From Software's "Yakuza 4" is the latest entry in the long-running series which is known for dropping players into a faithful recreation of modern-day Japan -- or, more precisely, a fictionalized section of Tokyo -- and letting them run free as a crime drama plays out. The new release is no different on that level, though some fundamental changes, including a rotating cast of characters, brings some new wrinkles into the series.
"Yakuza 4" follows four individuals -- including series regular Kazuma Kiryu -- and their doings around the fictional Kamurocho district of Tokyo, modeled after Shinjuku's real-life red-light district Kabukicho. As you've probably figured out, the foursome of playable characters are all connected by a particular story thread, one that ultimately brings them together for reasons that won't be spoiled here. The gist involves a conflict between rival yakuza clans, starting off with a relatively innocuous encounter that quickly spirals out of control. As you progress through each character's individual story, more details are filled in about the many interrelated people and events.
It's A Long Story...
"Yakuza 4" is filled with content; even just focusing on the main story and nothing else is a 25+ hour proposition, though as it has been widely reported, six of those hours are consumed by cutscenes. Fortunately, there is a dynamite story tying everything together. The combination of strong voice acting (Japanese w/ English subtitles only), surprisingly lifelike facial animations and clear, sharp writing combine to deliver an epic tale that manages to be engaging enough to hold your attention for all of those many hours.
See The Sights
The Kamurocho district falls short of Liberty City... but not by much. The visuals are a bit more colorful, more stylized than they are in "Grand Theft Auto 4," but the level of detail on display in the large, open map's tight, crowded streets is impressive. The same goes for the interiors, which are numerous-- at least one quarter of the buildings you come across can be entered, probably more. Store shelves are packed with colorful, familiar products, arcades and bars are stocked with all of the expected accoutrements, even the lone underground DVD shop is wallpapered with product. You can't interact with most of it, but the level of detail only becomes more apparent as you explore all of Kamurocho's nooks and crannies.
Fun To Play
At base, "Yakuza 4" begs comparison with an unlikely gaming classic: "River City Ransom." You run through an open world, scrapping with any gang members you come across in random encounters, and then visit a variety of shops to spend money you've collected on recovery items, stat-boosting accessories and weapons. For those who aren't familiar with "RCR," imagine a cross between the depth and story of "Final Fantasy" and the play of "Double Dragon." Yeah, you want to play that.
The story is quite long, as was already mentioned. You can make it last much longer too, thanks to the insane abundance of secondary activities you can participate in. Arcade-style crane games, pachinko, Mahjong, darts, pool, a full gambling parlor, karaoke... that's just off the top of my head. There are also character-specific activities; for example, Shun Akiyama owns a hostess club, so one of his secondary tasks involves recruiting a girl and building her up to #1 status in a disturbingly addictive minigame that plays like a Barbie dress-up RPG.
Too Much Variety?
With a game that offers as much depth as "Yakuza 4" does, there is always the danger of placing too many temptations in front of the player, ultimately taking them out of the story as the hours pile up. There is nothing inherently wrong with offering all of that variety, but in light of some of the other issue's it seems that more time could have instead been spent on building a more perfect game. Then again, the quirkiness is at times part of the charm here-- the question of whether or not there's too much variety is very much a subjective thing, depending largely on your tolerance for the depth you normally see in a JRPG.
There's no prettying this issue up: the map in "Yakuza 4" is going to frustrate you again and again. While the "GTA"-style minimap is fine, there is no option for dropping a marker on your map, either for specific side missions or creating one on your own. Some sort of checkpoint marker would have been very welcome, as locating some of the sidequests literally involves dragging a cursor all around the map until you find the name of the location you are looking for. That map becomes much more familiar over the course of many hours, but the absence of any sort of checkpointing outside of story-specific missions (which are clearly marked) is regrettable.
The story in "Yakuza 4" unfolds as a mix of fully animated cutscenes, complete with voice-acting, and entirely text-driven dialogue box exchanges. This is to be expected for a game so large. However, some of the choices made for what gets a proper cutscene and what doesn't feel inconsistent. There are fully voiced scene that serve more to add flavor than further the plot and, similarly, there are key story scenes -- such as a significant character's departure at the end of the game's first act -- which unfold entirely as text.
"Yakuza 4" is not for everybody. That said, it is an excellent game that delivers an insane amount and variety of content alongside a truly engaging story and rewarding core gameplay. If you are already a fan of the series or like a little action mixed in with your JRPG, this is a no-brainer. Even if you don't, it is worth a rental, especially if your gaming preferences lean toward deep open-world experiences. There's little chance of you finishing the game in the time you spend with it, but a rental provides a far more complete feel for what sort of game this is than any demo possibly could.