NYR: Yakuza 4

Yakuza 02

It was a strange experience to re-read the piece I wrote on the first Yakuza. There is a sense of desperation to the writing and I am clearly looking to excuse the game for its shortcomings. I’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 remains Yakuza 2. That instalment 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 didn’t bother me so much in the first two Yakuza titles because their atmosphere was so well realised – 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 ‘romantic’ sub plot in which you dress up a woman and make sure she caters to the tastes of the clientèle of your bar during the evening, before going on dates with your character at night. Yes, I know…

Yakuza 11

The story is just downright awful; people frequently burst into tears, go on long monologues at inappropriate times – like in the middle of a prison breakout – 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.  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.

Yakuza 05

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 already consumed three 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.



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6 responses to “NYR: Yakuza 4”

  1. ShaunCG Avatar

    Yakuza 4 sounds rather… well, awful. You say it's not a bad game (though not a good one) but by the sounds of your review it's squatting squarely in the category of the damnably mediocre. I can't say I'll bother checking it out, including the Dead Souls reimagining.

    That aside Binary Domain was great so if the same team have another crack at a fresh game, I'll certainly be interested.

    1. badgercommander Avatar

      Yeah I really struggled with this iteration. I think my main problem is that I want to like Yakuza more than I do and many of its quirks fail to ingratiate itself with me.

      The unskippable cutscenes in particular are a chore. I went back to do some screen captures and had to wait 15 minutes while a not particularly well realised piece played out.

      That said, the game does have a little more subtlety to it than I first noticed and there are some genuinely good moments in there somewhere. The thing is, you'll be bored throughout most of it.

      Man, if they would just let this team do something else like Binary Domain. I would be so happy.

  2. @RuthlessCult Avatar

    I picked this game up second-hand and agree with your assessment. There are some nice ideas and there's certainly the potential for a really good game in there somewhere but the annoying bits are distracting and the core mechanic of running around doing random crap is really incredibly boring.

    Having that, I must ask… AJ weren't you the one who talked up Way of the Samurai on the podcast? That's basically the exact same thing but without the whimsy. I got WotS3 and found it to be similarly full of potential but similarly boring.

    1. badgercommander Avatar

      Way of the Samurai, the third one specifically is one of my favourite games on the X360 and it is probably one of my favourite games of all time.

      How many endings did you get? Did you delve into any of the villagers' back stories? Did you rescue the old lady's knickers from the pesky crows? Do you know Genjuro's secrets? Have you met the waterboat man who sells you stuff in a unique currency? Did you see the Samurai who only appears after staying in the village for 30 days?

      WotS3 has a depth and breadth that embarrasses most RPGs, the fact that all your choices have genuine impact on the story line (you can kill main plot characters within minutes of starting the game) even the most inconsequential ones… Yakuza has nothing on Way of the Samurai.

  3. Sid Menon Avatar
    Sid Menon

    I'm interested anyways, as my interest-o-meter is bizarrely calibrated and I could easily see myself getting something out of this. I'm not prone to video game Stockholm syndrome anyways, so the risk is low.

    That said, Yakuza 5 looks like it fixes some of what you complained about. The fights aren't even separate from exploration, which is nice. And it's designed as a fresh start, so maybe you would honestly enjoy it.

    1. badgercommander Avatar

      Well, let me know. I have copies of Yakuza 3 and 4 that you are more than welcome to when you get your PS3 as I doubt I will ever go back and play these again.

      That sounds like a good idea for Yakuza 5, if they made the cutscenes skippable I would be even more interested. Glad that they are going back to the drawing board with 5 as the last two were definitely showing the age.

      Also, needs less back stabbing.