For: Playstation 3
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, sexual
themes, strong language, violence)
By Billy O'Keefe
For all the things we wish Sega would do differently with its iconic brands, it has been glorious in ensuring the "Yakuza" series — arguably its best active franchise — makes the journey from Japan to the hands of a modest but devoted American following.
And if you're not part of that following yet? Don't worry: You're still warmly invited.
"Yakuza 4" continues the events as we left them in "Yakuza 3," and the respect it pays to storyline continuity is another jewel in the crown of one of gaming's best storytellers. For the uninitiated, Sega includes a nice "Reminisce" feature that recaps the previous games' key milestones.
At the same time, "Yakuza 4" feels self-contained enough to allow fresh starters to jump in and quickly make acquaintance with the colorful residents of Japan's fictitious Kamurocho district. That's a credit to the game's gift of character design, which shines even brighter than usual by dropping you into the shoes of four characters (including series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu) instead of just Kiryu himself. "Yakuza 4" pumps all four characters (and numerous supporting characters) with more personality than most games provide for their lead, and the effortlessness with which it changes moods — from pensive to sweet to darkly violent to wonderfully silly — is magnificent.
The same spirit infects the gameplay, which finds Sega tossing out mandatory and optional activities with abandon. Kamurocho is thick with diversions ranging from bowling to arcades to a humorously cheeky mini-game based around a massage parlor. You can gamble, play a karaoke rhythm game, be a good samaritan, chase criminals and even manage a hostess club — employee training, dress-up mini-game and all. Not everything works, but most of it does, and even when something falls short, it flounders with a degree of magnetism and humor that's extremely unique. Seeing what bizarre surprise comes next is nearly as fun as taking the main story down its course.
As usual, "Yakuza 4's" primary gameplay centers around hand-to-hand brawling that pits you against random street gangs and, eventually, crime family henchmen and lieutenants. Also predictably, it's the highlight among highlights. Most brawls fall on the easier side, but they're so fast and loose that it hardly matters. An experience points system gives you new moves to use as you progress, and the creative ways you can chain these moves _ along with the ability to use whatever's laying around as a weapon _ makes for a brilliant 3D reinvention of the great 2D brawlers that thrived in the mid-1990s.
With all that said, it's important to know going in that "Yakuza 4" does all the same things — whether you call them charms or annoyances — that have kept the series a cult favorite in America instead of a mass-market sensation. The visual presentation is loaded with great details, but in most facets — from graphical fidelity to menu design to the weird way random citizens pop in from nowhere as you tour the district — it shows its age. That goes as well for various little conveniences — designated save spots instead of autosave, for instance — that may or may not bother you.
Additionally, the storytelling (some of it voiced in Japanese with English subtitles, most of it using text only) is a big deal — to the tune of the occasional 30-minute block in which you do little more than press X to advance the dialogue. The story is so good that those who get into it won't care, but if you're allergic to stories in your games, you've been warned. (For whatever it's worth, the spoken cutscenes are skippable.)
(c) 2011, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.