What made last year's Yakuza 3 great was its story. I started out as a reformed Japanese mobster (see: yakuza) who didn't want trouble, but people messed with my orphanage so I got back into the life of beating people's asses. It was a fun ride that allowed me to look past the game's flaws. Yakuza 4's story is split between four different characters who each have a part in the major plot but don't come together until the very end. Each tale is constrained with little room to grow and the overall plot is longwinded and a bit hard to follow.
In short, the lackluster narrative totally knocks the wind out of the best thing this series had going for it.
Yakuza 4 is a mafia movie in a JRPG/brawler hybrid. Through four acts and a short finale, I played as a loan shark, an escaped convict, a jaded cop and that reformed yakuza I mentioned a while ago. Each time I'd start as one of these guys, I'd begin leveling him up, learning new moves, and figuring out his personal history.
The majority of their habits boil down to punching and kicking dudes in the face. As I'd walk down the street in Tokyo's fictional red light district (the spot where nearly the entire game plays out), random people would run up and challenge me to brawls. This is that JPRG element at work. I get in the random battle, smear my opponent's blood on my knuckles, and bank experience points to make my character better than ever. As I wail on guys, I'm filling a Heat meter that allows me to execute devastating finishers like bashing a guy's head with a baseball bat.
It's fun and brutal. There's a sick satisfaction to the final blow I'd land and the slow motion tumble my victim would take while spewing out blood. I dig the fighting, but boss fights are cheap. The AI could pull off moves I couldn't and never missed a move due to the lackluster targeting like I did.
If you're keeping track, all that fighting is largely untouched from Yakuza 3. Nearly all the Heat finishers I've seen are recycled from the last game. The new characters come with unique abilities -- the policeman can parry and the con man can bulldoze people -- but outside of a few person-specific moves, it's well-worn territory. Not to mention that I spent all this time leveling-up a character just to switch to another and do it all over again to unlock very similar moves.
I had similar complaints about the last Yakuza -- you're just doing the same thing over and over again -- but back then, the story carried the game. Here, that doesn't happen.
The story plays out in cutscenes that can be pretty awesome and pack a punch. Watching the convict Taiga Saejima walk into a ramen shop and blow more than a dozen guys away or breakdown in front of a deathmatch crowd as he recounts what it's like to kill a man are truly awesome moments. Yakuza 4 has more than a few of these "OMG" sections, and I love it for that.
Those moments are lost in a lot of ho-hum ones, though. I'd be watching a cutscene and everything was going swimmingly, but then it would fade to an in-game shot with no voice acting that made me read the dialogue by clicking through text boxes. This is a buzz kill that dashes the movie vibe. Other times, I found the overarching plot so cumbersome that I'd be confused as to who the onscreen characters were talking about.
Keep in mind, this is a Japanese game with no English dub, so you have to read subtitles and keep up with character names. As I started meeting people 15 hours in and at the same time seeing references to people from the first hour, I got turned around.
What Yakuza 4 nails is that overall sense of how crazy Japan is to Westerners like myself. Characters heal in the game by drinking energy drinks or scarfing down food, and these provisions can be picked up by walking into the city's lovingly detailed minimarts. The four men I controlled can interact with lots of storefronts in the game from restaurants to arcades to batting cages, but the ones that are sure to get the most recognition are the pole-dancing venues, the massage parlors and the hostess clubs.
Pole dancing is self-explanatory (no nudes), but paying for a massage starts this crazy mini-game where the female masseuse is talking in sexual innuendos and dancing across your screen. The player's job in this is to tap buttons to keep a meter from hitting either extreme and then twirl the analog sticks for a "finishing move." Hostess clubs, if you didn't know, are paid companionship locales in Japan. Here, clients walk in, hang out with a girl, and pay her for her time. There's no sex; it's like having a girlfriend you never touch but listens to your problems and cheers you up. In Yakuza 4, characters can start romancing these ladies to fill in their heart meters and maybe take them out for a date. Will it turn into something else? Keep paying them thousands of yen and you'll find out.
Both of these events are crazy and I love them. Yakuza 4 is filled with little bits of awesome like these. When I was running around the city as the police officer, two random guys asked me to fill in on their triple date and I had the chance to help or ruin the dude's chances with his crush. (I ruined them, of course.) It was great, if not totally archaic in the fact there was no voiced dialogue for the scenes so everyone was just gesturing wildly while I was reading.
In addition to these random events and locales that let players take a spa day or play pachinko, Yakuza 4 packs new character-specific quests on top of the oodles of side missions. The police officer will get calls via his radio that he can respond to, the convict can teach students at a friend's dojo, and the loan shark can train hostesses to bring in more cash at his hostess bar.
That's the biggest pro to Yakuza 4: there is so much to do in this game. If you get burnt out by the story (or just want to fool around in adventure mode after beating the tale), you could sink dozens and dozens of hours into collecting every hostess' business card, polishing off all the side missions, and trying to make the best fighter in Japan. If that's not your style, you could explore the new sewer system, try to find all the "revelations" that unlock new moves or compete in the PlayStation Network high score challenges in the game. A bunch of bonus modes even unlock once you beat Yakuza 4.
There's a ton to do here and that's great, but it all suffers from an antiquated feel. That's what will keep me from doing it all. Whether it's the lack of voice work for encounters or the shoddy targeting, Yakuza 4 feels and looks like an old game -- it looks like Yakuza 3, and that was originally released on the PS3 two years ago in Japan. Animations are stiff, the streets of the city all run together and look the same, and SEGA hasn't pushed this title forward with the elementary stuff other open world games have been doing for years.
The map in Yakuza 4 is a great example of this; it's super-dense and hard to read. When I want to go somewhere, I have to pause the game, cycle through the legend, and then map out in my head the turns I'll need to take to get to my destination. If I get in a fight along the way, chances are I'll come out completely discombobulated and have to restart the mapping process. Why -- in four games -- have the developers not added the ability to drop a pin so I can track a path to my destination? It would make exploring so much less of a chore. It's simple stuff like this that makes the game feel out of place in 2011.