‘Yakuza 4’ (PS4) review: Playing the long game

Outlandish plot aside, ‘Yakuza 4’ satisfies with quirky quests, brutal action

When I learned that the Japanese “Yakuza 6: The Song of Life” was going to receive a North American release, I was ecstatic. (If you recall, my 2017 game of the year was the masterful “Yakuza 0.” But then it struck me: I’m going to have almost no idea what’s going on in what’s set to be the final part in a seven-part series (not including spin-offs and other media). Still, I wasn’t going let something like 13 years of plot stop me.

But then, a bit of luck: The PlayStation Now streaming service added the console-exclusive “Yakuza 4” and “Yakuza 5” to its library, allowing me to play the PS3 games via my PS4 and get mostly caught up in the best way possible: by playing the games myself.

So, of course, to start my adventure through “Yakuza 4,” I spent an hour watching the original cutscenes from the first three “Yakuza” games, just to make sure I was up to snuff. Turns out, I probably could have used my knowledge from playing “Yakuza Kiwami” (a remake of “Yakuza”) and some short YouTube clips to get to the same point, but I digress. Because once you get started, all your knowledge of the past deeds of series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu kind of goes out the window.

The reason why: He’s only one of four major characters you control throughout “Yakuza 4,” and he’s the last one to boot. This was the first time a “Yakuza” game is led by anyone other than Kazuma, and while the ability to connect with multiple characters across a deeply interconnected story is one of the game’s shining strengths, the sheer overwhelmingness of that same story with those same characters is one of “Yakuza 4’s” greatest weaknesses.

Let’s just get it out of the way: There are too many cooks (i.e. protagonists) in the “Yakuza 4” plot kitchen. To be fair, no “Yakuza” story that I’ve touched is particularly easy to digest, and that skirts the fact that the series is pure Japanese in each and every pore. Still, trying to keep everything straight across 30-some hours among four men with their own connections to the main story — not to mention the side quests and adventures and mini-games and everything else — and it’s hardly a stretch to see how convoluted everything can become.

The crux of the narrative revolves around an assassination that took place 25 years ago and how consequences still are being felt in 2010 from that 1985 event. Throughout, you control loan shark Akiyama Shun, convict Taiga Saejima, police officer Masayoshi Tanimura and ex-yakuza Kazuma. Each man plays a role, some more direct than others, in the miasma that forms once treacheries, revelations and more start to make themselves known. Let’s just say a soap opera couldn’t come up with more shocking twists.

However, “Yakuza 4” impresses more than a few times during its story-revealing cinematic cutscenes. Certain moments are absolutely stunning: a massacre at a ramen shop, a tender reunion, a climatic battle atop the Millennium Tower (and no, because that seems to happen in every “Yakuza” game, that’s no longer considered a spoiler). It’s for the best that these scenes impress, too, because you’re going to be seeing a lot of them — and they aren’t short. (Of note: The game doesn’t have an English dub option, so there will be lots of reading involved unless you understand Japanese.)

While the story is an important and admittedly flawed aspect of “Yakuza 4,” it’s not going to ruin the game for you for one main reason: There simply is so much more to do. You want to impress hostesses to score a date? How about karaoke battles? Do you want to help people turn their lives around through odd tests and limitless yen? How about taking care of some adorable kittens? You can even beat up your doppelgänger. And that’s just a handful of all the ridiculous, addictive nonsense you can do between story missions to help break up the drama, without even touching on the numerous mini-games such as shogi or pachinko. There also are major side quests for main characters to complete, such as creating the ultimate fighter or making friends with people across town.

Speaking of town, while “Yakuza 4” takes place in a couple of locations, Kamurocho (the fictionalized version of Kabukicho, a Tokyo red-light district) remains the star of the show. The craftsmanship that went into creating Kamurocho is evident from the start. From the Sega arcades to the Don Quijote (the biggest discount store chain in Japan) to the bottles of liquor you can consume, just about every detail has been addressed.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a “Yakuza” game if it didn’t involve brutal fighting that will leave the player saying “ouch” every couple of minutes. Each character comes with a basic set of skills, which you upgrade as you level up and complete certain objectives. (A complaint: I know you have to start each character’s story with him at level one, because that’s how games work, but it a bit disappointing to spend all this time leveling up one character just to have to start over once you control a new character.)

You’re going to be spending much of your time punching and kicking and steamrolling and arresting people as you progress. Characters access different pools of moves, but they all basically play the same way (with one exception: Tanimura’s parrying abilities). As you inflict damage, your Heat meter increases, allowing you to pull off powerful, devastating finishing attacks, such as throwing people off bridges. It’s simple but it’s just so satisfying.

Visually, the game is a bit dated, but that’s understandable. Its cinematic cutscenes still hold up even to today’s standards, but the rest doesn’t quite match that quality.

In the end, playing “Yakuza 4” started out mostly as because I wanted to be better acquainted with the source material before I tackled “Yakuza 6.” And while it accomplished that, I had a grand time just exploring the quirky, unique world that the game created. Yes, the story is beyond convoluted, much to the game’s detriment, but if you can keep it all straight, you’ll come away having experienced quite the crime drama. And even if you can’t, you’ll always have the karaoke bar.

Four heated stars out of five.

Read the First Impressions review here.

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