Yakuza 4 Review

By Jeffrey Matulef - Posted Mar 24, 2011

A hodgepodge of different genres, mini-games and tones, Yakuza 4's eclectic nature keeps things interesting. It's a slow burn though, with an overabundance of text and the story is a labyrinthine mess. It may be hard to follow, but deeply moving character moments, unexpected humor, and a lavish setting make it a crime drama worth following for more patient gamers.

The Pros
  • Amazing setting
  • Varied and sympathetic characters
  • Lots to do
  • Mature subject matter
The Cons
  • Too much text
  • Perplexing story
  • Unrefined combat
  • Too many invisible walls

Yakuza 4 Review:

When it comes to creating a rich virtual world, there's little that outdoes Yakuza 4. The game unfolds in Kamurocho, a fictitious Tokyo neighborhood modelled after Tokyo's red light district, Kabukichō. Kamurocho may not be the most sprawling game environment out there, but it's among the most detailed. Every wall of each building is unique without a single recycled billboard in sight. Unfortunately, a series of archaic design choices and confusing storytelling keep the player at arm's reach from its material. Tokyo's den of sin is mesmerizing to gawk at, but difficult to engage with.

Enter the Dragon (of Dojima)

Unlike previous Yakuza games, Yakuza 4 follows the story of four inexplicably linked playable characters. These include: Shun Akiyama, a mysterious money lender; Taiga Saejima, an escaped death row convict; Masayoshi Tanimura, a corrupt cop; and the retired series hero, Kazuma Kiryo aka "the Dragon of Dojima" returns for an epic showdown.

It's a neat structure, giving the game a more episodic feel as the mystery linking them together slowly unravels. This also makes it more accessible since most of these characters are new to the series (though there are lengthy recap videos on what happened in the previous games). Each character has their own fighting style, sidequests, and access to certain parts of the map. It may sound frustrating to restart each character fresh, but they level up quickly and the transitions between chapters are tantalizing enough to pique one's interest where their story is going. Players can switch between characters freely in the endgame, so uncompleted sidequests can eventually be returned to.

Exploring Kamurocho consists of Yakuza's usual blend of brawling, side quests, item collection, and mini-games. These range from standards like golf and billiards to the more esoteric like pichinko or managing a hostess club. There's so much to do that even after completing the game and a handful of sidequests at 25 hours, my percentage completion rate was a mere 11.5%. Not all these diversions are fun, but most are completely optional and their presence goes a long way to making the world feel real.

My favorite pastime involved looking for strange occurrences to observe in order to level up. For example, snapping a picture of a panty thief starts a quick-time-event where he bounces around rooftops before falling to his doom in hilariously dramatic slow-mo as his stolen underwear blows through the night air. Successfully recording this event (or in Saejima's case, making a wooden carving of the scenario) results in learning a new fighting technique.

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When it comes to fisticuffs, Yakuza 4 is spectacularly violent with particularly brutal finishing moves. Gouging one's thumbs into an enemy's eye sockets, snapping back their fingers, or swinging a baseball bat into their faces is visceral, empowering and savage.

Despite being stylish, combat still feels a bit clunky. There's still no targeting system and it's not uncommon to unleash a flurry of punches beside an enemy. Context sensitive finishing moves are also finicky, making it easy to miss a valuable opportunity due to standing a few pixels off. While beating the stuffing out of thugs helps spruce up the game's otherwise languid pacing, it's still rough and the final boss is especially excruciating.

The real star of the show is Kamurocho itself. Its ramshackle architecture littered with neon signs and glowing lanterns makes individual blocks so distinct that I grew to understand its layout without the need for a mini-map. It's not that different than it was last year in Yakuza 3, but there are welcome new additions like being able to take alternate routes across rooftops or underground in its network of malls and sewers. These go a long way towards bringing Kamurocho to life as its seedy underbelly exists both physically and metaphorically.

No Country for Old Yakuza

Though easy on the eyes, there's a strange dichotomy between Yakuza 4's high production and its creaky design. Jarring invisible walls are everywhere, load times are frequent, and much of the combat is based on random encounters (though a keen eye can detect which NPCs are crusin' for a brusin'). The camera is also bizarrely unable to look up past a certain point along the y-axis, so in order to scope out the taller sights in their full glory you have to switch to a first person view. These flaws are grating and undo much of the immersion the game strives to achieve.

The storytelling is regrettably antiquated, relying heavily on voiceless text and lengthy cutscenes. It's not uncommon to go a good half hour without any agency over the proceedings.

For a game with so much emphasis on narrative, Yakuza 4's story is a mixed bag. Its plot is convoluted with too many double, triple, and I think quadruple crossings that it can be a chore to keep track of it all. Revelations that should be jaw dropping are often head scratching.

While you may not understand everyone's motivations and relationships, the main cast is still well developed and easy to grow attached to. This is enhanced by solid acting and direction. Cutscenes may be long and melodramatic, but they're expertly shot and Yakuza 4 boasts some of the best facial animation in recent memory.

There's definitely more to Yakuza 4's story than shirtless tattooed men brawling. Saejima particularly stands out as a man who's spent over half his life in prison and wonders what it was all for. His tale is the simplest and most primal, but has a lot of pathos as we follow his reentry into civilization. Not shying away from mature subject matter, Yakuza 4 deals with such heady themes as revenge, greed, honor, and what it means to kill a man.

The Stuff Dreamcasts are Made of

Yakuza 4 is a strange beast. Wavering wildly between poignant melodrama and screwball comedy, it has undeniable personality. Its reliance on random encounters, text, invisible walls, and drawn-out cutscenes give Yakuza 4 a dated feel, but it's brimming with refinement rather than innovation. It's as if it came out of an alternate dimension where game design barely evolved past Shenmue over a decade ago, only with the refinements of modern technology. While not a complete success, its wonderful setting, sophisticated content, and fluctuating tone make it a fascinating cultural artifact.

Still want to play it? Why not rent it at Gamefly?