The name Yakuza is derived from Ya, Ku, Za, the Japanese characters for 8,9, 3, a losing hand in the Japanese card game Oicho Kabu. It is said that only an individual of great cunning and subterfuge could turn such a bleak situation into a victory and it is from this notion that the families of Japanese organized crime have taken their moniker. This is precisely the hand that the Yakuza game series has been dealt as it tries to cross the vast expanse that separates Japan from the West, a distance that is far more than just water. Before a fair review of Yakuza 4 can even begin to examine the merits of the latest installment in a series that has been around since 2005, it must first acknowledge the fact that to most Western readers, the franchise itself probably needs an introduction. The Yakuza series, known as Ryu Ga Gotoku (Like a Dragon) in its native Japan is an open world action adventure title set in the electric streets of a fictional Tokyo district. It follows the rise to power of protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, from lowly beginnings to the seat of fourth Chairman of the Tojo clan and beyond, a path paved with great betrayals, victories and loss. Kazuma, or “Kaz” to a cast of memorable allies, has reached near legendary status as becomes the “Dragon of Dojima” over the course of a series now entering its 4th iteration. The Yakuza series has met with great critical acclaim and financial success in the land of the rising sun. But what has made it strike such a chord in Japan is precisely what has made it elude recognition in the West. Fundamentally, beneath the intricate scripts, impeccable voice acting, and simple yet rewarding fighting engine, Yakuza is above all things, a love letter to Japan and Japanese pop culture and this is one letter that has been, up until now, mostly lost in translation.
As such, it is only fair that I mention that I, too, had let the Yakuza series pass me by over the years. I had caught wind of it through friends and heard its accolades on message boards but had always promised I would give it a go during a dry spell at some indeterminate time in the future. It wasn’t until I was invited to attend a Sega preview event for the impending release of Yakuza 4 that I was able to spend some time with it. Leaving the event a few hours later, I had to have more: more of the neon lit landscapes, more of the larger than life mobsters in their shiny suits and sunglasses, more of the visceral yet versatile combat system. But more than any other thing, I needed more of the characters, the excellent writing delivered by highly produced voicework in the game’s native tongue, the kitschy sense of humor and endearing melodrama. As Yakuza 4 was not to arrive for another month, I decided to do some homework to prepare. A few days later, I got my hands on a copy of Yakuza 3 and sat down to enjoy the game I had been promising myself I would try for over a year.
Over the next month I found myself completely engrossed in the heady and electrifying Kamurocho, the faux-Shinjuku district which serves as the backdrop for the life and times of Kazuma Kiryu. Yakuza 3 was thrilling. It was a fist pumping brawler, a stat crunching RPG, a dating sim, and a hilarious, exciting and emotional soap opera all in one. I became attached to its characters, its unique sense of humor, and its drama. At its conclusion, I was a convert, one of the many Americans staring self-righteously at some invisible deity of market justice and decrying the game’s lack of a fan-base in the West. I could not wait to get my hands on the newest installment. Well, it has arrived and while it does not provide a revolutionary experience when compared to its predecessor, what it does provide is the further refinement of the great gameplay, production values and story that made me fall in love with Yakuza 3.
To me, Yakuza is first and foremost about its story and on that end, Yakuza 4 does not disappoint. Yakuza 3’s plot started on an intimate note, dealing with a personal threat to the orphanage where Kaz has pseudo-retired after the events of the prior games. The player enjoyed a few quiet and domestic moments settling in to life as a father figure to a cast of endearing children before the plot explodes, unfolding into a complex tale of warring Yakuza factions. In contrast, Yakuza 4 is immediately grandiose in scope. For the first time, series mainstay Kazuma makes some room in the spotlight for three other leads, each of whom bring with them their own fighting styles, dedicated side quests and, most importantly, personalities. This broader emphasis has allowed the writers to spread their wings and the final tale is rich and unforgettable As the game opens, you take control of Akiyama, a moneylender with untraditional investment policies which soon bring him fist to face with a few small-time Yakuza. What initially begins as a drunken brawl ends in surprisingly calculated and coldblooded murder, and Akiyama is pulled headfirst into a Yakuza conspiracy that spans two decades and ascends from the lowliest of street thugs to the most powerful leaders of law enforcement, government and organized crime. The tale only accelerates from here. Seemingly disparate plot threads are woven together by the appearance of a mysterious and beautiful woman who crosses paths with each of our four heroes, driving them all deeper into a complex web of cunning, violence, and hidden agendas at the end of which they ultimately discover intense loyalty to one another.
