Giant Bomb Review

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Yakuza 4 Review

3
  • PS3

Yakuza 4 is a proudly traditional Japanese release, but the game doesn't always emphasize its best attributes.

Perhaps the most lobbied criticism towards Japanese developers today is that they’ve fallen behind the gameplay standards and innovation of other developers. The developers of Yakuza 4, however, could not care less about that sentiment. Like the crime organizations the game focuses on, Yakuza 4 is defiantly traditional in structure, ignoring the advances of modern games in favor of deliberately paced, over-the-top Japanese melodrama, lavish cutscenes, and gameplay that values cinematic production value over interactivity.The problem with Yakuza 4, however, is that the game itself doesn’t always work in favor of the traditions the game reveres so much. Wonky, unrefined gameplay and poor technology under the hood hinder Yakuza 4 at every turn, and the result is an experience that's mildly enjoyable.

The fictional district of Kamurocho.

The best thing in Yakuza 4 is its highly involved, emotional story. The game once again follows the trials of Kazuma Kiryu, the former chairman of Tokyo's Tojo crime clan, and this time introduces three other seemingly unrelated men whose lives will soon become intertwined, like a Japanese version of Heavy Rain. They include Akiyama, the laid-back, fiscally irresponsible owner of a loaning business; Tanimura, the corrupt rookie cop who takes advantage of illegal enterprises; and Saejima, a hulking hitman who has spent 25 years in Tokyo’s secret prisons.

These four all find that their separate paths lead to the murder of a low-ranking gangster, and further events soon thrust them into a conflict that threatens to embroil all of Tokyo in gang violence. The story casts every major organization in Tokyo--the Yakuza, the police, the government-- as members of an elaborate conspiracy, tied into events that happened both in the distant past and in the first Yakuza game. Yakuza 4’s story of corruption and betrayal is so littered with revelations, backstabs, twists, and turns that even Phoenix Wright might describe it as a bit convoluted.

Tanimura may seem like a scumbag, but he's a scumbag with a good cause.

That ridiculous, twist-heavy story would easily collapse under its own stupid weight if it weren’t anchored by a solid group of characters. The four protagonists of Yakuza 4 bring such emotional conviction to every encounter that you’ll be hard pressed to take the game’s action at arm's length. Even when the game reaches the heights of Japanese melodrama (and it does), the story remains compelling thanks to great voice acting and super-detailed, highly emotive character models that sell the action. It may be ludicrous crime drama (and there are some notable plot holes), but Yakuza 4’s cinematic storyline makes for a fun ride throughout, and offers a very different take on the “organized crime” tales we see in America.

In fact, that feeling of being a cultural anthropologist is one of the best things about playing Yakuza 4. It’s fascinating to see the ways a Japanese developer like Sega would choose to render the kind of hyper-detailed urban environments that have dominated the video game landscape in recent years. The fictional Tokyo district of Kamurocho is depicted with incredibly detailed set dressing. Cooked fowl hanging inside restaurants, secret mahjong dens, and ridiculously detailed pachinko machines are just a handful of the weird sights I saw during my time in video-game Tokyo, and they go a long way toward making Kamurocho feel like a real, distinct environment. It’s no surprise why, looking at the game from a distance, so many players think of the Yakuza franchise as the closest thing to a Japanese equivalent of Grand Theft Auto.

Combat is simple but positively brutal.

But beyond the urban city setting, Yakuza 4 has very little in common with GTA or other open world series. Yakuza 4 is a very traditional game, rooted in the conventions of any '90s-era JRPG. With a story objective on the map, you wander through the expansive city, get into various random encounters on the way, play a few minigames to break up the action, and eventually fight an overly powerful boss, all to trigger the next lavish and exciting cutscene that furthers the current story thread.

In keeping with a classic formula, Yakuza 4 sticks with a similarly traditional gameplay convention; the beat-'em-up. Upon entering random combat with one of Kamurocho’s irritable gangs, you'll use a pretty standard assortment of weak and strong attacks to dispatch enemies. In addition to the straightforward tactics of simply hitting your opponents, players can use items that randomly spawn at the start of the fight, and there’s very little in this game more satisfying than beating a person half to death with a tiny Japanese moped. The combat is basic but very satisfying, replete with savage attacks that break opponents' noses and bruise them all over.

