When it came to epic storylines, filled with rich characters and grand settings, Japanese gaming used to be far ahead of its Western cousins. Times have changed, however, and many Eastern developers have found that their titles must take a back seat, allowing the “cinematic” experiences from AAA Western franchises to have their time in the spotlight. When held up against its open-world contemporaries, Sega’s Yakuza 4 is, in many ways, just another example of this shift in gamers’ hearts.
Still, the series has held its own for five years now and retains the unique mechanics and quirky charm that reminds us of the debt other nations owe to Japan for their influence on the gaming landscape.
Returning to the sleaze and neon lights of Kamurocho, players may initially be disappointed by the lack of new locations. The district has been revamped since we last visited in Yakuza 3, however, with additional areas to explore, updated storefronts and, of course, the minigames that make the series such an addictive time sink. New additions such as ping-pong sit alongside the old favourite bar games of darts and pool and, should the urge seize you, you can visit massage parlours and swanky hostess clubs for some light entertainment. It’s also important to develop relationships with your cohorts, showering them with gifts and entertaining them with your sparkling wit and up to date knowledge of what girls like. It turns out the way to a woman’s heart is through cell phone games.
While it provides a rich backdrop to the unfolding drama, Kamurocho isn’t the prettiest of locales. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by our adventures around GTA’s detailed and densely populated Liberty City, but everything feels a little flat in Yakuza 4. This isn’t helped by the fact that the level of graphical polish varies wildly depending on where you look. You can walk down the street marvelling at the slick pools of water after a heavy downpour before running straight into a blocky shop-front texture or three NPCs all performing the same animation in sync.
Thankfully, the lead characters (of whom there are four) all move fluidly and with the grace that their voice acting deserves. Cutscenes are expertly directed and interactions are wonderfully convincing. The entire game is subtitled which, while annoying when trawling through pages of NPC dialogue, is a blessing in scripted scenes compared to the melodramatic gasps, grunts and squeaks that normally come along for the ride in every Western translation. As seems to be the style, however, most cinematics take more time to watch than Rashomon, which can be frustrating when you want to bust through the next action sequence.
When you’re not wasting your time gambling or chatting with friends, the gameplay of Yakuza 4 is split between exploration and two types of action sequence – fights and chases. Both retain the classic arcade feel that those of us who grew up on Sega games know and love. Learning from the Virtua Fighter and Shenmue series, battle scenes are quick, simple and brutal with a range of flashy combos executed through simple button presses. You’d be hard pressed to struggle through any of the fights, especially at the start of each character’s storyline, but it is varied and satisfying enough to carry on being fun every time. Chases, unfortunately, suffer from loose controls and poor camera management, meaning that each sequence is more a battle against the interface than your pursuers. More often than not, I found myself cursing my twitchy reactions as I sent my poor protagonist careening into a wall, railing, dustbin or passing pedestrian, ending in a messy tangle of limbs and shame.
Yakuza 4’s story is excellent, spanning the fate of four distinct characters – each with their own style and feel. Distractions aside, the main campaign can be expected to last around twenty hours and the plot rarely falters. It’s a shame that a great deal of the story is told through seemingly endless cutscenes and unvoiced dialogues, but it’s worth the effort. If you’re looking for something beyond the usual high-gloss action adventure titles with its own unique charm and sense of humour, Yakuza 4 is well worth a try.
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