Every city has secrets, and the fictional Tokyo pleasure district of Kamurocho has more than its fair share. Its streets are a home to criminals of all stripes, from lowly punks to powerful gangsters. Behind its doors, you can find shops and arcades, massage parlors and illegal casinos, bath houses and hostess clubs. Yakuza 4 largely follows in the footsteps of its predecessors, weaving a soap opera tale of honor and betrayal with simple but satisfying brawling action. But it departs from the earlier games in the series in a meaningful way. Whereas Kazuma Kiryu carried the earlier games entirely on his own gloriously tattooed back, Yakuza 4 features four terrific playable characters whose distinct personalities and interwoven tales make for the series' most engaging entry yet.
Yakuza 4 continues the epic crime saga told in its predecessors, and should you want to bring yourself up to speed on the events of the earlier games, lengthy recaps that employ cutscenes from those titles are included here. Until now, yakuza-clan-chairman-turned-orphanage-operator Kazuma Kiryu has been the series' sole hero. But Yakuza 4 introduces three other men who share the spotlight. There's Taiga Saejima, a stoic man who has served 25 years in prison for murder and whose often expressionless demeanor slowly reveals a profound depth of emotion. Masayoshi Tanimura is a complex corrupt cop who operates by his own sense of right and wrong, even if he doesn't always enforce the law. Perhaps the best of the new protagonists is Shun Akiyama, a moneylender who charges no interest and who helps those nobody else will. His charming swagger and expressive nature make him a refreshing departure from the other, more serious heroes.
Yakuza 4 spends a lot of time telling its story--so much, in fact, that at times you'll long for an end to the chitchat so that you can get back to actually playing the game. It doesn't help that a great deal of the story is advanced through voiceless cutscenes in which characters use canned animations to express themselves. By contrast, the fully voiced and animated cutscenes, of which there are also many, are great, full of cinematic flair and energized by the excellent Japanese voice acting. (There's no English language option.) The plot is so intricate that you'd need to make a chart to keep track of every individual and organization that's involved, but the particulars are less important than the larger-than-life personalities at play, and even when the details get confusing, understanding the motivations of the main characters is easy. The story is full of betrayals and stunning revelations, and the heightened, soap opera quality of the emotions that run through it make it a compelling one overall, albeit one that isn't always told in an engaging way.
The story benefits a great deal from its focus on four distinct heroes. You start out playing as Shun Akiyama, before moving on to Saejima's tale and then Tanimura's. You gain insight into these fascinating characters during your time with each of them, and you move from one to the next before any of them start to feel overly familiar. The game smartly builds up anticipation by saving your chance to play as the series' marquee hero for last, when it brings the narrative threads together for a very satisfying climax. It wouldn't feel like a proper Yakuza game if it didn't involve Kazuma Kiryu tearing his shirt off before a final battle, and Yakuza 4 does not disappoint.
Brawling is at Yakuza 4's core, and like the story, this aspect is also better for being shared among four heroes. Each has his own fighting style: Akiyama relies on kicks that defy gravity and human anatomy; Saejima is a hard-hitting bruiser; Tanimura excels at parrying enemy attacks and catching foes off guard; and Kiryu is the most well-rounded of the bunch. As you run around the streets of Kamurocho, you're constantly accosted by yakuza, street punks, and other troublemakers, all of whom attack you on the flimsiest of pretexts. Making them regret this decision is a lot of fun, thanks to the responsive controls and the ease with which you can string together devastating combos.
These thugs are generally so weak that you could defeat them with your eyes closed. But you wouldn't want to. The combat is lacking in challenge but overflowing with spectacle. Battles abandon any pretense of realism in favor of an outrageously over-the-top style. Filling up a special meter lets you pull off powerful moves called heat attacks. As you perform these, the camera often shifts to emphasize the brutal impact or bone-breaking nature of your actions. The most entertaining heat attacks are those that incorporate the weapons and items you can appropriate from your enemies or just pick up off the street. Some of these are vicious, while others, particularly those involving impractical weapons like beer crates, are comical. You earn experience as you fight, and as you level up, you can spend points to add new techniques to your current character's repertoire, bringing a good sense of progression to the action.
Unfortunately, the combat is so easy for the majority of the game that it may leave you ill-prepared for those few battles in which enemies are powerful and actually block and evade your attacks. Should you fail a section a few times, though, you're given the option to temporarily reduce the difficulty, so one way or another, you can continue progressing through the story. The weapon crafting system from Yakuza 3 is still present, and as before, it feels largely superfluous. The results aren't worth the time needed to track down the specific components for a modified weapon, and like the weapons you grab on the street, crafted weapons can withstand only so much use before they fall apart.
On occasion, you find yourself chasing after or running away from people rather than fighting them. During these sequences, your character runs automatically as you steer him left and right. These chases are awkward because of the artificial way that you continue to run even while pressed up against wall. Furthermore, the unnatural sense of momentum carrying you forward makes it feel more like you're controlling a vehicle than a running man, and if you pursue someone long enough, it becomes clear that he or she is running in circles rather than trying to get away. Fortunately, these sequences don't crop up too often, and when they do, they don't take long to complete.
