Wednesday, March 30, 2011


'Yakuza 4' features some high-kicking action.

'Yakuza 4' features some high-kicking action.

The best way to describe Sega's Yakuza series is to consider it the offspring of Final Fantasy and Grand Theft Auto. It's an open-world game with a Japanese RPG-type story, a game that presents you with limitless options, then places careful limits on those options.

It is an unlikely marriage that the PlayStation-exclusive series has flirted with for four iterations, but much of it comes together in "Yakuza 4." As usual, the game isn't without downfalls, but "Yakuza 4" more than compensates for its weaknesses.

Story is this game's greatest strength. The first three games followed one character, Kazuma Kiryu, as he ascended the Yakuza clan and then stepped back to open an orphanage. "Yakuza 4" tracks four different characters in an interlocking story. The tale features plenty of twists and turns, all in a style befitting a giant Final Fantasy game, and each character grows endearing in his own way. Akiyama, a money lender with a heart of gold who is the first character you take over, is perhaps the best of all.

Things get hard to follow, though, mostly because you're reading text-heavy section after text-heavy section. All the voice-acting is Japanese, leaving you to follow captions as you go along. There are plenty of cutscenes, but these are unpausable unless you hit the PS button.

These cutscenes are also unskippable, which speaks to how Sega feels about their importance to "Yakuza 4's" narrative but also grows annoying. Scenes are lengthy and somewhat inconsistent, occasionally sandwiching four minutes of beautiful, fully voiced action with two minutes of in-game scene. Just when you're sitting back as if to watch a movie, you're watching static characters from the in-game engine.

"Yakuza 4" runs off the same engine that the third game did, and while the cutscenes look spectacular as ever, the in-game visuals are starting to show their age. Characters move artificially, and the use of light and shadows is limited.

Another slight flaw: sometimes the on-screen map inexplicably disappears. This happens with little rhyme or reason, leaving you to wander Kamarucho blindly and wait for the map to reappear – or restart the game. In such instances, the venerable system of save points becomes rather troublesome. You can't even save and restart, because you're limited to hunting down phone booth save points as opposed to merely saving and hopping back into gameplay Still, if you can survive these pratfalls, you'll truly enjoy the story and varied gameplay. Kamarucho is bustling with action. "Yakuza 4" does a fantastic job of introducing you to a bevy of personalities, and each typically has something to offer. You'll feel encouraged to talk to people, knowing that they won't all hand you a "go here" or "get me that" mandate. One moment, you'll try to solicit as many hostesses as you can in five minutes, the next you're chasing a wallet-thief around town.

Kamarucho is filled with minigames. Unlike previous iterations, "Yakuza 4" made it from Japan to the U.S. completely intact, so certain slightly racy sections (parents, pay attention) are available. You're free to attend hostess clubs (Japanese clubs where you can essentially hang out with women) and even pursue a relationship. Other fun minigames include a surprisingly addictive version of indoor baseball and a rather racy version of ping pong. Not that everything's fun, though. You have two varieties of chase games - one in which you chase and the other in which you elude - and both feel clunky and frustrating with characters rarely performing as they should.

All these games feel distinctly Japanese, as does the combat. You're essentially faced with random battles, with citizens rushing up to you and challenging you. Their reasons feel ridiculous – think "I don't like your face, old man" – but once you're past that, combat feels fluid. You'll punch, kick and elude, gradually building a Heat meter. Once that meter is full, you can perform more powerful attacks, sometimes using weapons or accessories that are in the environment.

In typical Japanese fashion, you'll gain experience as you fight and accomplish different tasks, and your XP can be applied to learn new combat moves. This keeps combat lively throughout the lengthy story, as does the fact that each of your four protagonists has a slightly different fighting style.

Style. That's another word to fittingly describes "Yakuza 4." It's far from a perfect game, but it's ridiculously over-the-top fun nevertheless.


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