However, the combat isn’t necessarily fluid; unlike more modern interpretations of the beat-'em-up that allowed players to reverse their momentum and direction with ease, Yakuza 4 is still utilizes the traditional combo-focused, animation-prioritized combat. As a result, it’s often hard to redirect your attacks at specific opponents, and encounters will too often end with your character taking damage from opponents who you cannot adequately respond to.

Saejima is the real breakout character in Yakuza 4.

But Yakuza's combat is hardly the game's worst offense. The biggest problem with Yakuza 4 is that every single element in the game serves to halt the game’s momentum. Whether you’re entering into a fight, transitioning between menus, or performing a super move, Yakuza 4 seems to constantly be stopping the action to load some new element. Even performing a character’s super move causes the game to hitch up in order to load the cinematic move into your current fight. It often feels like Yakuza 4’s technology isn’t properly optimized for the game it actually is, and the result is that the game is oftentimes waiting for the technology to catch up to the action.

Yakuza 4 is a tightly packed game, filled with hours and hours of content, but it also feels deliberately contained, filled with barriers preventing you from seeing that content. The city of Kamurocho is technically open for exploration, but it’s very difficult to know where to look for a mission. The game rarely provides information on where to find various side activities or missions. About the only times I found Yakuza 4’s side activities were when the game literally halts story progress and pulls the player into one of these minigames. It’s a bad system that undercuts the tension of the story by introducing a side quest in the most obvious, egregious way possible, and it makes the player feel like they’re taking time off from an deeply personal, important mission for nonsense.

His face is going to be a bloody pulp after this.

And that just covers the few side missions I was able to find. Over the course of my original playthrough, I barely stumbled upon the game’s vast array of side activities (including gambling, dating hostesses, bowling, baseball, underground tournament fighting, mining, and photography, to name a few). Worse still is that the optional content really doesn’t impact your play at all. Sure, you’ll receive money, special items and new fighting techniques by completing side missions, but you don’t need any of those things to finish the game, and you could go through the entirety of Yakuza 4 without touching a side mission. No optional content has been more optional than the side missions of Yakuza 4. It’s too bad because many of those side missions are ridiculously deep, highly detailed missions with great writing and a ton of value; I spent hours just completing one of these many side quests. Only at the very end of the game does Yakuza 4 open up into a sandbox, allowing you to switch between the four characters and explore the city at your leisure, but it occurs literally 15 minutes before the credits roll. You’ll unlock a sandbox mode that allows you to explore Kamurocho and take on missions at your leisure upon completing the game, but it’s a shame that side content couldn’t be more naturally integrated (or easy to access) from within the core game.

It often seems like Yakuza 4 is conspiring against itself, holding its own cool features back behind technology and game design. It’s not that Yakuza 4 is a bad game, but rather that too many of the game’s eccentricities don’t work in its favor. Still, If you love the idea of watching Japanese men rip their shirts off, flash their elaborate back tattoos, and charge at each other while shouting like a wounded bobcat, then I can’t recommend Yakuza 4 enough; if you're that sort of person, this is exactly the kind of ridiculous Japanese drama you’ve been looking for. But for those players for whom the setting isn’t immediately compelling, Yakuza 4’s technology flaws, simple gameplay, and awkward structure too often work against the game to make it a firm recommendation.

45 Comments
Posted by Legend

I still need to play Yakuza 3.

Posted by IamTerics

This is a really random review.

Posted by Olymp1c

About what I expected from this game, actually thinking about picking this up during these dry months of gaming if I can find it cheap. Love the voice acting and story from what I've seen. Shame about the technical problems though, hopefully they won't be too annoying.

Posted by Vorbis

Had this sitting on the shelf for months, I will get to play it some day...

Posted by Sweep
Yakuza 4 is a proudly traditional Japanese release

That's racist :|

Moderator
Posted by Jensonb
Wonky, unrefined gameplay and poor technology under the hood hinder Yakuza 4 at every turn, and the result is an experience that's mildly enjoyable.