As much fun as the brawling is, it wouldn't be enough to sustain this game across its lengthy running time. But Yakuza 4 is positively bursting with other things to do. Kamurocho, the neon-lit neighborhood where Yakuza 4 takes place, offers amusements for people of all ages. There's bowling, batting cages, and billiards. You can try to win toys using the UFO catcher at Club Sega or play an (unremarkable) arcade shooter and upload your scores to online leaderboards. Karaoke is a simple rhythm game made entertaining by the fun of seeing tough guys like Kiryu give enthusiastic performances that are presented like music videos. You can play mahjong or shogi, visit the docks and go fishing, stop by the "traditional Irish pub" for darts, or hit the links for a decent game of golf. You can gamble at the pachinko parlor on a cool Virtua Fighter-themed machine or visit a secret casino where you can try your luck at a number of games, including blackjack, baccarat, roulette, Texas hold 'em, cee-lo, and cho-han.
Additionally, some characters can engage in special pursuits unique to them. As the owner of a hostess club, Akiyama can recruit and then micromanage his hostesses, choosing what they wear, doing their makeup, and training them in the finer points of customer interaction. Saejima, on the other hand, can train apprentice fighters for victory in a tournament. These activities are too dry to be very compelling, though, boiling down to simple stat management as you select menu options to train the hostesses or fighters in the necessary areas without pushing them too hard. The awkward hostess training game is the only side activity you're required to partake in for any length of time, and the need to jump through a few hoops in Akiyama's role as club owner does bog down the game's first few hours a bit.
If you're seeking pleasures that are more adult in nature, Kamurocho has those, too, though they often end up being absurd rather than mature. Visiting the hot springs involves playing table tennis against a female opponent, though it's in no way a simulation of actual table tennis. To perform the smashes that are the key to scoring, your character needs to build up his heat gauge, which he does by focusing intently (and in slow motion) on his opponent's breasts. The massage parlor minigame is equally silly. Here, a masseuse whispers sexy nothings as you tap buttons and rotate thumbsticks in an attempt to receive maximum relaxation from the massage. More engaging than either of these distractions is the option to visit hostess clubs and develop relationships with the women who work there. As you spend time at a club with any one of the seven hostesses in the game, your goal is to select conversational responses that please her, order food and drinks that she likes, present her with gifts that make her swoon, and eventually take her on after-hours dates that she enjoys. Each has her own personality, and it can be fun to develop connections with these women. Like Kamurocho's other amusements, this one can be largely ignored, but it offers those who want a side of romance with their punching and kicking a chance to have it.
These activities also help make Kamurocho feel like what it's supposed to be: a pleasure district that caters to desires of all kinds. And that freedom to engage in those activities you enjoy and avoid those you don't makes Kamurocho an enjoyable place to spend time. It also feels like a living neighborhood, full of stories and secrets, thanks to the optional side quests you frequently come across. These range from the lighthearted, like helping a nerd develop a sense of style so he can have better luck with the ladies, to the more serious, like assisting a woman who's being stalked by her dangerously unstable ex-boyfriend. Most memorable of all are the revelations you sometimes discover. These are ludicrous incidents that your character can observe by completing quick-time events, learning new techniques in the process. These incidents involve a perverted kidnapper, an amazingly agile panty thief, and other colorful characters, and each of the four characters captures the wisdom the incidents reveal in his own funny way. Kazuma writes entries about his observations in his blog, for instance, while Saejima pulls out a hammer, a chisel, and a block of wood right there on the street and rapidly sculpts the technique he has just learned. It's amusing, absurd, and perfectly in keeping with the exaggerated nature of the entire game.
Unfortunately, the visuals don't foster the sense that Kamurocho is a bustling district as effectively as they could. The neon signs and storefronts create an authentic sense of place, but the pedestrians who stroll the streets often visibly pop in, and the way people stagger and fall to the ground when you run into them is awkward and unconvincing. The sounds of the city are similarly lackluster. The music that emanates from certain stores is a nice touch, but the constant generic murmur of voices doesn't change believably as you get nearer to or farther from crowds, and the lack of voice acting for most of your interactions makes that aspect of the game feel dated.
But despite these issues, Kamurocho is an exciting place. On its own, no one element of the game would be remarkable, but combined and buoyed by the juicy story and the excellent cast, they make Yakuza 4 much more than the sum of its parts. Regardless of how much or how little time you spend with any of the many side activities on offer, Yakuza 4 is a long and rewarding game, delivering much more of the outrageous brawling and equally outrageous melodrama that are staples of the series and introducing three memorable new protagonists who can each stand proudly beside the charismatic Kazuma Kiryu. The unusual combination of flavors Yakuza 4 serves up won't be to everyone's tastes, and some elements work better than others, but if you have an appetite for over-the-top action and intense emotion, you can find satisfaction on the streets of Kamurocho.