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Gaming Review

'Yakuza 4' (PS3)

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Released on Friday, Mar 18 2011

Gaming Review: Yakuza 4

© SEGA


Also available on: N/A
Developer: CS1 Team
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Action RPG

If you think GTA's Liberty City is the most crime-ridden corner of the world of gaming, you've probably never visited the fictitious Tokyo district of Kamurocho. The setting behind Sega's Yakuza franchise is all about instant gratification. An illicit playground of hostess clubs and seedy casinos, this really is a gangster's paradise. Crooks of every stature frequent this turf, from petty thugs to near omnipotent crime lords, but few have seen as much action as series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. While Kiryu has been the focal point of previous games, the latest entry Yakuza 4 boldly introduces three additional playable characters who share the spotlight, and their inclusion elevates the game beyond its predecessors.

The latest sequel picks up shortly after the events of Yakuza 3, advancing the complex crime drama woven by its forbears. With the option to view key cutscenes from previous games via the main menu, this is a great jumping-on point for newcomers. Players start out controlling arcane loan shark Shun Akiyama, but it isn't long before ex-con Taiga Saejima enters the field of play, followed by crooked cop Masayoshi Tanimura. Kiryu's segment is saved until last to ensure a climactic conclusion. Each character brings something different to the table, and the game jumps between swiftly enough to maintain a captivating pace. Of the debutants, Akiyama is the most interesting addition. The moneylender's cocky demeanour is a welcome alternative to the hardboiled facades of his counterparts, and his acrobatic fighting style feels the most satisfying.

Combat plays a central role in Yakuza 4. With each character holding different attributes, there's plenty of variety on offer here. Saejima is a powerhouse capable of delivering devastating knockout blows, Tanimura specialises in deft counters, and Kiryu is a capable all-rounder. It seems you can't travel more than a few yards in Kamurocho without some street punk or rival picking a fight with you, so it's a good job these encounters are always gratifying. Dealing out combos, special moves and hitting your opponent with anything that isn't bolted down, the brawls are as fun to engage in as they are over-the-top. Charging up a gauge at the top of the screen enables you to perform powerful assaults called heat attacks. Pulled off to maximum efficiency, these can be both crippling and spectacular. When you take an enemy down in this manner, the camera shifts to a close-up to give you a better view of your foe's facial features becoming one with your boot or sometimes even a brick wall.

Beating rival gang members to a bloody pulp is certainly entertaining, though rarely challenging. Despite the variety on offer here, button-bashing will dispatch low-level thugs, and even boss battles seem to value spectacle above all else. When the occasional difficulty spikes do throw a skilled opponent in your path, this will almost certainly throw you off guard. More balance in this area would not have gone amiss. The more fights you win, the more experience points you rack up. These can be used to unlock new abilities, adding some welcome depth. The customisable weapons mechanic from Yakuza 3 - which enables you to modify your arms by gathering certain components - makes a return, but is barely worth the excessive time and effort it takes to gather the resources.

If Yakuza 4 was all fist-fights and shakedowns, it would get old fast. Fortunately it's not. Kamurocho is a vast, vibrant neighbourhood of vice with an endless stream of things to do. Minigames of all varieties can be found in every pocket of this district, from rhythm-action karaoke to basic shooters in the virtual arcades (which even have their own online leaderboards), combat is very much the tip of the iceberg. Other activities include pachinko, mahjong and billiards, as well as blackjack, baccarat, roulette and Texas hold 'em for those with a penchant for gambling. Adult-themed side-quests, such as the erotic massage bonus game, come across as more juvenile than anything, while the in-depth hostess management almost could have been a game in its own right (albeit an ultimately pointless one).

Above all, this is a plot-driven affair. The tale it weaves is an engaging one of betrayal and redemption involving a far-fetched conspiracy between Tokyo's police force and its criminal underworld. Playing out across four narratives really helps the plot resonate, but with so many supporting cast members involved, it stretches far beyond complex into convoluted territory. Much of the story is told via cinematic cutscenes that rival the runtime of a Peter Jackson movie when combined. So be prepared to spend a lot of time watching video footage, and you might want to have a pen and paper handy to keep track of the snowballing plot threads.

Concerning presentation, Yakuza 4 is generally competent, if rarely spectacular. The rain-drenched, neon-lit streets of Kamurocho have a stylish near-future aesthetic to them, but some of the character models look rough around the edges. The animation also appears awkward at times. At least the cutscenes are something of a treat. The decision to include a Japanese voice track with English subtitles pays off (even though the translators have taken a few liberties), giving the game the feel of an epic foreign movie. Rock music is used effectively on the soundtrack, but it seems that Sega will never learn that J-pop only goes down well in its country of origin.

In summary, Yakuza 4 is not without its lesser qualities, but we are prepared to overlook these since the developers have invested a lot of effort into taking the franchise forward. The game really tries to tell an epic tale enhanced by bold cinematic and strong voice acting. Even if it doesn't always hit home, this is far from another half-baked sequel, and perhaps most importantly, it's a lot of fun to play. The combat mechanics feel satisfying, and there's more than enough to do outside of this to keep you hooked for some time. It may not be to everyone's taste, but if crime sims are your thing, you'll find plenty of Eastern promise here.


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