Review: Yakuza 4

Gangster’s paradise
By MITCH KRPATA  |  April 13, 2011

At one point in Yakuza 4, a grizzled old gangster gives some advice to an upstart. "Whatever you do," he solemnly intones, "you gotta do it balls out." That might have been printed in all caps atop the design document. Whatever the game tackles — brutal hand-to-hand combat, operatic storylines, fanatically detailed mini-games — it does so with reckless abandon. Yakuza 4 is packed with things to do, places to see, and people to meet; its only fear is that it might leave something out.

HOT TIP Although each hero has a unique fighting style, using weapons is always preferable.
Set mostly in Kamurocho, a lightly fictionalized version of Toyko's red-light district, Yakuza 4 spins a convoluted yarn about noble gangsters, crooked cops, and the machinations of fate that bring them all together over a span of 25 years. The major difference from previous Yakuza games is that the long playing time is split among four protagonists. Over the first three parts, players control a moneylender, an escaped con, and a rookie cop, each of whom adheres to a strict code of honor and has no problem dishing out beatings whenever the need arises — which it does. A lot. (The series's usual hero, Kazuma Kiryu, descends in the fourth chapter, godlike, to help the newcomers take out the trash.)

Although the primary storyline unspools over the course of long, unskippable cutscenes, it's the more ridiculous optional missions that take up most of the player's time. Notably, in the game's nomenclature, these are "substories" and not "side quests." Gamers are used to suffering through mindless subordinate tasks, like collecting identical items, in order to power up their characters. And though completing a substory in Yakuza 4 does boost your characters' abilities, each tells a unique tale with a beginning, middle, and end.

To describe the substories is to ruin the surprise, but here are just a few of the things players can do in Yakuza 4:

• Attend a sales pitch for investment products, call the investment firm a bunch of scammers, and beat up its employees.
• Tame two stray cats, then follow a series of clues to buried treasure that we are led to believe was left by the cats themselves.
• Be recruited at random to go on a triple date and choose to help or hinder your companions' efforts to get laid.

This is to say nothing of the numerous elective mini-games, all of which are all rendered with incredible fidelity. Players can take a few swings at the batting cage, sit down for a few rounds of mahjong, even drop hundreds of thousands of yen at a hostess club. There is so much to do in this game that looking at your stats sheet feels like a cruel joke. Completion percentage runs at about one percent per hour of play, and that's if you're not screwing around.

Yakuza 4's greatest accomplishment is to render all of its constituent parts — from the highest drama to the lowest camp — without a trace of irony. A Western game with similar subject matter would be unable to resist meta-commentary. Yakuza 4 believes in the world it's presenting, and it asks players to do so too. That's true whether you're listening to the ex-con tearfully tell an arena full of bloodthirsty spectators that killing another person kills a part of yourself, or you're taking a cell-phone picture of a pickpocket clad only in white briefs and suspenders doing backflips on a rooftop. If you're going to play Yakuza 4, you've got to do it balls out.

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  Topics: Videogames , Japan, Games, Video Games,  More more >
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