Yakuza 4 is an interesting game. The series deliberately tries to distance itself from Grand Theft Auto, whilst remaining faithful to the action sandbox genre. It attempts to capture the distinctive Japanese feel and the essence of the Yakuza, amongst a compelling story in a fictionalized version of Japan’s red-light district. SEGA know that its scope outside of Japan will be limited, and have made mistakes trying to Westernise previous installments, which has led to Yakuza 4 remaining more faithful to the Japanese original than any other game in the series.
What Yakuza 4 Got Right
The sights and sounds of red-light Japan – Yakuza 4 doesn’t have the reach or depth of Liberty City, but it doesn’t need to. The fictionalized city, based on Japan’s red-light district of Kabukichō, is pulsating with crime and sleazy characters. The landscape has been improved with new stores, rooftops and underground areas that inject a host of new mini-games into the action. At night the city comes alive with cheap businessmen and potential hostesses vying for each other’s affection. Likewise, the distant sounds of muffled gunfire and shady affairs are pitch perfect to the scenario.
An engaging story – Yakuza 4 is brimming with a compelling narrative – four stories, to be precise. It’s a good thing too, as it overloads on the cut-scenes. You first play as Shun Akiyama, the owner of Sky Finance and a man who lends money to those with no other way to obtain it. Rather than charging interest, he has his clients complete volunteer work in a field he believes they will excel in. Such a philanthropist in red-light Japan naturally gets caught up with the Yakuza, leading him to develop exquisite fighting skills.
And the story continues – After the first five hours, you inherit the role of Masayoshi Tanimura, a corrupt policeman, followed by Taiga Saejima, a former member of the Yakuza in serious trouble, and finally, long-standing protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. In total, the games lasts around 20 hours, and is refreshed quarterly with the problems, strengths and weaknesses of a new character.
Quality combat – Each character has their own array of impressive moves, with diversity that avoids it becoming repetitive. Combat is brutal, relatively easy to pick up, and most importantly, totally badass. Early tutorials guide your way, and teach you how to execute combos with light and heavy attacks. It gets more interesting when you incorporate grabs and whatever you find lying around on the street as impromptu weapons. Overall, combat holds up extremely well.
Mini-games – Surprisingly culled in the Western version of Yakuza 3, mini-games are back, better than ever, and offer a much-needed diversion from the hectic violence. There’s so much to do on the side that you almost don’t know where to begin. There are the likes of darts and ping pong to induce your competitive streak, and some more risqué adult-orientated games, such as fun in the massage parlour, that reinforce the game’s quirky Japanese origins.
Now better looking – While not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, Yakuza 4 is leaps and bounds more impressive to look at compared to its predecessor. Most of the work has gone into cut-scenes, which generally look amazing, while the game world has benefited from an updated engine. Battles now look far more realistic, and finishing heat moves provide the head-stomping action you look for in a sandbox affair.
What Yakuza 4 Wrong
Too many cut-scenes – It might be engaging, but eventually, most players will get bored. Japanese dialogue is great for retaining the atmosphere but adds more responsibility to the player who gets bombarded with text. Some cut-scenes go for up to 30 minutes and are then followed by less than 10 minutes of gameplay before they’re yacking again. Yakuza 4 is purposely a very story-driven affair, but it’s detrimental to the experience at times and often leaves the player bored or skipping straight to the action.
Lacking some polish – With such a big emphasis on mini-games, the core experience has suffered. It’s lacking the polish it needed to truly compete with the likes of GTA. While the cut-scenes look good, the in-game environments don’t match the quality, and there are too many invisible walls for it to have a compelling open world. The mini-games are almost the most exciting and in-depth experiences you’ll have. Outside of combat, the core game is really just a lot of running around.
The map is too hard to read – The map is too confusing for its own good. As a sandbox game, you’re constantly following an arrow on your radar; however, this is useless, as you don’t really know where you’re going, resulting in valuable minutes being wasted on the bigger map. There’s also no option to place a marker at your desired location, a terrible oversight for a modern open world title.
The Final Verdict
Yakuza 4 is a giant step-up from its predecessor in gameplay and story but lacks the polish it needs to take the next step. The combat is great and the use of four different protagonists keeps things feeling fresh throughout the 20 hour adventure. The story, while engaging, does tend to drag on a little too much with overly long cut-scenes. Nevertheless, it’s a unique narrative and one that deserves recognition. The sheer number of quirky and diverse mini-games is more than impressive, and could easily double your total playtime. A unique take on the action sandbox genre, that’s worth a look if you want something different.