Well that's a clunky sentence. Still, nice review Bodega.

Posted by Pepsiman

While I did give the game a higher score than Matt on my own review, I definitely see where he's coming from and agree with the general criticisms, even if they seemingly didn't both me quite as much. As he points out, though, the big draw for me when it comes to Yakuza games has always been Sega's slavish devotion to creating environments that feel real less in a "oh my god, look at all of the polygons and textures in this model" sense and more "this looks like a place that I could recognize." It's hard to qualify all of the little things the development team has done in its environmental and sound design to make it feel so authentic to someone without the experience of living in Japan, but at least in my own opinion, Yakuza 4 renders a more aesthetically and atmospherically realistic Tokyo than even the review describes. The seedy places look the way they do because that's how they look seedy there and the places with a lot of class and spit-shine are rendered that way for the same reason. I was having serious flashbacks to my own time in Tokyo while playing 4 because it is absolutely eerie just how much some of the fictional venues in that game resemble places I actually lived and hung out in regularly. I've only had that happen with one other Japanese game set in Tokyo and the effects weren't nearly as pronounced as they were in my time with Yakuza 4.

4 also pleasantly surprised me in that the game actually tackles some very major social issues in the plot if you know how to read between the lines. Tanimura's story in particular hit home, as Tokyo, as well as Japan at large, have some very serious, but relatively unacknowledged problems involving sex trafficking and illegal immigration. While the game itself is rarely overt on any actual commentary about the issues, the fact that they're even present in the game continues to astound me, as you just don't see popular media from big corporations like Japan discussing them. The same is true to an extent in other countries, too, but in Japan, they're still obscure enough in the public eye that getting exposure in a franchise with as much clout over there as Yakuza is definitely rare.

That being said, I've always believed that the presentation of things like that are why the games have and most likely always will be designed for Japanese audiences first and foremost, even if they streamline and clean up the gameplay. I mean that in the nicest way possible, too, in the sense that novels like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, despite having otherwise universal plotlines, are entrenched in very specifically American settings and experiences. Yakuza games, when their plotlines aren't making a turn for the beautifully ridiculous, primarily speak to audiences that are living in modern day Japan. I'm not even talking about cultural differences or narrative indulgences in this instance; the games are just structured and written with the expectation that you already understand firsthand at least to an extent the issues and trends that the games cover at the time of their release. It's why as much as I'm glad that they get exposure abroad that I don't envy anybody who's actually assigned to localize the games at Sega; no matter how good the writing is in the games (and Yakuza 4, as a Japanese speaker, had some pretty great English writing), short of creating an additional codex in the game explaining what's really going on socially in the game, things are inevitably going to get lost in translation for foreign players that haven't lived there. There's just no way around it, in my opinion, as that's how entrenched in the setting and overarching society those games are. It's both the game's best and worst asset and why, aside from the actual gameplay clunkiness fueling it, it'll probably always be a niche series outside of its homeland, no matter how much fans and Sega (at least halfheartedly) want it to be huge elsewhere.

Posted by kamiboy

Actually the most lobbied criticism against Japanese game design is that it is not like the equally old as ass PC game design epoch which has as recently as this generation wholesale jumped the PC platform onto the more lucrative console ship along side all of its old as ass turn coat PC developers.

Gamers being the fickle and impressionable lot that they are when confronted with what these these turncoat PC developers offered felt that their ancient, yet on consoles, novel, craft feels different somehow. So, of course like the little lemming/parrots that they are they then immediately began to demand that everything now be exactly like that so that every single game made no matter in which region can feel, look and play the exact same vanilla way. If it does not, then it is not modern, and that means it is bad. So be a good lemming Japan, and join the stampede.

Huzzah for conformity, huzzah for the western way, which all its dwellers have known since ancient greco roman times, is the only civilized and proper way of doing things, and if any uncouth barbarians dare do things or think differently, well then they should be put in their place the poor ignorant bastards.

Posted by Godlyawesomeguy

This review came out of nowhere.

