Developer: Sega / Publisher: Sega / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature (Blood, Strong Language, Violence, Sexual Themes)
When Yakuza first came out, it felt like one Japanese company’s reaction to the success of the sandbox design in Grand Theft Auto III. The Yakuza series has always been one of the more story-driven sandbox games, and practically carries the design torch that was left unfinished by Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue (Yakuza creator Toshihiro Nagoshi got his start at Sega working under Suzuki in fact). Four installments (and a couple spin-offs) later, Sega has managed to keep the series fresh even if the company has relied on similar formulas and locations with each game.
There’s much about Yakuza 4 that makes it feel like an HD enhanced remake of the very first Yakuza on the PlayStation 2, in the best way possible. You’re back in Kamurocho, a fictional version of Kabukicho in Shinjuku. It’s as if the city has been overhauled from its PS2 version, rejuvenated with a detailed makeover while new areas like rooftops, back alleys and underground arcades and garages are now accessible.
Another reason why this feels like a remake is because so many elements from the first game remain, underscoring how much the original Yakuza did right. The fighting system is easy to understand and there are many opportunities to learn new skills. One new and inventive way to learn moves is by witnessing dramatic events in the city and capturing martial arts moves on your camera phone. While you can get by without properly learning the moves, there is a gratifying sense of achievement in learning the correct techniques.
The context-sensitive power moves also return, where you can grab a thug, pull him near a railing, heated stove, or wall and slam his face on it. Some of the greater challenges come from the quick-time event prompts that appear during the more visually impressive moves, most of which are easy to execute. Many of the battles are random encounters with little warning; further giving Yakuza games that classic JRPG feel. In fact, the addictive nature of these fights compounded by the exploratory nature of Yazuka 4 makes the experience more like a playable movie than a game with any true challenge. It’s easy to get so caught up in fighting that by the time you encounter a meaningful boss, you dispose of him with too much ease.
The game’s more-of-everything approach is most evident in the wealth of side missions and distractions that can consume a great deal of your time. Even before completing the second main objective in the game you can play crane games in the arcade, sing karaoke (via rhythm action gameplay), and visit a strip club. There are also full-fledged mahjong games, and the classic Yakuza pastime of swinging for the fences in a batting cage. Don’t be surprised if you spend over 90 hours unlocking all the game’s bonuses. The most time-consuming activity is the locker-key hunting. Early in the game you find a metal detector that lets you know you’re close to a key. Not all the keys are easy to find; some are just downright hard, where you have to use a first-person view to spot it. It’s an activity worth exploring in moderation as the chime sound of the detector can get on your nerves. As disturbing as it sounds, one of the most worthwhile missions entails grooming nubile Japanese women to become appealing hostesses. Some other women in the game are also available for “massage” services or if you prefer a round of ping-pong.
What percentage of the game is actual story? You’d be surprised to learn that it takes about 35 hours to get through all four characters’ scenarios. That’s right, aside from series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu, you also play as three new and equally interesting characters. Shun Akiyama is an extremely unorthodox money lender, Taiga Saejima is a hitman with very dark past, and Masayoshi Tanimura is a disenchanted cop. Yakuza 4 follows the very prevalent themes in Japanese visual entertainment where life is not absolutely black and white nor good or bad.
As all their tales are told from pretty much the same time period, the game lends to a multi-perspective Rashomon narrative. This reveals one negative about the Yakuza 4: since you play as four characters, you start out with minimal stats with each story. You essentially play the same game four times. On the very bright side, Yakuza also feels like four games in one. There’s certainly strength in variety as each characters’ story is as unique as the last and their fighting move sets are unique. Still, it would have been interesting if Sega pulled off an immensely deep 35-hour story with only Kazuma Kiryu.
Graphics and Sound
As I implied before, Kamurocho has never looked better. Sega also takes advantage of the PlayStation 3’s hardware by having larger crowds of on-lookers during the fights. But what truly steals the show visually are the cutscenes. Anyone who has watched an Asian soup opera will appreciate the subtle use of tight close-ups and camera angles usually associated with the daytime dramas. It’s in these scenes where you truly appreciate the character designs.
The music won’t win too many awards. The fighting music once again feels like modern remixes of SNK fighting game tunes. There are also some melancholic piano-driven compositions that carry the cutscenes along and they match well to the melodrama.
Not only is there much to appreciate in Yakuza from a Shenmue fan’s point of view, the series also feels like the last remnant of a time when Sega’s creativity was at its peak (around the end of the Saturn era and well into the Dreamcast). If the news of a zombie-themed spin-off signals the series’ proverbial jumping of the shark, then at least Sega managed to produce a game that feels as full and complete as Yakuza 4.