A brief word of warning: playing Yakuza 4 involves you having to make a rather hefty install beforehand, which is a process that takes just over ten minutes. If you don’t want to be driven mad by the upbeat Japanese rock-pop ditty that plays on perpetual repeat, and don’t want to re-read the four looping text biographies that accompany it, we suggest going to put the kettle on as soon as the install begins. It goes without saying that Kazuma Kiryu is one of those four featured characters, but long-term fans of the series will inevitably begin to wonder why so much emphasis has been placed on these other three in addition to the enigmatic Kaz. The answer represents quite a significant alteration to the core Yakuza formula; they’re all playable.
This may sound as if SEGA’s CS1 Team have continued along the same path that they traversed with Yakuza 3 – which was so focused on being a sprawling, multi-faceted crime epic that it couldn’t help but occasionally leave you in the dark somewhat – but actually Yakuza 4 is a much more coherent and amenable proposition that, on the surface at the very least, is also a slightly less ambitious one. But once you’re beneath that surface, and beyond the game’s opening hour (which consists of around 70% cutscene) you’ll realise that this isn’t the case; it’s deeper, more concerned with the motivations of its characters and even more leisurely paced… somehow. Kamurocho’s political underbelly is barely featured at all this time, and this fundamentally dialled down rethink is an invigorating blessing.
And overall, it makes for a more engaging narrative. Whilst Kamurocho’s conniving overlords have taken a significant back seat here, the world itself has expanded in some very subtle ways; many of which aren’t immediately apparent unless you’re the investigative type. You can now access the city’s rooftops and sewers, as well as its shopping centres, amusement arcades and car parks. The three new characters also bring their own distinctive fighting styles into battle with them, which livens up the brawling no-end. Perhaps the most compelling of these three newcomers is Taiga, a hulking behemoth of a man who has barely broken out of prison after serving 25 years when you first meet him, and who has easily the most thunderously satisfying combat style; brutal, slammer-inflected, and (charges aside) almost entirely fists-only.
All three of these new characters, despite essentially being a riff on the very same golden-hearted archetype, are easily as likeable and magnetic as Kaz, who is the last to appear in playable form. Splitting the story into four different (but equally proportioned) sections results in a game that never feels as dispiritingly huge as Yakuza 3 often did, and the fact that three quarters of your main cast are comprised of fresh faces means that this is definitely the closest that the series has come to having a newbie gateway since the original Yakuza. Cut-scenes are still frequently lengthy, many of them blessed with a sense of pace that couldn’t outrun a snail, but this almost aligns them with the work of some of the all-time-great Japanese filmmakers; all of whom are famed for constantly encouraging thoughtful narrative pauses to get in the way of the action.
It’s not a bad looking game either; and a fair bit slicker than the previous instalment which wasn’t quite the next-gen eye-popper that some devotees had been expecting. It’s unclear if different face-mapping techniques have been employed this time out, but all of the “performances” are far more absorbing on the whole. Yakuza 4 does hit a few bum notes – the Hostess mini-games are outstandingly daft, and the new addition of blood during combat turns brawling into something that is no longer quite daft enough – but the primary joys of the franchise are all present and correct, and the gratifying pleasure of watching the four disparate story strands come together in the finale pretty eloquently summarizes what has always been so great about the Yakuza series, with care, fluency and vision in clear abundance.
Watch the Yakuza 4 trailer here: