Kazuma Kiryu. For many gamers, that name doesn't mean anything, but for those of us who have played any of the Yakuza games, it's a name that we can't forget. The charismatic yakuza enforcer turned 'good guy' is a legend in the fictional Japanese town of Kamurocho. The first three games were seen exclusively from the eyes of Kazuma, but part four, which came Stateside this month, introduces three new playable characters, some gameplay and presentation tweaks, and a whole new story. Bottomline? If you enjoyed the other games, you'll love this one and must own it. If you didn't (that's a you problem), I don't think 4 will change your mind. Ready to visit Kamurocho again? Hell yeah...
Before getting into details about Yakuza 4, I would point out that unlike some franchises, Yakuza is one that really and truly builds from itself sequel-to-sequel. Whereas many games and their sequels these days more or less just share the same name, Yakuza does an outstanding job of connecting characters, locations, and events from one game to the next. So, clearly, you're going to get the most out of this experience if you have played the previous three Yakuza games. Even if you have played the other games, it's probably been a while, and you might be foggy on the numerous story details. Fortunately, for newcomers and veterans to the series alike, Yakuza 4 includes the same Reminisce mode that part 3 had where you can watch videos from the previous adventures to fill you in.
That said, Yakuza 4 ties very well not only to Yakuza 3, being set just a year after the events of 3, but also makes very interesting connections back to events in the original adventure. Not only are you back in Kamurocho, with many favorite characters like Date, Majima, and Kage returning for key roles, but the $10B scandal from the first adventure is a big part of the story in 4. The story in 4 goes back even further though, to an infamous day in 1985 when one of the new playable characters, Saejima, murdered eighteen members of a rival family.
I thought the developers did a great job not only with the story, but also with how it's told. As always, most of the storytelling is done in (sometimes lengthy) cutscenes and scripted dialogue between characters. But, for the first time in the series, players control other characters besides Kazuma. I'll admit, that decision had me worried; I was comfortable and happy with being just Kazuma and I didn't know how the new guys would pan out. My concerns were quickly cast aside once I got to playing, though. I realized what a great design decision adding these new playable characters was. A new character has his own origin, appearance, fighting style, and story. It lets the developers really experiment a little and show players other sides of Kamurocho that you just couldn't have shown had they stuck solely with the established Kazuma. The gameplay definitely felt a little fresher than 3 simply because of this change.
As much as I like the unconventional loan shark with a heart that is Akiyama, the brute convict Saejima, and the semi-corrupt yet righteous cop Tanimura, I was most eager to see Kazuma in action again. Ha, it was such a head-trip the first time I encountered Kazuma as an NPC! Eventually you get to play as Kazuma but I think Sega made a wise choice in saving him for the last third of the game.
Change Can Be Good, Even When Unnecessary
So what do these four badasses have in common anyway? Well, for most of the game that is actually nicely hidden from you. As you play through each of their stories (four chapters per character), you can start to connect the dots. Those dots connect everything from 1985 to 2005 (when Yakuza took place) to present day, making this quite a massive story.
The common thread that sets everything in motion is a young, mysterious woman. She visits Sky Finance, the loan business ran by Akiyama, to request 100M yen -- with no ability to pay it back. Needless to say that intrigues Akiyama and he finds himself very interested in the woman and her life. Saejima's story is one of seeking the truth and of revenge as his execution date nears. Meanwhile Tanimura, the community safety beat cop, is also on a search for truth about the events in April of 1985. And finally Kazuma gets reigned in by current day events and those that started in '85 -- forcing him to once again leave the Sunshine Orphanage in Okinawa and return to Kamurocho in Tokyo.