Following Akiyama’s tale we take control of Saejima, a convicted former yakuza awaiting the death penalty for the mass murder of 18 members of a rival family two decades ago. Saejima serves as the silent but tragic soul of the story, his subdued demeanor at odds with his brutish strength. There is also Tanimura, a corrupt but charming police officer who is initially a flippant and unlikable character but as his true motivations and obsessions rise to the surface, even he becomes a sympathetic lead by game’s end. These three are followed, at last, by the main course: the Dragon of Dojima himself, Kazuma Kiryu. Taking control of Kazuma in the game’s final chapter feels like settling into a favorite pair of shoes, comfortable, mobile and empowering. In the game’s penultimate scene, the four protagonists come together for the first time and stand side by side at an explosive and gratifying finale uniting them against their common enemies. Yakuza 4, like its predecessors, is about its characters and these are characters who you truly believe are real. Their facial animations and physical gestures make them more concrete and convincing than nearly any other game of its type.
The four-character structure is not simply a narrative device, but is also a gameplay mechanic as well. In addition to their unique combat styles, each of these characters offers his own gameplay elements on the world of Yakuza. Akiyama manages the aforementioned hostess club which is a game in of itself, Tanimura must frequently respond to crimes in progress that he receives through his police scanner and the fact that he speaks Chinese and Korean allows him access to parts of Asiatown not accessible by the others. Saejima is on the run from the law and uses the cover of the city’s rooftops and sewers as his passage from one part of town to the next. Kaz must constantly respond to combat challenges from rival Yakuza gangs seeking to take down a living legend. Each chapter differentiates itself from the others in notable ways.
The final character is the city of Kamurocho itself. By game’s end, you will know its side streets and its storefronts as you know your own town. The city is an HD metropolis of verticality. A large and diverse populace swarms through busy streets lined with storefronts and merchants. The foot traffic is a constant presence, pedestrians always reacting in surprising and amusing ways to your character. Voicework is delivered in Japanese with English subtitles. There is no English language track nor should there be, for Yakuza, like its namesake, is unapologetically Japanese. And being unapologetically Japanese is what Yakuza does best. When you are not bashing thug’s heads into walls, motorcycles or each other, the fictional district of Kamurocho is a virtual tour of Japanese culture. Stores are stocked with Japanese magazines that can be perused, restaurants have seemingly endless dining options of Japanese cuisine, and even the karaoke joints have a selection of J-pop to choose from. Having myself made the journey to Tokyo once before on vacation, Yakuza 4 is quite simply, the closest thing to a trip to the streets of Tokyo one can experience without the plane ticket and jet lag.
At its core, Yakuza 4 is a brawler and a brawler is only as good as its fighting engine. Fortunately, Yakuza’s is easy to master but robust. Typically, your protagonist goes one on multitudes with mobs of angry rivals and no punches, kicks, or headbutts are pulled. The arsenal of context sensitive special moves at your finger tips are bone crunching, have a real sense of impact, and are a (often hilarious) sight to behold. At times a tangle in Yakuza 4 feels like the most over the top WWE matches with chairs, traffic cones, golf clubs and (!) motorcycles being brought down with teeth shattering force on an adversary’s head in multi-angle slow motion that never ceases to provoke cheers from onlookers. Each of the four characters has his own fighting style, from Saejima’s slow but brutish wrestling moves to the fleet acrobatic feet of Akiyama. You level each of your fighters with a simple experience system leading to newer and more elaborate moves, and if fisticuffs are not your style, there is an arsenal of melee weapons (and a handful of projectile ones) that may be purchased, built, modded and wielded against your enemies.
