The fourth episode in the series doesn't exactly redefine the franchise, but it will still please its fans.
The major change compared to the previous titles is the addition several playable characters. Apart from Kazuma Kiryu, the protagonist of Yakuza 1, 2 and 3, you get to play as Taiga Saejima, an escaped convict, Masayoshi Tanimura, a crooked cop and Shun Akiyama, a loan shark.
You will play as each character separately and soon discover that their stories are cleverly woven together. They all chase different things, which eventually leads to a big conspiracy.
Kamurocho remains largely the same, but has received an overhaul in the shape of two city new levels, roofs and basements. Yes, you can now run around on top of and beneath buildings. It is however restricted to a few narrow areas, which is a little disappointing. It would have been nice to see something more substantial, since the developers made a big deal out of it when marketing the game. Apart from that you'll have the good old hostess bars, convenient stores, karaoke hangouts, restaurants and the regular set up of perverted (but incredibly entertaining) activities you have come to expect from the series. There are also a ton of side-quests out there for you to explore and complete.
In terms of gameplay it's essentially Yakuza 3.5, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The fighting system worked just fine in that game, and it works just as well here. Kazuma's fighting style will feel familiar to any long time fan of the series. The new additions come in the shape of the three new playable characters, all of them with their own fighting style. Saejima utilizes sluggish boxing, Akiyama uses his legs and Tanimura is somewhere in between. Just as in the previous games the combat is mainly based on hand-to-hand combat, so don't expect much gun gameplay.
You can upgrade your characters and attain new abilities with the experience points you earn by completing quests, fighting yakuza etc. The system has been updated and now allows you to go your own path when choosing abilities as you don't always need to upgrade the lower level moves to attain some of the more advanced ones. There are some restrictions, but overall it gives you more freedom to choose what you want and don't want to upgrade.
However, the fighting can get frustrating at times when you have several enemies beating you up while two more are firing at you with guns. It does feel a little unbalanced at times, but with a little determination, you'll get through it.
To conclude the review, one could say that Yakuza 4 doesn't bring many new elements to the table. The developers have played it safe and kept the basic formula. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as Yakuza 4 is still an incredibly enjoyable game with enormous amounts of content and an interesting story. If you were introduced to the franchise with the release of Yakuza 3 and didn't like it, then you might want to pass on this one. If you've never played a Yakuza game before I urge you to pick up Yakuza 3 and try it out. If you enjoy it, then you'll probably enjoy this as well. If you loved the other games in the series then this is definitely something for you, as it will give you more of what you want.
*Review based on the Japanese version of the game.