There’s probably no fans that do it rougher than Yakuza fans in the west. While one could point to Shenmue fans getting similar treatment, Yakuza fans now in the series 10th year, continually get teased with new games in Japan that get released much later in the west if at all. For Yakuza 3, the western version even had a bunch of side content cut out much to the fans dismay. For diehard western Yakuza fans, learning Japanese might be the only solution to this problematic treatment. And here in the week of Tokyo Game Show 2015, announcements have been made in regards to two more games Yakuza 1 Remake (Kiwami) due Jan 2016 and Yakuza 6 Fall 2016, which means the cycle of begging for the games to come out in English starts again. At least we have Yakuza 5 to look forward to later this year.
But for now, its time to turn our attention back to the last game in the series (not counting the spin-off Yakuza: Dead Souls, a rather weird side game with zombies in Tokyo). Yakuza 4 possibly started the best feature of the series, the shift from controlling just the one character in the game, to breaking the story into four chapters each with a different character to control. The result is that the game feels like 4 separate short vignettes all the while doing a great job at maintaining enough main story beats to move the overall plot forward. The move to four characters also has gameplay implications as it allows for different fighting styles for each character. The first character the player controls Akiyama, is a drunken fighter, while Saejima fights like a brawler, Tanimura has a Kung Fu influence while the series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu has his traditional street fighter style.
The story is probably the best yet for the series. While my previous favourite was the more personal story for Kazuma Kiryu and his blood brother Nishiki in Yakuza 1, Yakuza 4’s ability to weave a story between the four main characters takes a real talent to get right. There’s Akiyama the Kamurocho loan shark whose 100m yen stash of money plays a pivotal role late in the game. Saejima who 25 years ago was ordered to kill the Ueno family head, escapes prison before his execution to head back to Kamurocho (a replica of Tokyo’s red light district Kabuki Cho) to find Katsuragi, the man who ordered the hit and uncover the truth. Meanwhile Tanimura working undercover in Kamurocho is searching for his father’s killer and uncovers an abundance of corruption leading to an unlikely crossroads 25 years ago centred on the Ueno head assassination. Kazuma Kiryu is handed an accounts book from Hamazaki who escaped prison with Saejima detailing the police corruption and the officers who authorised the money laundering. With that evidence, Kiryu heads back to Kamurocho to stop the villain and put an end to the corruption.
The player is generally free to explore the streets of Kamurocho with places of interest marked out on the map. The main story quest is most often marked as a main red dot on the map and usually involves some jawing, men with large egos and a brawl of some sort where you take out your anger on some virtual punching bags. Aside from that the player has a bunch of side stuff to fill out his time like going to the batting cage to practise his swing, get deeply involved in mahjong or even going out to town and chatting up some hostess girls in a club (a very Japanese salary man thing). There’s about twenty of these side activities scattered around town and I can tell you there’s a lot of it as I took 20 hours to finish the main story while only completing 6% of the total content.
One of the reasons I play Yakuza is that the game is pretty hilarious and doesn’t take itself too seriously outside of the main story. In the tradition of the past games, there are random encounters on the street where somebody wants to pick a fight and often the reasons are silly. The NPC will say something like “What’s wrong with that stupid look on your face?” or “Give me respect, by that I mean give me all your money.”. After you beat them to a pulp they change their tact and usually bow meekly saying “Oh you are so strong. Leave me alone. I’m so sorry. Here take this.” and proceed to give you everything they’ve got. It’s almost like a virtual ego boost.
Speaking of fighting, while the fights themselves still have a few problems, they seem to be getting better and better. For one, controlling four different characters is fantastic and helps with much needed variety in the game. They also control quite differently too and have different movesets and timings to learn. The series still needs some sort of ‘lock on’ system or soft aim lock where the player is not punching thin air all the time. Particularly later on in the game as it gets more difficult, just missing the opponent by a fraction usually leads to an opportunity for them to hit back hard. The ‘L2’ button to move the camera behind the player is a bit of a poor solution to this as its generally slow and doesn’t help much with fast moving opponents. Four games in, the brawl’s are still super fun. Complementary to all the player’s moves, the player can pick up a wide range of weapons in the surroundings. Beating the enemy down with a bicycle or baseball bat or lead pipe still feels as good as it did in the first game. The heat moves which are available after charging up the heat meter also seem to have gotten nastier and you can grab enemies and smash them into walls and guard rails with a lovely bashed in face effect. They are especially cool when you end the fight with a heat move as they fall to the ground with an obligatory slow motion effect.
If you’re looking to get into this series, I can wholeheartedly recommend starting with Yakuza 4. its the most complete and best version in the series thus far. The game contains all the cutscenes from the previous Yakuza 3 games if you want a ‘short’ overview of the story, but with Kazuma Kiryu’s role being a lot smaller in this title, it feels like it can stand on its own without having to know too much of the back story. Of course, if you had always intended to start from the very start, the other games are still very good games, though I believe Yakuza 1 and 2 on the PS2 are quite dated now and look rather blurry with its 640×480 resolution.
Score: 8.5 beef bowls (Gyudon) out of 10