Yakuza 3 was a turning point for the Yakuza series outside of Japan. It received a lot more attention, a much warmer reception, and evidently made enough of an impression for Sega to give us the sequel, Yakuza 4 just a year later. Yakuza 3 may have been loaded with cutscenes and exposition but nonetheless had a very exciting combat engine, a quirky Japanese sense of humor and a ton of fun things to do in its open world whether you were interested in underground fight clubs or playing retro Sega titles at in-game arcades available throughout the city. Yakuza 4 introduces new characters and a new story arc but keeps a lot of things from the third game intact.
How does Yakuza 4 stack up to its predecessor? Hit the jump to check out the fourth story in this yakuza crime saga.
If you still haven’t been introduced to the Yakuza series the games detail the fictional yakuza Tojo Clan and takes place largely in Kamurocho, a fictionalized version of a red-light district in Shinjuku, Japan. Series fans familiar with Yakuza’s main character Kazuma Kiryu may be disappointed initially that the former Tojo Clan Chairman is just one of four principal protagonists. Instead the story of Yakuza 4 is interwoven between four playable characters. Shun Akiyama runs a loan company in Kamurocho, Taiga Saejima is a yakuza awaiting execution for killing eighteen rival yakuza as part of a hit, and Masayoshi Tanimura is a good hearted cop who nonetheless accepts bribes and loves gambling.
These characters all become involved with the conflict of Yakuza 4 for different reasons, and to my surprise I found myself growing attached to the newcomers. Kazuma has less development after three games but the new heroes all have significant character arcs where they deal with personal demons and overcome past traumas in surprisingly touching ways. Characters have been a consistent strength of the Yakuza series and they continue to shine in Yakuza 4. At this point in the series it’s impressive that three new main characters can be built up and developed this effectively and voice acting continues to be stellar.
On the other hand three prior games’ worth of very intensive story is asking a lot of even the most dedicated fans and Yakuza 4 relies much more heavily on your understanding the series than Yakuza 3 did. The story, while engrossing, gets very hard to follow when the game shifts to different characters while also attempting to explain the questions raised during prior story arcs. There are some extremely poignant scenes but a lot of them are bogged down in exposition and the constant betrayals, counter-betrayals, fake deaths, and real deaths start getting silly even for Yakuza series standards. Even as someone who played Yakuza 3 I eventually just stopped trying to comprehend everything and watched how it affected my favorite characters instead.
Much like the previous games Yakuza 4 is loaded with cutscenes. I’m not going to be the one who comes out and says we need to nix cutscenes altogether Yakuza 4 rivals Metal Gear Solid 4 in terms of excessive exposition. To be fair, Yakuza 4 does cutscenes as best as we accept in games today. Even when you’re getting lost in the massive web of conspiracies the story is conveyed fairly well when the writers separate it into smaller, easier to understand chunks but you can skip the cutscenes when they get excessive. Facial expression and animations have a unique look to them that makes characters look expressive and thoughtful, and more importantly, there’s no combat in any of the cutscenes.
It’s easier to read a Yakuza 3 review to hear about gameplay because it’s rigidly unchanged to the point of feeling more than a little phoned in. I loved Yakuza 3 and booting up Yakuza 4 felt like reuniting with an old friend when I first gained control of Akiyama, but it’s the same combat, same streets of Kamurocho, same running around an open world and getting into random encounter-type fights, same fights reminiscent of Dead or Alive, and same leveling up characters. Even Kazuma’s combos are identical right down to the finishing moves. Granted, this is all more of the same gameplay and content that made Yakuza 3 so fun but it almost feels like a beefy epilogue at times, especially when you learn that Akiyama and Saejima are tied loosely into events of past Yakuza games.
Sameness aside, one of the biggest strengths of Yakuza 4 is that Akiyama, Saejima, Tanimura, and Kazuma aren’t just the same game repeated four times. Vastly different character stories and motivations aside, these four all feel unique during gameplay. Saejima’s power-type fighting style contrasts sharply with Akiyama’s rapid-fire kick combos. Tanimura has a much higher heat gauge than Saejima, but Saejima has a much bigger health meter. Different characters have special skills like Tanimura’s unique ability to slap handcuffs on downed opponents to keep them from getting back up. It gives each new arc an important way to keep gameplay fresh since you’ll be doing a lot of combat.
In addition to the new characters there are some small chunks of Kamurocho you can now explore including some limited rooftops and a more bustling underground area of the city, although you can’t explore Okinawa like in the third game. A few mini-games have been improved; most notably the chase sequences are much less frustrating. You spend experience ‘orbs’ to level up instead of spending actual experience points, which streamlines the system a little.
Some gameplay smudges from Yakuza 3 never got polished. The map is as unintuitive as ever and you can’t set waypoints. Certain objectives inexplicably lack location markers and you’re left wandering around until you speak to the correct NPC about where you need to go, and another year hasn’t done much for the aging engine of the game. The improvements are welcome ones, but it feels like they left the core framework for the engine and gameplay as intact as possible, which has the side effect of the engine’s problems persisting like this.
As a series Yakuza has been characterized by massive amounts of side content and the fourth game is no exception. A staple of the series has always been Revelations, where your character takes a photo about a ridiculous event going on in Kamurocho like someone stealing a pair of panties, blogs about it, and somehow translates that into another combat move (it makes more sense to see it). Actual side missions take advantage of the same Japanese quirkiness prevalent through the series like Tanimura filling in for a group date and trying to help a lonely stranger ‘connect’ with his crush. Another standout is a virtual reality fighting machine in the Kamurocho sewers run by a mad scientist who looks suspiciously like Doc Brown. There’s an enormous slew of mini-games like golf, pool, darts, and even retro games at Club Segas in Kamurocho that are fun little diversions.
I mentioned earlier that the four characters have unique gameplay types and this also applies to the side content. In addition to the mini-games and arcade diversions there are side quests specific to your characters. Akiyama, who owns a cabaret club, can access a mini-game where you scout for hostess girls and dress and train them to be successful and pull in more money for you. Saejima becomes a trainer at a dojo where you can train prospective karate students to become stronger and win tournaments. I also mentioned that the four principal characters come together at the climax of the story, which opens up the entirety of Kamurocho’s content and makes it very easy to get lost in the litany of stuff to do. The main storyline alone will run about twenty hours of gameplay depending on the difficulty, but you can easily double that having fun in the city.
As overused as this expression tends to be in game critic circles, if you liked Yakuza 3 you really will like Yakuza 4 because it’s not even similar to its predecessor – it’s all but identical. It’s a second helping of what made the third game fun, and for most people who enjoyed the third game I suspect that will be enough. I’m wary of just how similar it is to its predecessor but the good outweighs the bad for me, so it gets a pass. My recommendation would be to play Yakuza 3 first because it’s a much better introduction to the series. If you’re satisfied with that, rest assured that Yakuza 4 is worth the investment.
Yakuza 4 features the same expressive facial animations as Yakuza 3 and Kamurocho still looks excellent, but the story really goes off the deep end in the second half of the game
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Combat is still fluid, dynamic, and ruthless in Yakuza 4, even if it's a little too familiar to the third game and the engine is starting to show more aging
Combat sounds are viscerally effective, voice acting is excellent, and music is almost completely recycled from the third game, albeit still very good
The main story is a lengthy affair and there's a ton of side content in addition to a New Game+ mode
Yakuza 4 still looks and plays great, but it's a little too similar to its predecessor to stand on its own as well as Yakuza 3