Grand Theft Auto’s Liberty City and Red Dead Redemption’s Old West are justly hailed as console gaming’s finest sandboxes to date, their breathtaking environments instilled with the illusion of life through the immense level of visual detail in every nook and cranny. There’s also a level of artificiality to these vistas, though, and it must be stressed that they are only rich with the illusion of life. Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston rubs shoulders with cowboys who are both faceless and mute, whereas GTA4’s Niko Bellic resides in a city of empty doll-house terraces; their environments are far from being truly alive.
Yakuza 4 lays its scene in Kamurocho, a teeming mock-up of Tokyo’s infamous red-light district Kabukichō, and feels alive for very different reasons. While it’s exceedingly frustrating to be unable to explore any area which catches your eye (your character will hit an invisible wall and think out loud that this certain street isn’t worth walking down), and it’s also worth noting that Kamurocho cannot boast Liberty City’s seemingly endless skyline, there’s a real sense of vim and vigor to life in Tokyo’s criminal underbelly.
Taking control of different characters in four loosely linked story arcs, Yakuza 4 excels in that the player is made to feel like a genuine member of its decaying dystopian society. When navigating the mean streets of Kamurocho, speaking to or eavesdropping on civilians becomes increasingly difficult to resist. It’s rarely a necessity to forwarding the plot, but listening to your fellow Kamurocho citizen is an invaluable tool in helping you get a grasp of the city and its endlessly amusing minutiae. One’s enjoyment of Yakuza 4 hinges on how willingly the player embraces its titbits and extras, as to simply trawl through the game is to race from one map-marker to another with a few random bouts of fisticuffs along the way.
Killing time in Kamurocho is easy, then: As altruistic moneylender Shun Akiyama, you take charge of a hostess club, training and tailoring your girls to suit the needs of your clients. Or, while playing through ex-Yakuza hitman and recently escaped convict Taigo Saejima’s story, you can teach fledgling fighters at your local dojo and enter them in underground tournaments. And aside from these character specific mini-games, visits to the pool table and casino are also fleshed out in adequate detail. Essentially, Yakuza 4 is 20 mini-games rolled into one and glossed over with a rampant action-RPG and hyper-stylized crime theater.
The game’s cutscenes are unapologetically lengthy. And while they never quite encroach on Metal Gear Solid’s outrageous levels of indulgence, there are stretches where the player will feel relegated to a mere viewer. The story is engrossing enough, pandering to a myriad of Yakuza myths and archetypes rather than attempting to complicate them, and each of our four protagonists come armed with engaging and affecting intentions. Akiyama is arguably the most affable of Yakuza 4’s major players, his rags-to-riches story blessed with a steadfast moral compass, and this opening segment also provides the funniest moments in a genuinely droll script. Saejima’s story is an exercise in melodrama: On death row for a murder he regrets committing some 25 years ago, he breaks out of a shady Okinawa prison to learn the truth about his past (cue some very burly men shedding tears, plus some mushy displays of repentance). By the time series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu enters the fold in the fourth quarter, the plot has almost boiled down to a no-frills and strictly business means of storytelling, with wall-to-wall conflict and a slew of customary plot twists leaving little room for any human touch.
The action sequences are varied in that each character possesses their own fighting style, but the system isn’t without its flaws. The by-the-numbers minions are always easily disposed of, standing motionless like rabbits caught in headlights and taking their beatings with minimal fuss, but the boss battles prove incongruously tricky. The player can easily grow accustomed to a seemingly foolproof button-bashing routine for large portions of the game, but the huge leap in difficulty invariably requires a completely different strategy that will often leave you gazumped. Of course, boss battles are never supposed to be a stroll in the park, but without offering a happy medium between the two it’s frustratingly difficult to sharpen your skill set with any conviction.
Importantly, though, the game’s wretched hive of scum and villainy feels alive. The hustle and bustle of Kamurocho makes it feel less artificial (or, at least, superficial) than Liberty City or Red Dead Redemption’s frontier country. Yakuza 4 is not as good as either of those Rockstar’s efforts, though, regardless of how well SEGA have managed to flesh out its seedy urban vista and its gritty pseudo-noir story. There simply isn’t enough variety to the action sequences, and the presentation is lacking the polish that those truly unforgettable games always seem to bring.
Of course, that Yakuza 4 is even drawing comparisons with the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption should be considered lofty praise; this is a game that—for its many strengths—belongs in the same breath as console gaming’s greats. Unfortunately, because of a few weaknesses that conspire to derail momentum and completely nonplus the player, it will never be remembered so fondly.