Some may recall that when Yakuza 3 came out in the US a year ago, it made more headlines amongst the gaming press for its omissions rather than the already bursting contents of the package. Gone were the hostess clubs, mahjong and a number of other extremely Japanese diversions enjoyed by the Japanese fan base. Sega of America was concerned that they might be too controversial (hostess clubs) or simply perplexing (Mahjong) for the western audience. The outcry amongst the small but dedicated fanbase was swift and loud and so now, a year later, Yakuza 4 arrives on American shores completely intact, with all of the bouncy hostesses and esoteric Japanese board games you could ever hope for. Yakuza 4 is a package that is bursting at the seams with content. Out of the box the game carries more gameplay than most single-player games can ever hope to obtain even with multiple DLCs. There is a 20-30 hour main adventure for starters, but at any given moment you can (and will) be distracted with endless side quests and mini-games. There are karaoke clubs to frequent with a date or a companion, hot spring saunas with table tennis matches against jiggly female opponents, an extremely suggestive and hilarious massage minigame where the ending can only be described as happy, batting cages, train-your-own-fighter tournaments, and casinos with fully realized card tables and slots. The aforementioned hostesses are an enjoyable and decidedly Japanese take on the dating sim and multiple and varied ladies are available to woo and date (within the structure of the hostess club concept) and there is even an entire hostess club itself to manage by matching your hostess’s attire, personality with client’s preferences (its only creepy if you think about it). If you can’t get enough of the combat engine, there is the battle arena, NPC sidequests, gang battles and, my personal favorite, hilarious photo opportunity revelations in to seek out which inspire more lavish finishing moves for your characters. It is simply a staggering amount of content and even having reached game’s end at 30 hours, my completion is only at 20%. To genuinely exhaust the sites and sounds that the complete Yakuza 4 package has to offer would be a truly awesome feat. It is a rare game that I revisit after witnessing the conclusion of the main story, but Yakuza 4 never fails to entertain me after the finale, a fact that is certainly supported by multiple post-game modes including new adventure plus and a free-roaming mode. This is quite simply the game to be stuck on a desert island with.
While I could continue to sing Yakuza 4’s praises, I must acknowledge that it is by no means a perfect game. It continues in its steadfast adherence to several dated gaming conventions of the past. Huge amounts of dialog are not voiced and must be read through scrolling text, a fact that is completely perplexing when a story sequence will be fully voiced, revert to text for a few minutes and conclude in full voice. This was true of its predecessors but its all the more infuriating as the HD “next-gen” era reaches maturity. Secondly, Yakuza 4 uses volumes of assets from Yakuza 3. Whole fighting animations, NPCs, and locales are recycled directly from its predecessor. This is mostly forgivable because of the absurd amount of content already in the game but it certainly smacks of laziness on the part of the developers. Furthermore, whereas Kamurocho itself is sleeker, more populated, more layered with new rooftop and underground segments, the absence of other major locales makes the game more claustrophobic than Yakuza 3, which spread its narrative and gameplay across two distinct cities. I miss the seaside orphanage (which admittedly does make a brief cameo) and the virtual Okinawa where Kaz had retired as they offered a nice contrast and escape from the neon urbanity of Tokyo. There is also some frustration that comes with the game’s structure being spread over four separate characters whose moves and experience do not build on each other. Just as you are finally getting comfortable with any given character, your experience having been built over hours and now accessing his upper level moves, the chapter concludes and you are off to the next character and starting from scratch. Compared with playing the endgame of Yakuza 3 with a single, well-leveled and versatile Kaz, there is an inherent frustration with this side effect of the larger menagerie of lead protagonists.
But all said and done, I have spent the past two months in the Yakuza universe, spread across the 3rd and 4th game and it has been an extremely gratifying experience; and one which is bookended with even a touch of sadness by the lack of an imminent new release in the series. I already miss these characters, their relationships and their world. If I can convey one thing here, I urge Western gamers to give Yakuza 4 a chance. For the uninitiated, it should be mentioned that Yakuza 4 comes packed with an excellent and thorough cinematic recap of the prior games so those interested in the series should not be intimidated by not knowing the back-lore. Yakuza 4 is unquestionably the most robust game in the series and is one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in years. It is truly time that Western gamers begin to realize that this Yakuza’s losing hand may just win them over.
Fun Factor: A well written, well acted plot full of endearing and fascinating characters is only the beginning, seemingly endless diversions from the main quest allow you to stretch your legs with a multitude of game mechanics. Combat is simple, fast and entertaining.
Difficulty: Minimal on normal difficulty level and manageable on Hard, Yakuza’s difficulty is not meant to strain you, it wants you instead to progress through the game’s multitude of sights with only the occasional need for continues during boss fights.
Length: A main quest that can be completed in 20 hours or so, but how much time you choose to spend with the game’s many other pleasures is entirely up to you.
On the Negative Side: Only an evolutionary upgrade from Yakuza 3 rather than a revolutionary one, tomes of text will strain your eyes and, at times , patience.
Bang for your Buck: There are few other places you can milk so much value out of $60, Yakuza 4 is a gift that keeps on giving.