More like a lengthy analysis but anyway, excellent game!
This is one of the best video game purchases I've made in a while. I still can't decide which I like better, this or Yakuza 3. As soon as I started playing with Akiyama, I couldn't help but be reminded of some cross between Oh Dae-su from Oldboy and Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop. I believe the moment I knew I was going to love the rest of the game was the cutscene when the appropriately stereotypical mob goons got really hot-headed with him and Akiyama stayed cool-headed and retorted with smug insults. I mean how much better can you get than that? Not only does it brings us into the world of that fantasy, but with main heroes that likable and charismatic, it made me want to see the whole story through with them.
I'm just before the very final section of the game, and I can see how some of the reviews thought that Yakuza 4 had a ponderous quality to the story-telling. It didn't stop me from being engaged though. But the catalyst that makes it work so well, that makes me want to keep watching the story unfold from betrayals to reunions is the CHARACTERS and their RELATIONSHIPS. If I had to choose two things that marks the game's strength, those would be it. And those absolutely go hand in hand. The literal things that happen along the way probably wouldn't mean as much if all these people (including NPCs) had no real depth, life, or passions. Almost all the characters in this game have a personal meaningful struggle and I can't help but empathize with them. And in order to convey all that meaning, is the technical prowess portrayed throughout the in-game cut scenes. Correct me if I'm wrong, but for some reason, I don't remember the rendered faces in Yakuza 3 being as beautiful, subtle, and meticulous. I'm talking about the cut scenes with the voice acting, not the text boxes. Sega has really done something wonderful to surpass the uncanny valley. Our heroes are no longer just angry, or just happy, or just sad. There are many facial hints to their expressions that it's almost lifelike to me. The recognition of irony in Akiyama's face with a subtle smirk, the look of barely concealed savagery with Saejima. At some points, during some of the game's greatest revelations (pun intended), I was disappointed that when a character found out something extremely important, the game sometimes resorted to the text box sequences.
Much of the story plays out in Japanese melodramatic fashion...and that's a good thing! It's a pity that we have this idea that melodrama is something not to be taken seriously due to its over-the-top nature. Just because something isn't merely slice-of-life doesn't take away from the truth of what characters do and feel within the construct of the fantastical, living, breathing world Yakuza 4 gives us. And truth is much greater than being real. Realness is a confined quality, where truth can span the entire spectrum of human experience. So when a character stays behind to buy time so that someone else can escape, confesses to a 25 year old sin, and yes, gets into a fist-fight for the sake of honor and life's duty, there is a clear, strong, and palpable reason why these characters do what they do. In that way, I couldn't help but think of many other great stories that we've been blessed with: Macbeth, Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, many Kurosawa films etc. It doesn't have to fit into our world because the world of Yakuza 4 is so expressive and vibrant that it can hold all those typically "melodramatic" things.
Something else very striking to me is this "institutionalized sexism" I've been hearing about. I'm not talking about this to go on a moral rant or anything but some of it made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I don't remember feeling that way at all in Yakuza 3. In time, you'll have played through two mini-games: mini RPGs where you train young girls to be good hostesses and men to be fighters, respectively. In order to make a girl a good hostess, you have to dress them up appropriately, teach them social interaction, and cater to the club-goers' needs. It's like a rather insidious Barbie dress-up game. If you choose the option to allow them to go on a break, they talk on their cellphones like what one would think frivolous little girls would do. On the other hand, when you train a male fighter, you improve his strength, speed, and to an extent, assertiveness. The gender roles are very clear and yet it's the male NPCs in this game who usually come off very approval-seeking and lower in status while they pursue women like trophies. Let me just be clear: none of what I said is a criticism of the game, but I do think it's worth noting. Heck, western games have their own version of it, most likely to satirize it. The fact that this game calls out a real facet of Japanese culture is certainly a credit to it.
The actual gameplay is not too different from the last installment. I get bored easily with fighting games (at least 1 vs. 1 style fighting games like Soul Calibre etc.) but I never get tired of beating the crap out of punks who talk a lot of smack. I suppose what makes it all the more exciting and satisfying, particularly with the boss fights, is that from a narrative standpoint, the bad guys usually have a low expectation of you despite how bad-ass you are. They keep talking as if they can easily kill you and easily outnumber you, and all that does is make me want to fight that much harder. As far as battles among the main players, there is always such a profound mutual respect between the "good" guys and the "bad" guys, that I can't help but admire their individual appeal. Sure, the main adversaries may be twisted by our standards, but it's because they have a vision of how they see their world filtered through their own sense of justice. No two dimensional typical Yakuza bad guys here except for the henchmen which is pretty appropriate. My favorite moments in the boss battles have to be the scripted HEAT action sequences. It's so interesting to me that through a couple of well-timed on-screen guided button presses a la Shenmue or Heavy Rain, it can make you so emotionally invested in the over-the-top drama of battle. When a great punch or kick connects because you happen to hit X at just the right moment, you can't help but feel responsible for it, especially the final battles.
There's been a lot of debate regarding whether someone should start with earlier Yakuza titles if they're new to the series. In my opinion, Yakuza 4 is superior to Yakuza 3...but you should still start with Yakuza 3, or even earlier games. If I had a PS2 compatible system, I would be on those myself (except for the first one, I just can't imagine playing with dubbed English voices). The reason I say this is because much of the emotional pay-off that comes with Yakuza 4 is structured upon the journey you take with Kiryu in the earlier games. You have a greater appreciation for his struggles, as well as his relationships with the likes of Majima, Daigo, and particularly Hamazaki. Sure, for the sake of convenience there are recaps of the first three games and while I appreciate Sega putting those in for newcomers, I imagine it just wouldn't be the same as playing through Yakuza 1-3, or at least 3. When you finally get to the orphanage, you can't help but identify emotionally to what that place means for you considering that in Yakuza 3 you spend a lot of time there. I sort of equate it to watching a show like LOST starting from season 2 or 3. Yeah, I mean you can do it and have your friends recap the particulars of the first season, but it's just not the same satisfying feeling of going through so much history with familiar faces over the course of four games.
That you only spend a fraction of the game playing as Kiryu shouldn't detract you from the game. If anything, it makes it all the more satisfying to reunite with him when you finally get to play as him. Anyway, I realize this is long and probably didn't talk about things in length such as gameplay, sound, etc. but you need to pick this game up. This is one of those games that I would probably tell people is more like an "experience" that you need to have. And when you finally beat this game, you get a trophy aptly called "Thank You". When game creators are gracious toward their fans (like MGS4, Uncharted 2, and now this), it really shows throughout the entire experience. I literally felt like I spent a whole week in bustling Tokyo (Kamurocho).