Review in Progress: Yakuza 4

We share some thoughts on our time in Kamurocho in advance of the full review.

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I've spent a few dozen hours now with Yakuza 4, running around the streets of the noisy, neon-lit pleasure district of Kamurocho. When not kicking dudes in the face and beating them bloody with everything from signs to sofas, I've been engaging in a host of pastimes both innocent and adult in nature. The full review of this latest entry in Sega's gangster saga will be up on Monday, but I wanted to share some of my experiences with you now.

First and foremost, Yakuza 4 is absolutely, completely crazy. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has played the earlier Yakuza games, but if you're new to this series, be prepared for a lot of ludicrously over-the-top fight choreography and a ton of larger-than-life characters. Perhaps the biggest thing that sets Yakuza 4 apart from its predecessors is that you now play as four such characters, rather than just one. The inscrutable Kazuma Kiryu, hero of the earlier Yakuza games, is still here, but he's joined now by three other memorable protagonists. There's Shun Akiyama, a loan shark with a very unconventional way of running his business; Taiga Seijima, a convicted murderer whose quiet exterior hides a passionate soul; and Masayoshi Tanimura, a corrupt cop who operates according to his own moral code.

Each of these four characters has his own fighting style, and his own personality. Like the earlier Yakuza games, the story here is an intricate tale, packed with betrayals and stunning revelations. The way it's told isn't always exciting--many scenes substitute dry text and canned animations for voice acting and prerendered visuals--but it's overflowing with emotion. Like a good soap opera, the heightened emotions and constant surprises make this story an engaging one. And the fact that it hops from one fascinating character to another at regular intervals keeps the story moving until the credits roll.

You have to clobber hundreds of dudes before you reach the end, though. As you run around Kamurocho, thugs constantly approach you and demand your money or just insult you, which inevitably leads to fists and feet flying. Showing these punks the error of their ways is rarely challenging, but it's fun nonetheless. The responsive controls make pulling off insane, physics-defying combos easy and enjoyable, and you frequently level up, which gives you access to new moves to expand your arsenal.

These tough guys enjoy relaxing in the company of women who are paid to talk to them.
These tough guys enjoy relaxing in the company of women who are paid to talk to them.

But there's more to Yakuza 4 than just brawling. A lot more. Kamurocho is a pleasure district, after all, so it makes sense that on its streets, you find video arcades, bowling alleys, and batting cages, along with more adult forms of entertainment, like massage parlors and hostess clubs. These latter locales were removed from Yakuza 3 when it was released outside of Japan, but Yakuza 4's international release contains the full, uncompromised experience. Spending time with hostesses is a dating sim in which you give gifts, choose responses in conversation, and participate in activities like karaoke (a simple rhythm game) in the hopes of making the hostesses fall for you. Visiting a massage parlor triggers a minigame in which you try to receive as much relaxation as possible from the massage, if you know what I mean. Elements like these certainly won't appeal to everyone, but they do enhance the sense that this is a pleasure district you're hanging out in, and with the early minor exception of a brief bit of time spent in a hostess club, you can avoid these aspects of the game altogether if you prefer. You can also while away the hours (and earn money and prizes) playing poker, blackjack, darts, billiards, mahjong, and a number of other traditional Japanese games of skill and chance.

Regardless of how much or how little time you spend with these activities, Yakuza 4 delivers much more of the outrageous brawling and juicy melodrama that are staples of the series and introduces three memorable new protagonists who can each stand proudly beside the charismatic Kazuma Kiryu. Our full review on Monday will have more detail, but suffice it to say that if you're a fan of the series, or if you're open to experiencing some emotionally charged, hard-hitting action with a distinctly Japanese flavor, I think you'll enjoy your time in Kamurocho.

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