Posted by GaspoweR

@Sweep said:

Yakuza 4 is a proudly traditional Japanese release

That's racist :|

*TESTED!*

Posted by afrofools

I would so buy this if I had a PS3, but I don't because they're too damn expensive.

Posted by Nicholas

@Vorbis said:

Had this sitting on the shelf for months, I will get to play it some day...

This game has been on my shelf ever since it came out too. Someday I will have the courage to play it.

Posted by TadThuggish

Happy to see older games getting reviews. Building up a better review base is a good idea, provided those hired are level-headed and don't get into the old GameSpot corporate bickering nonsense.

That being said, was this not on the main site? I totally missed it till looking at recent reviews.

Posted by TadThuggish

@kamiboy said:

Actually the most lobbied criticism against Japanese game design is that it is not like the equally old as ass PC game design epoch which has as recently as this generation wholesale jumped the PC platform onto the more lucrative console ship along side all of its old as ass turn coat PC developers.

Gamers being the fickle and impressionable lot that they are when confronted with what these these turncoat PC developers offered felt that their ancient, yet on consoles, novel, craft feels different somehow. So, of course like the little lemming/parrots that they are they then immediately began to demand that everything now be exactly like that so that every single game made no matter in which region can feel, look and play the exact same vanilla way. If it does not, then it is not modern, and that means it is bad. So be a good lemming Japan, and join the stampede.

Huzzah for conformity, huzzah for the western way, which all its dwellers have known since ancient greco roman times, is the only civilized and proper way of doing things, and if any uncouth barbarians dare do things or think differently, well then they should be put in their place the poor ignorant bastards.

hahahahaha what the fuck

Posted by TwoLines

Nice review Kessler. Keep rockin' that cherub.

Edited by Yummylee

Hell yeah, fucking hire this guy already, GB! I generally agree with the review, though the one thing that I disliked is how this more like a Yakuza 3.5. Minus the four different characters, and a new, and also much more engaging, storyline it's all recycled from Yakuza 3. Despite there also being around 101 things to do, none of them are all that fun. The seemingly limitless number of side stories you encounter can be funny, though the all-text delivery can be an issue - especially when coupled with the minimalist animations. 
 
Also the game is incredibly easy, with a lot of the random battles in particular that you could probably still headily win playing blindfolded.

Posted by Video_Game_King

Why now?

Posted by Yummylee
@Video_Game_King said:
Why now?
A little more Review writing experience. The timing of the review is 'too little too late' for sure, but whatever. It's allowing Kessler to further brush up on his writing, and further solidifying his place within the GB staff.
Posted by Nictel

@Video_Game_King said:

Why now?

Maybe because most people would have just finished Yakuza 3? In any case I don't see the problem. Actually I rather would like to see them to more reviews even if it is of already released or older games.

Posted by zameer

I'm all for Kessler covering games that'd be otherwise unreviewed. Nice job duder.

Posted by Enigma777

@Abyssfull said:

Hell yeah, fucking hire this guy already, GB!

Man, don't even joke about that...

Posted by RelentlessKnight

You got to be fucking kidding me, KESSLER reviewing another game again! This is the reason why I'm not reading reviews anymore and him ruining my decision to go buy this game. Horrible review

Posted by Yummylee
@Enigma777 said:

@Abyssfull said:

Hell yeah, fucking hire this guy already, GB!

Man, don't even joke about that...

Who's joking? It's going to happen eventually anywhoo so suck it up.
Posted by BraveFart

Yakuza 3 is better.

Posted by MattBodega

@Video_Game_King: Why now? It's nothing too sinister. It's just a crazy slow period in game releases. With nothing new on the games front, I decided to dip into the recent back catalog with a game that didn't get a review on the site (and probably would never have gotten a review otherwise).

Also, it was my copy of the game. That made the review easy to assign.

Posted by Video_Game_King
@MattBodega
 
Oh, OK. I'd recommend other older games for review, but I know what a terrible idea that would be.
Posted by atomic_dumpling
@kamiboy said:

Gamers being the fickle and impressionable lot that they are when confronted with what these these turncoat PC developers offered felt that their ancient, yet on consoles, novel, craft feels different somehow.

