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Yakuza 4 review: The gang's all here


Yakuza 4 breaks with the six-year-old series' tradition by putting the player in control of three new characters, each in his own chapter, with former Yakuza hero Kazuma Kiryu finally arriving in the last quarter of the game. Each character has his own storyline that intertwines with the others and the main narrative, and it's these new stories that are emphasized over the ongoing saga of the unrealistically saintly ex-yakuza Kiryu.

As a result, Yakuza 4 has less baggage to deal with, and is therefore the best entry point for new players since the original game. But ... if you are going to jump into the series, I'd better warn you about some stuff.

Gallery: Yakuza 4 (9/2/10) | 7 Photos

Like its predecessors, Yakuza 4 is a sort of hybrid brawler, JRPG, and sandbox game. As one of four bad dudes, you travel around "Kamurocho" (a fictionalized, but still pretty accurate, representation of Tokyo's Kabukicho neighborhood), choosing either to advance the story by going to the next narrative-driven mission or to pursue sidequests or other activities (more on that soon).

You frequently come across random battles, initiated by other yakuza or street punks who somehow think it's a good idea to rob the toughest person in the universe ... and who usually end up handing you money as an apology. The battle system, which has always been fast-paced and versatile, is freshened with the addition of four disparate characters with different fighting styles. Dirty cop Masayoshi Tanimura can parry incoming attacks, loan shark Shun Akiyama has a super-quick, kick-heavy style, and escaped death row inmate Taiga Saejima is huge. Each one can be leveled up to gain new abilities, and they're acquired rapidly enough that you can feel a sense of progression in each episode. The other noticeable change to the fighting scenes is less successful: blood squirts out of the face of every enemy, getting all over the floor and your character's hands. It's unrealistic and unnecessary. And icky.

Traditionally a pretty dense series, dividing Yakuza 4 into four separate episodes makes the whole thing seem less "daunting." Knowing that one self-contained episode would be wrapping up soon made all the optional sidequesting seemed more truly "optional" and less like a tiny part of one incomprehensible puzzle. It basically made it easier for me to wrap my head around the dizzyingly huge variety of stuff to do. A short final episode allows you to switch freely between characters, so you can wrap up loose ends.

And there is a comical amount of stuff to do. If you're bored in Kamurocho, there's golf, darts, bowling, batting cages, arcade games, UFO catchers, and karaoke. You can gamble in mahjong or pachinko parlors, featuring emulated versions of real Sega Sammy pachinko machines. You can train martial artists in a dojo, receive training from a paramilitary kook, train hostesses, date hostesses, respond to police calls, and search the streets for unique events that cause "revelations" and new combat abilities. You can pick up garbage and sell it underground, you can search for coin locker keys, you can gather raw materials to create and modify weapons, you can take part in an underground fighting club, and probably a dozen other things I'm not thinking of. And almost none of this is required. It's all there for fun and/or character boosting.

Now for the warning. When the first Yakuza game hit in 2006, it seemed like the future of JRPGs. But without having changed much, it's ever so slightly veering into "guilty pleasure" territory. To put a fine point on it, a lot of Yakuza 4 is janky. The city is absurdly beautiful and detailed, but it was modeled for Yakuza 3. About half of the thugs on the street wear the same Cosby sweater and have the same "threatening" stance. Cutscenes routinely swap from fully-voiced, prerendered sequences to robotic in-engine walking animations and text windows -- and back. In the same scene. Basically what I'm saying is that if you've never played one of these, it's much less "immersive" and much more "video gamey" than you're imagining.

But what a game. I passed a few dozen hours leading a contingent of scumbags-with-hearts-of-gold through a convoluted gangster soap opera full of betrayals, redemptions, posturing, overdramatic gestures, and profoundly awkward dates, and played Boxcelios 2 in the Club Sega arcade on Theater Square when I didn't feel like doing any of that stuff. Even if you never think of Kamurocho as a real place, it's a great place to hang out.

This review is based on a retail copy of Yakuza 4 provided by Sega.

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