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Yakuza 4
Score: 82%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Sega
Developer: CS1 Team
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Free-Roaming/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Yakuza 4 aims for realism almost the whole way through, which often makes it come across as a sterile experience. It fails to impress visually, but given the gameplay experience, I'm not sure the developers were really trying for that. This game didn't exactly fall out of the ugly tree or anything; it just doesn't sport a creative look. The atmosphere is good, though; the hustle and bustle of Kamurocho really feels believable, even though the events that transpire in the metropolis are anything but. Perhaps the best part of Yakuza 4's visual presentation is the animation work. Character models are interesting and quite well-defined. The brawling looks great; the moves you'll witness and pull off probably aren't possible to execute in real life, but they are good fun to watch. This is compounded fourfold, as Yakuza 4 features four playable characters with distinctly different fighting styles.

Yakuza 4's exclusively-Japanese voice track is superb. I don't presume to be an expert in Japanese linguistics, but I certainly get the sense that the delivery and timing of all this soap-opera dialogue is on the mark. There's just one huge problem; maybe half of the dialogue in this game is actually spoken. The rest of it is presented with the help of an anachronistic storytelling device: text boxes. Yakuza 4's story is very difficult to invest in at first, and when human emotions aren't present to drive everything home, it's even worse. However, when the voices are there, it all works fantastically. The music, on the other hand, is serviceable but forgettable.

Yakuza 4 comes out of the gate with one major change -- and not much innovation beyond that. That one change is apparent just by looking at the cover art. The focus of this game is not squarely on Kazuma Kiryu, the Dragon of Dojima and Fourth Chairman of the Tojo Clan. Until now, he was the sole protagonist who carried the stories of the first three games. Three new characters are introduced in Yakuza 4, and once you're done playing through their storylines, you'll get to play as Kiryu. However, all four playable characters are great additions in terms of both storytelling and combat abilities. The story puts its best foot forward by having you start off as Shun Akiyama, a loan shark who operates on terms that are, for lack of better words, unconventional. The game switches gears on you after Part 1, and places you in the role of Taiga Saejima, a beast of a quarter-century death row inmate who singlehandedly slaughtered eighteen yakuza. Once you're done with his story, the game moves you on to the tale of Masayoshi Tanimura, a corrupt cop who only follows his own rules. And then, of course, you're reunited (gameplay-wise) with Kiryu, whose pragmatism is only exceeded by his level of badassery.

Yakuza 4, like its predecessors, is a game that defies classification. It goes from a "go here, do this" role-playing game to a straight-forward brawler in the blink of an eye, and then proceeds to switch up the pace at regular intervals. And then there are those moments that make you squint your eyes in disbelief. Yes, Yakuza 4 is a strange game, and lots of that strangeness can be pegged as culture shock. The rest of it comes from the fact that this game never tires of offering up juicy bits of throwaway fun. After all, you're in the city, and as always, the city is what you make of it. Yakuza 4 knows this, and that's why it goes out of its way to provide a serious helping of variety. Want to go bowling? Do it. Would you rather cruise the streets and see what kind of randomness you can get up to? Or would you prefer to get tanked and belt out some karaoke? Either way, the game's not going to stop you. Whether you want to shop around or waste your time and money at the arcade, Yakuza 4 doesn't lack for things to do. Just be aware that not all of these activities are engaging; in some cases, the quantity comes at the expense of a little bit of quality.

Save for a few boss encounters, the action in Yakuza 4 is very easy to get through. The lowlifes and petty thugs you encounter on the streets of Kamurocho have absolutely no business trying to take you down; they are so pathetic and weak that you'll feel like the king of Japan every time you stomp their faces into the pavement. Of course, there are the requisite boss fights, and though they take longer to complete and give you more of a run for your money, they are anything but impossible. And even if you're no good at the brawling, a few trips to the drug store should supply you with enough health replenishment items to survive.

There are a few minor frustrations to take into account. When you're outnumbered, the strongest man in the bunch sometimes thrashes you relentlessly, depriving you of several counterattacking opportunities. Still, this can be overcome if you have a healthy supply of restorative items. The game's narrative structure usually holds your hand, offering you waypoints on a minimap to help you find where you need to go. When the game doesn't use them, you might get lost. That only happened a few times for me, but running aimlessly isn't usually fun, and it isn't in Yakuza 4.

Game Mechanics:
Yakuza 4 is positively overflowing with gameplay mechanics, but only a few show up with consistency. Naturally, the game leans on its brawling system for most of the action, and it works well for the most part. It makes use of a very simple two-button combination scheme that allows for light and heavy attacks, and it also throws in a handful of steadily-deteriorating weapons -- conventional and otherwise. This system is virtually identical to the one in the Yakuza games of years past, and that might be a source of frustration to some; after all, it's absurdly simple. On the other side, it hearkens back to 16-bit classics like Final Fight and Streets of Rage. You usually won't exceed five hits or so in any given combo. However, the Heat meter adds a bit of depth to the otherwise minimalistic fighting system. Landing hits and taunting your enemies builds Heat, and filling the meter allows you to perform a context-sensitive special move. For instance, grappling an enemy near a bike rack when your Heat meter is full gives you the opportunity to break his back across the rack, and possessing a knife while maxed out on Heat will allow you to disembowel an enemy. You can learn more abilities through a simple leveling system -- or more interestingly, through the Revelations system. This feature was in Yakuza 3, and it's still completely nutty. As you walk around Kamurocho, you will occasionally see something truly bizarre. Taking a series of cell phone pictures of each Revelation event gives you new abilities. For example, as Akiyama, I took a picture of a young female cop kicking a pervy criminal in the family jewels, and eureka! I unlocked that very ability. Lots of little mechanics like this feed into the core brawling system, and it's made richer as a result.

The other parts of Yakuza 4 don't measure up as well, but when they're viewed as a collective whole, there's not too much to complain about. There are a few obligatory action chase sequences in the storyline, which usually amount to no more than "Run forward, follow the line, fight off your pursuers." Of course, this is subverted with the Tanimura storyline, where the roles are reversed. These, like many others, are quick throwaway sequences that could have been dropped entirely from the game.

A central feature to Yakuza 4 wasn't present in Yakuza 3, and I understand why. I'm referring to the hostess club mini-game. This pseudo dating sim/dress up game has you managing a hostess club -- a place where you can hang out (no more, no less) with an attractive member of the female sex. I enjoy the company of a beautiful woman as much as the next red-blooded male does, but I found this mini-game to be creepy and vain. In micromanaging all of my hostesses, I felt more than a bit uncomfortable, though I'm sure I can blame all of that (again) on culture shock. Other, more fanservice-inclined fans may find this addition crucial to how much they enjoy Yakuza 4, but others will be put off.

Fans of free-roaming third-person action games, your fix has arrived. Yakuza 4 might not be the best-looking or best-playing PlayStation 3 game out there, but it's good silly fun -- and a lot of it, at that.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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