By Tyler Lubben / January 8th, 2015
|Release Date||March 15, 2011|
|Age Rating||ESRB – Mature|
With the recent (incredibly exciting) news that Yakuza 5 will be making its way to the West, I thought it’d be fun to jump aboard the hype train and take a look at SEGA’s previous entry in the series. Yakuza 4 is the first title in the franchise that I played personally, buying it on a whim after one of my favorite “Let’s Play” channels featured it. It can be hard to nail down in terms of a genre. It’s a beat ‘em up, it’s open world, it’s an RPG, it’s (sort of) a dating sim. More than that, though, it’s simply a game that you can get lost in given the sheer volume of activities available to you. Plus, a fairly simple, yet incredibly satisfying combat system ties the whole experience into a fantastic little package that you’ll love every step of the way. Before we get to all that, however, let’s back up and take a look at just what this game is all about.
Anyone who has played a Yakuza title before will know that the series follows the story of former Tojo Clan big wig, Kazuma Kiryu. However, if, like me, you’re jumping in completely green, there’s a handy Reminisce Mode that lets you view not only the game’s cutscenes as you unlock them, but also offers brief summaries of the previous three titles to help you get up to speed. It isn’t totally necessary to watch these videos, but, as the stories and characters of these games are intimately connected with Yakuza 4, you really should take out the hour or so to watch these summaries if you want to fully appreciate the plot (or if you just want to get the trophy for viewing them).
While Kiryu’s previous adventures were strictly solo affairs, Yakuza 4 mixes things up by giving players not one, but four playable protagonists. Aside from Kiryu, players will fill the shoes of good-hearted money lender, Shun Akiyama; escaped death row inmate, Taiga Saejima; and not-quite-crooked cop, Masayoshi Tanimura. Each character also plays vastly differently from the others, both in combat abilities and what areas they are able to explore. Akiyama favors fast kicking attacks with different taunting and dodging abilities. Saejima is a juggernaut-like character; brute forcing his way through opponents with powerful, uninterruptible charging attacks. Tanimura is more counter-centric than the others; letting opponents make the first move, then throwing them off balance and leaving them open to attacks. Kiryu is all about flashy, damaging moves. He has an attack for just about any situation, with special moves that are even able to put the hurt on whole groups of enemies at once. The main problem here is that it seems as though the game assumes you have played the previous games, as Kiryu’s arsenal of attacks is much larger than his compatriots’ — many of them probably carrying over from his previous adventures. I was more than a little intimidated by the sheer amount of possibilities in his attacks, so it took me a while to get comfortable using him. Initially, you’re locked into only using one character while you play through their section of the story, though, in the game’s final hours, you’ll have the ability to freely switch between them.
As with the previous games, Yakuza 4’s story takes place in a fictional Tokyo red light district known as Kamurocho. With four individual characters going through vastly different trials on their way to the finale, it can be a little tricky to talk about the story without venturing too far into spoiler territory, but let’s see how we do. While each character has his own unique motivations and goals during his own section, each of them is invariably tied to a mysterious woman named “Lily” who is being pursued by the Yakuza for some unknown reason. Meanwhile, a string of murders among high-ranking Tojo and Ueno Sewa Clan members is fanning the flames of war between the two groups – both of whom are seeking to keep and gain control of Kamurocho, respectively. Along the way, each of our four heroes uncovers ample amounts of intrigue, betrayals and twists that all seem to stem from a sinister plot that was first set in motion over 25 years prior. I do have to point out, though, that, sometimes, the story can err a bit on the side of the preposterous, with some of the choices that characters — both good guys and bad — make seeming to go against the grain of common sense, but, with such fantastic gameplay, I’m willing to overlook the odd plot hole here and there.
At first glance, the Yakuza series might not initially seem like an RPG, but there are some very strong elements of the genre present. The key way of leveling up your characters is by fighting enemies, which actually appear as random encounters as you walk around the streets of Kamurocho. These street toughs, gang members and Yakuza thugs will challenge you to a fight when you approach them, at which point a crowd will gather to create the artificial walls of an arena. You will then have to beat the group of enemies into submission, either with your fists, various weapons found in the area or even those wielded by your opponents themselves. Because of the strict gun laws in Japan (I assume), it is rare that you will see firearms used in these fights. As such, while your beatings are merciless, they are not lethal.
And when I say “merciless,” I mean it. As you deal damage or taunt, a blue “Heat” meter under your health will fill up. Once it has reached a certain point, a blue aura will begin emanating from your character. While your Heat is active, powerful finishing moves can be performed with the Triangle button. Most of these are context-sensitive, so opponents will have to be positioned in different ways before you can pop them off. These attacks can range from realistic to completely over-the-top. Of course, more outrageous attacks also tend to be more damaging. Simple attacks, such as slamming a guy’s head into a wall or stomping his face when he’s on the ground, are quite easy to perform. However, something a bit more complicated and impressive, like grabbing a guy by the leg, flinging him high into the air and clotheslining him on the way down, will take a little more finesse. It pays to master these more complicated attacks, though, as your damage output can become catastrophic for your opponents. After you win a fight, your opponent will apologize for attacking you and hand over either an item or a few thousand yen.
While it is true that the majority of enemies that players will come across in the game are little more than fodder for their furious punches and kicks, each hero will also have to fight through at least one gauntlet of tougher goons at one point or another. These can get to be quite challenging, especially if players aren’t properly equipped with healing items, defensive equipment or weapons. The game also contains a few more powerful boss fights, though it isn’t often that these guys will be all that different from the standard enemies walking the streets of Kamurocho — aside from extra health or some kind of gimmicky weapon. True boss characters, like long-time rival, Goro Majima, and his subordinate, Daisaku Minami, do offer a true challenge with unique, powerful attacks and miles-long health bars, but these fights, sadly, are few and far between.
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