It was a strange experience to re-read the piece I wrote on the firstÂ Yakuza. There is a sense of desperation to the writing and I am clearly looking to excuse the game for its shortcomings. Iâ€™ll admit that I tried to coat the review and see the best in the game. I wanted to like it.
Three years on and I have beaten three more games in the series, with Yakuza 4 being the most recent. It was a weekend affair in which I spent most of my day running around the fictional Tokyo district ‘Kamurocho’.
The peak of the series remainsÂ Yakuza 2. ThatÂ instalmentÂ managed to nail a tone and mood: it was epic in the right way, with the threads of each character’s story intertwining to build up the tale of a group of Japanese gangsters and the conspiracies and bloodshed surrounding them. It was built up slowly, too, with the story lines given the breathing space befitting of a Coppola (Francis or Sofia) film despite, unfortunately, the kind of writing and delivery that would not be amiss on soap operas like The Bold and Beautiful or Coronation Street.
To be honest, that is a little unfair on Corrie as sometimes, just sometimes, the acting in that series is okay and the writing could be a lot worse.
This didnâ€™t bother me so much in the first two Yakuza titles because their atmosphere was so well realised â€“ those two games had grit to them that felt distinct to the orient with their hostess bars, takeaway Ramen sold from grimy vendors, and street thugs dressed in garish colours.
In Yakuza 4 the environments instead feel familiar. Most of the time this is a good thing as the streets of Kamurocho start to feel like home, and the ease of navigation as well as the subtle changes between iterations is comforting instead of cloying. However, it does mean that you’re less distracted by the dazzle of lights and more prone to noticing the hammy acting and the fact there seems to be someone getting shot in the back or betrayed every five minutes. There’s also a â€˜romanticâ€™ sub plot in which you dress up a woman and make sure she caters to the tastes of theÂ clientÃ¨leÂ of your bar during the evening, before going on dates with your character at night. Yes, I know…
The story is just downright awful; people frequently burst into tears, go on long monologues at inappropriate times â€“ like in the middle of a prison breakout â€“ and the number of times people miraculously come back from apparent death is both hilarious and bewildering. These scenes are repeated ad nauseam, as if the writers had no idea what to do next and so kept churning out the same three or four ideas every hour. There’s even a couple of really painful in-jokes that hark back to previous iterations, one of which is about storming into a toilet and terrifying a man who was trying to take a shit.
But the laziness of the writing really starts to show itself in the various side quests littered throughout the game. Previous titles in the series had side quests in them that gave the protagonists a sense of place in the world around them. The side quests in Yakuza 4 do little to hide the tedium of running around on mindless errands and fail to enrich the environment. Rather, all they serve to do is extend the already bloated playthrough time, a fact that is not helped by the unskippable cut scenes that never seem to end and pop-up almost as frequently as the random fight sequences.
At least here there has been some attempt to spice up the combat by introducing a number of new playable characters with different fighting styles. Tanimura, a dirty cop with a warped sense of justice, focuses on counters and submission moves. Â Akiyama, a loan shark and a pimp, is about rapid kick combos. Saejima, an escaped convict and ex-hitman, is all about powerful strikes. Finally, there is the returning hero Kiriyu Kazuma, the Yakuza turned-orphanage runner, who has a mixture of all three styles.
The gesture is nice but it’s hardly enough to distinguish it from the rest of the series. It also suffers from several irksome confrontations near the end, wherein all that you have learned in terms of combat – counters, grapple moves, throws that go into submissions – has to be thrown out in favour of a lot of blocking and health regeneration imbibing. It didn’t help that the game went from being very easy to win every fight to making me want to throw my controller out of the window during the last two showdowns in the game.
I think that some of the problems I have with Yakuza 4 are exacerbated by having alreadyÂ consumed threeÂ Yakuza games in less than a year. The flaws in its design are made all the more apparent when you realise that they had years to fix some of the more niggling issues.
The unskippable cut scenes that play out at the beginning of each random encounter, which were there during the PlayStation 2 era to hide load screens and make things appear more seamless, seem completely unnecessary on the PS3 version and, if anything, cause the game to date badly.
Similarly, the purchasing and upgrading system in the game feels poorly implemented. To check whether you want to buy something you need to select a specific menu and wait for it to load. Then to sell items you have to back out of the first menu and select a separate menu and, again, wait for it to load. It’s very cumbersome and given that there are much better examples around of how to handle this (e.g. one menu option for both, so that you’re able to flit between buying and selling at will) it makes you wonder why no one thought to change it. I guess because it’s so easy to choose not to improve upon or fix something that’s not inherently broken, but that small design choice is another thing that ends up hobbling the Yakuza series as a result.
Yakuza 4 is not a bad game but it is not a particularly good one either. Swelled to the point of bursting by too much content and not enough quality control, it’s unsurprising that the team went non-canonical with Yakuza: Dead Souls and even attempted something completely different with the underrated Binary Domain.
How well this bodes for Yakuza 5 is not promising.