In 2011, I started to review Yakuza 4 for this very website. Countless hours later, but with the game unfinished, my PS3 died, taking my save game with it. So I never ended up reviewing it. Today, I make amends for this.
Last week, I found my copy tucked away on my collection shelf and, with not much else to play at this time of year, decided to try again. Within five minutes I was smiling. Within an hour, Id' endeavoured to see it through and finally finish it. Both the game and the review.
I am so, so glad I did.
If you've never played a Yakuza game before, they're tough to describe. They are what we call in Australia a bit of a "dog's breakfast". There are elements of brawlers, of RPGs, of life sims, of Pokemon. Most of all, there are cutscenes. Hours upon hours of cutscenes. It's a weird mix, and whether you enjoy the game will depend on not just how much you enjoy each "ingredient", but how you're able to cope with how the game switches between them.
Tying it all together is an epic soap opera, a tale of brothers in crime, love, betrayal, expensive shirts and beating a man's teeth out using a pushbike. You take control of four different playable characters over the course of the game, each of their actions and perspectives offering a different insight into a shooting that took place 25 years earlier and the subsequent underworld rumblings that took place.
I could talk about Yakuza 4 for almost as long as it took me to finish it (around 30 hours), but to keep things digestible, I'm going to break it down.
- I have never played a game in which combat is so thunderous. It doesn't matter if you're ten minutes or ten hours into the game, whenever one of your characters throws a dude's face into the wall, or hits it with a baseball bat, or smashes a noodle joint sign over his head, you will wince. There's a combination of camera angle, movement and sound that's just awful.
- If you've ever visited Tokyo, or would like to visit, this is one of the best ways to experience it virtually. No, really! The developers have gone to insane lengths to recreate the sights and sounds (if not exact geography) of Tokyo's Kabukicho red-light district, and whether you want to buy noodles, go to a hostess bar, play some mahjong or just walk around buying CC Lemon and magazines from convenience stores, you can do it.
- Yakuza 4 isn't just meticulous in its presentation of the physical world, it makes sure we see the main characters from all sides as well. It's not until you see a major character napping on the couch, or buying some groceries, that you realise how few games show anything but a human brooding, shooting or screaming.
- The story is looooooooooong. Like, expect to spend anywhere from 30-50% of your time sitting down listening to (or watching) cutscenes. I got caught up in the story so I enjoyed the breaks, and appreciated the fact that it was well-constructed and in many ways the centrepiece of the game, but if all you want to do is punch things, be warned.
- Each game in the series tries to bring something new to the table, and in Yakuza 4, it was the addition of rooftop sections. In a few instances, they're a nice way to soak up the sights and find some quality weapons, but for the most part, they're the location for some extremely frustrating chase sequences.
- Some people will tell you this game is like a Japanese GTA. It's not, so get that out of your head immediately. In fact it's nothing like it. Play Yakuza 4 if you like brawlers, JRPGs or gangster movies, not if you want to use jetpacks or cars or get access to vast open spaces.
- The game includes the ability to watch old cutscenes (with narration) explaining the story. Unless you have literally just finished Yakuza 3, you'll need to watch at least the most recent of these, or you'll have no idea what's going on.
- There's a weird split in the presentation of the game. The spoken, animated cutscenes are pretty nice (even by 2014 standards), with detailed facial models and some of the best voice acting you'll hear in a video game (Sega gets famous Japanese actors in to play roles). Outside of this, though, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a PS2 game, especially when it comes to player animation and the textures on generic NPCs.
- Aside from cutscenes, here's what you spend most of your time doing: running from location to location talking to people (or performing basic sidequest stuff). Sometimes, you'll have a random combat encounter on the streets. Most times, when you get to a destination that's not your hideout/home office, after some talking and scowling there'll be a more elaborate fight, maybe against a boss. Occasionally, you'll engage in mini-game stuff like training a hostess or chasing a criminal.
Yakuza 4, like any game in the series, isn't for everyone. There's a few bars you probably need to clear, chiefly an ability to enjoy/endure long cutscenes, but also to be able to switch quickly from long periods of inactivity to moments of fast, timing-based combat. An interest in crime drama would help, too.
If you don't get over at least one or two of those, forget it. But if you do, and you've never experienced the quirky joys that this series can bring, then get on it. With Sega seemingly unwilling (or unable) to bring the next main game in the series (out since 2012 in Japan) to the West, it might be your last chance to play a Yakuza game without having to learn Japanese in the process.
And if you do pick it up, and enjoy it, well...make sure you tell Sega how much you enjoyed it, and join the chorus of those asking for an English translation of Yakuza 5.
Note: The game's pretty tough to find new from major stores these days, but there are plenty of copies going cheap on eBay.