 [...] 

Huzzah for conformity, huzzah for the western way, which all its dwellers have known since ancient greco roman times, is the only civilized and proper way of doing things, and if any uncouth barbarians dare do things or think differently, well then they should be put in their place the poor ignorant bastards.

What enlightening wisdom is hidden in those cryptic words, we may never know. Either that, or the author was thoroughly baked.
Posted by President_Barackbar

@MattBodega said:

@Video_Game_King: Why now? It's nothing too sinister. It's just a crazy slow period in game releases. With nothing new on the games front, I decided to dip into the recent back catalog with a game that didn't get a review on the site (and probably would never have gotten a review otherwise).

Also, it was my copy of the game. That made the review easy to assign.

I honestly wouldn't have been surprised if you said the reason was that it took you since March to finish the game. These games sound DENSE.

Online
Posted by RecallBerserk

Yakuza 4 is my game of the year. Easily the best story of any game this year also.

Posted by ValiantGrizzly
@RelentlessKnight: You're trolling.
 
Right?
 
Right?
Posted by theanticitizen
@Olymp1c The technical problems don't get in the way at all. I love the mechanics of this game, personally. To me it's a 4/5
Posted by Xpgamer7

I really love Yakuza for how intricate they make their world. It's something few games tend to do and I appreciate the series greatly for it.

Edited by dvorak

You should definitely have used other words instead of constantly repeating Yakuza 4 every time. Also, what, is, up, with, all, the, superfluous, commas?

Otherwise, I'm glad that someone is shining a light on this game. The whole series is truly worth playing. I've got the Japanese version of the next game OF THE END, which is basically a mash-up of Dead Rising and Yakuza 4. It's really fucking crazy.

If you like these games at all -- or even if you like the fiction but not so much the game -- I highly recommend checking out the Yakuza Papers movies. Because these games are basically directly lifted from those films and other TOEI films of that era. The main protagonist of the games, Kazuma, is basically a huge homage to Hirono, the gangster with a conscience from those films.

Posted by DrWhat

Solid 3-star review. Thanks Matt.

Posted by Aristides

@dvorak: I have to disagree about Kessler's use of commas. Good writers know how to use commas to provide a nice, "conversational" rhythm to a piece of writing, and Kessler is using them in exactly the right way. It's like giving stage directions, so that the writing is read the way it was intended. I will admit that when you write that way it can look like a lot of commas, but Kessler uses them in the right spots.

Won't pass judgment on the game because I haven't played it, although it seems that the more super-into Japan you are, the more you will enjoy it.

Good work Kessler!

Posted by Bunnyman

Yakuza is for mad folks. Like the Kess. Good review.

Posted by darkjester74

Looks like my kind of game.  Too bad its PS3 exclusive, I wish it would come to PC atleast.
Edited by dabe

I'm so happy my brain computes the information provided by Yakuza in a different manner to Mr. Kessler. 
 
Not only does the combat feel perfectly fine -- admittedly after playing all of the series thus far -- but the side missions and optional content DEFINITELY add something to the overall game.  
Not in the simple bonus items or extra yen kind of way either. But if you can't grasp that reasoning to begin with, then I'll let you continue writing average reviews of four month old releases... 
 
Also, opinions.
Posted by kollay

I wholeheartedly love this series. The long cut-scenes put people off but fear not, they are very well written and settles the mood nicely.

Posted by Nekroskop

I don't care if this game plays like a PS2 game. I fucking love it and I can't wait for Yakuza of the Dead Next year.

Online
Posted by fastkilr

Nice work. Game totally deserved a review, glad it got one.

Posted by Dudacles

This is a great review Matt, keep it up.

Posted by LoktarOgar

Whoa, when the hell did this review happen (August 1, I can see that, but y'know)? I go to GiantBomb like every hour every day and I never saw this on the homepage...

Posted by Batmeng

SECRET REVIEW UPLOAD!

SNEAKYMOTHERFUCKERS

Posted by falling_fast

whoa. when the fuck did this happen? still, good on you Kessler, for doing this :]