
The chase scenes also remain much the same, with the addition of sequences where you’re the one being chased and have to get away from your pursuers. This is welcome, but sadly, is a little poorly implemented, with a terrible camera that often points you in the wrong direction, particularly after you escape from a captor, and a shonky control system that makes tight turns difficult.
In fact, aside from one or two little additions, such as specific side missions for each character, much of the core game remains almost identical, which isn’t great for a title that’s really starting to show its age.
However, as always, there’s much more to Yakuza 4 than the main story, and the city is perhaps the real star of the show.
Bright lights, big city
Although relatively small when it comes to actual game world size, the fictional setting of Kamurocho, a red-light district in Japan, is excellently crafted, oozing atmosphere and character. Neon signs light up the night sky and the hustle and bustle of all walks of life, as they mill around restaurants, night clubs, arcades and convenience stores, is played out well.
There are grimy alleyways punctuating busy main streets and there’s now an underground network of tunnels, complete with shops to visit, spreading out under the Yakuza-heavy region of the city.
It’s all impressive stuff, made more so by the series’ usual array of extra activities. All of these are back, including arcade shooters, Pachinko machines, card games, night clubs, karaoke bars and even a fully functional golf course, with each diversion boasting a solid level of presentation.
On top of this there’s the usual assortment of NPC side quests, and as you wander around the city you’ll often be accosted by street punks and other thugs, which you’ll need to straighten out in the usual Yakuza manner.
Been here before
There’s no real faulting Yakuza 4‘s presentation, or indeed, game play, and it’s as solid and enjoyable as it’s always been. The problem is that it’s just all very samey.
There’s very little here to separate the game from the third outing, and whilst the game’s story is engrossing and more enjoyable than its predecessor, and the visuals are far better, you can’t shake the sense of déjà vu.
The series is becoming more than a little stale, and Sega really needs to think about opening it up a little, perhaps into a title much closer to GTA than the limited sandbox world it currently features.
Maybe if the developers spent more time on the core game, with less time on frivolous diversions, things could change for the better, and more new locations would be welcome too.
Kamurocho is an interesting venue, but it remains almost identical to the last game. So, if you’ve played that, there’s little in the way of surprises here.
Fans of the series will, of course, love every moment of Yakuza 4, and with its multiple protagonists, great story and plethora of diversions, it’s no surprise. I just wish that Sega would evolve the game more, rather than drip feed new ideas.