Playing as the different characters was a treat and allowed you to experience Yakuza in pretty much a whole new way. While the gameplay is very similar between all of them, numerous nuances abound, some more obvious than others. One major difference is in fighting style -- Akiyama uses swift kicks, Saejima is a brute street brawler, Tanimura is light on his feet and uses Aikido, and of course Kazuma uses his entire body to bash foes. I was most familiar and comfortable with Kazuma, but both Tanimura and Akiyama were a lot of fun too. Akiyama is a bit frustrating in that he doesn't use his fists at all, but Saejima was the least of my favorites. When you're "on" with Saejima you're on, but his slower, lumbering (albeit very powerful) attacks are bad news in at least three of the boss fights he gets into. You can take a whole room of regular thugs down with him no problem but several of the boss fights were a real pain. In the grand scheme though, that's a minor gripe -- just the fact that there are four different fighting styles was really cool.
All four characters upgrade and stock inventory separately from one another too which I liked. In fact, the whole leveling system has changed a lot in Yakuza 4. It's still based off of XP of course -- and XP is earned by completing main story events, optional substories, dining around Kamurocho, and even just by talking with some NPCs. The major difference in 4 is that each level has a required value of XP, and once you get that amount, you are automatically bumped to the next level. With that, you get increased Health and Heat meters, as well as Soul Points. Previously, you had to spend XP to upgrade your Health and Heat meters, but now that's handled for you. Instead, it's up to you to spend your Soul Points on a variety of battle techniques known as Abilities.
The long list of Abilities for each character is viewable from the Pause menu; a picture and brief description of each upgrade is shown, as well as any prerequisites. I like this upgrade system better than the previous one because I was able to unlock more techniques and known what I was getting before I made the purchase too.
The best way to get XP and money to spend at hostess clubs and eateries is by roaming around Kamurocho. You will undoubtedly encounter street gangs and yakuza as well as NPCs that will offer up numerous substories. Basically, if you don't already know, there's a million things to do in this game, just like with the previous Yakuza titles. Thank goodness I'm not a completionist gamer, because I would go nuts trying to do everything in Yakuza 4. I think my highest completion percentage of any of the four games in the series is around 60%, which of course included the main story and as many collectibles and side missions as I could stomach. I really applaud Sega for continuing to offer such an expansive adventure in this day and age of short games that charge you up front, and then again for DLC. Even though I may never make the time to fully complete all of the optional stuff in Yakuza 4, I think it's outstanding that so much content is included here.
Part of what makes Yakuza 4 so daunting from a completionist perspective is the sheer size of the city. In previous Yakuza games, you might travel outside of Kamurocho to Sotenbori or Ryukyu -- you don't really leave Kamurocho in 4, but, the available play area has greatly increased. New shops are open (yes, multiple hostess clubs not seen in part 3), new mini-games such as pachinko are available, and now you can also go on the rooftops of many buildings and even underground.
The neat thing about the rooftops is that they offer a cool view of the city, something that you just haven't seen before. They are also home to a few chase sequences, which make an improved return from 3, as well as some NPC interaction and collectibles. The underground is compromised of a mall, with its own lockers in addition to those on Taihei Blvd, and a massive parking garage. Bigger still are the sewers where many homeless dwell. Eco-taro, a new NPC I liked, lives in the sewers and trades important inventory items for various pieces of trash you find throughout the city (which really boosts Saejima's story as he doesn't have much money). Bottomline, even though you don't leave Kamurocho, it's bigger than ever and there is a tremendous amount of optional things to do and collect to greatly extend your experience. Oh, and construction of Kamurocho Hills is at last near completion!
In most other ways, 4 is very similar to the previous games, which isn't a bad thing. There are some other adjustments like with the chase sequences from 3, though. For one, you no longer have to press R2 to sprint, and you can also grab items like a bottle to throw at the person you're chasing to slow them down. You can also use a Heat escape when you are on the run and in dire straits, and I'm pretty sure that's something that part 3 didn't have. But yeah -- just about everything else that I haven't mentioned yet is very similar to 3.
From a presentation perspective, Yakuza 4 is a fine looking game. I wouldn't call it cutting edge, and it's not a hell of a lot better than 3, but it didn't need to be. Keep in mind this game came out over a year ago in Japan, too. That said, facial expressions seemed more detailed than they were in 3, and the water effects from rain and pools of water in the sewer were gorgeous. The soundtrack, effects, and voice acting were all great; the only one that made me cringe was supposed to have (Hana).
To the summary...