Sega’s Yakuza 4 is the latest installment in the Yakuza series of video games. If you aren’t familiar with this franchise, think of it as Reservoir Dogs but in Japanese, taking place exclusively in Japan, more specifically in Tokyo, Japan. Yakuza is a throwback to games with lots of story (cut screens galore) and then sprinkled in with a few fights here and there, just to make sure you are paying attention. The game makes you feel like you are watching a computer animated movie, more so than playing a game.
The story plays out like one of those movies that feature many characters that eventually all cross paths during the climax. The climax being an event that triggers a reaction or emotion bringing them all together to fight a big bad. In particular, the core of the game circles around the Tojo Clan, a constant from the beginning of the series that carries through to Yakuza 4.
The game starts off with an installation screen that flashes the bios of the main characters of the game. Each one has their own story: The crooked cop, the loan shark, the convict awaiting his sentence, and the original Yakuza - Kazuma Kiryu. You will become very well versed with these characters and how well they pose, because the installation screen takes about 15 minutes to complete! As the loading bar creeps its way to the finish line, you’ll see the same loop of these characters over and over as well as their bios. Once the installation is done, the game gets started and you can choose to play on either easy, normal, or hard mode.
Like I mentioned earlier, there are four characters at work here and you begin the story as Akiyama, just one of the four characters you’ll play during the course of the game. Akiyama, aka Mr. A is a loan shark with a heart of gold. When the game opens, his office looks like it was ransacked but actually, Akiyama is just a slob with a devoted secretary. Hana, his secretary keeps him in line and can throw a good karate kick of her own. As the game progresses, Akiyama rolls off his couch, grabs a cigarette and picks up his phone to an irate Hana who reminds him he needs to pick up money due for a loan. This entire sequence takes another 20 minutes of my time and basically sets the tone for this entire game… which entails lots of very slow moving cut scenes interspersed with some blood and violence . Every single word of dialog is in Japanese which is fine, but the subtitles are way too small to read, even on a large 42″ plasma. When you aren’t involved in a cut scene and are just interacting with other characters in the game, there are a few grunts in Japanese but mostly it’s just reading subtitles in silence because no voice actor was hired to speak Japanese in these scenes.
Once the game gets passed these intrepid ‘mini-movies’ you finally get to kick butt, and these fighting scenes are very reminiscent of the good ole’ brawlers of yore like Street Fighter or Dead and Alive. As the assorted mobsters, street gangs and loan shark’s who are annoyed at you for stealing their business ( or so they claim) challenge you to a fight or in some cases you challenge them, you get to give them a good spanking. Once you become engaged in fighting, the screen fades into fight mode and some Japanese wording comes onscreen, and then a health bar pops up and you see it deplete or stay the same depending on how hurt you get. Beating up enemies is rather easy – button mashing is the key and controlling the camera. Both functions are extremely easy. I was most excited by the game when I actually got to fight. The controls where smooth and you get to witness some great kick and punch combination’s if you hit the right buttons in order on your controller. Once you give the gangs, mobsters, etc… the proper beat down, you’ll come in contact with the police, and other friends and foes along the way to continue the storyline. You will also be chased by the cops via rooftop on occasion or you can chase someone down who pickpockets you. I enjoyed throwing objects at my mugger while trying to catch him. You don’t mess with my wallet!
Yakuza 4 really immerses the player in the Japanese lifestyle and culture for good and – bad. Good is the bright lights and big city look and feel, and even the Ramen noodles (for restoring health of course). The bad – is the loose way it depicts women as just sex objects. There is even a scene where a joke about rape is laughed at by one of the main characters. There are also a few notable shout-outs to Sega during gameplay. For instance there is a Sega theater that will require you to meet up with another character in the game or you’ll overhear conversations from people in the street talking about Sega. There was also a conversation overheard by the Akiyama character about blogging – which I found particularly humorous. Each character can do a series of mini-games that will keep you busy for hours and will earn you skill points that will enhance your fighting skills (when you actually do get to fight).
The storyline involves a femme fatale, organized crime, crooked cops, money and everything in between. I honestly dazed in and out of the story because of all the reading and its slow-pace. The graphics are a bit dated and washed out, yet the characters hair still looked very detailed and luscious. There were points of the game I did enjoy – running around, talking to people and beating them up is always fun when you’re stressed out. However the cut scenes seemed to go on and on and the lack of voice work during interacting with other characters left me frustrated from all the reading. Actual action happened too far and few in between these movie moments which is too bad, because when it did happen, it was the highlight of the game.
The release of Yakuza 4 seems bittersweet at the moment given the circumstances in Japan right now. But one thing is for sure, if the game does nothing else, it will remind players of a country that is rich in culture with its big city and bright lights. However, as a video game, if Sega spent some money on voice work and made the cut scenes faster or offered the ability to skip them altogether – than Yakuza 4 would have been a great game to sit and knock a few sake’s back too. Yakuza 4 for PS3 retails for $53.99 on Amazon.
The Good: Fight scenes are loads of fun and you can spend hours exploring and eavesdropping on conversations that will make you chuckle. Mini-games such as playing at the arcade, batting cage, or helping damsels in distress will keep you entertained. Casual gamers who would rather watch a game than play it will enjoy it. Will take you 90 hours to complete if you play every mini-game and side task.
The Bad: Graphics seem a bit dated. Cut scenes are way too long and can’t be skipped, not too mention they’re also often down-right cheesy. There are not enough fight scenes for my taste. Subtitles are way too small for a game that requires you to read all the dialog.
Update 3/17/11: Lo and behold there is a way to skip the cut scenes. Go to options and there is an option to skip the cutscenes. You just have to turn it on.