(This isn't quite the opening theme, but I don't want to use the intro video, and there's like 5 versions of "For Faith".)
This has been a long-time coming, I'm sure you all realize, and while I'd like to say I'm going to be able to be completely objective about this (and, actually, I think I am), I might not be as I am, clearly, a giant Yakuza fanboy. Take this review with the normal grain of salt you'd take from any other, but realize that I like these games because I think they're good games and not the other way around, here. Anyways, enough with that disclaimer, and more with the reviewing.
Yakuza 4 is the first game in the series to have a really noticeable departure from the last three games, in that you do not spend the entirety of the game playing as the series lead character, Kazuma Kiryu. Granted, if you count Yakuza Kenzan in this then it's the second, since Kenzan took place as one of Kazuma's ancestors who just happens to look exactly like him, but Kenzan doesn't count right now. Anyways, the big thing that's been played up for Yakuza 4 is that instead of one character, you'll be able to step into the shoes of four over the course of the game, which is pretty convenient for the naming, right? No seriously, something that I want to make clear here is just how obsessed the game is with "Four". Fourth game in the series, four characters, main title song (for the localization at least) is "For Faith", whereas there's three other tracks for the game titled "Four Faith", "For Face" and "Four Face". It's very much pushing the line from endearing to confusing, but doesn't quite cross it.
The 'mechanic' of having four different characters is a really great idea, honestly, and adds a lot of freshness to the series, while helping Yakuza Studios really focus on what they want to happen. Rather than make Kazuma become increasingly more and more ridiculously agile and/or powerful, we now have -other characters- to do that for us, which means Kazuma can take the last three games-worth of moves and focus more on what they want his style to be, rather than giving him every move. However, where this kind of gets a little grumbly for me is when you notice that a lot of the characters have moves Kazuma -also- has (actually at some point, the three characters who are not Kazuma get to do a sidequest where they get two more of his moves) which kind of dilutes their originality just a touch. Or it could be argued that they're unique enough that giving them Kazuma moves just makes them better. Regardless, I don't expressly dislike it, but I'm not sure if I really like it, either.
Still, as I alluded to, every character has their own style and their own strengths which is so very refreshing and welcome. Akiyama (your first character) is known as a "Speed Star" (rough translation, I imagine they more mean Speedster) in that his attacks hit fast and he's really focused on being agile. Saejima is your go-to power guy, whose fighting style relies on you really charging the power attacks to make hard-hitting combos to bounce your foes around. He is also the only character in the game who can grab and throw any regular enemy in the game (as in, including the large enemies, read: fat, and the 'sturdy' enemies, read: broad) which is something you really need to utilize for him since he's a striker, not a sweeper. Meaning that he really hits only one enemy at a time, for the most part, but he hits them -hard-. Another relatively annoying trait about him is that a lot of his moves rely on fighting with a flashing red health bar, which means he's fairly borderline on being knocked out.
And then we get to Tanimura. There is a lot, and I mean a lot that I can say about Tanimura, but a lot of it requires going really into the story and picking things apart in a really spoilery manner. I may still do that at some point, but for now, I'll stick to the strictly gameplay aspects of him. Now, I don't know if it's just because his fighting style meshes well with me, or if I'm just really good (I'm betting on the former, personally), but I was kind of hesitant to get to the point where I would play as Tanimura since a lot of the fans of the series complain about him in FAQs, message boards, etc. They say his style is too slow and such, which I can acknowledge that his attacks swing slower than the rest of the characters, but I never had a problem with him. In all honesty, I think Tanimura is actually a little overpowered, because at no point while playing as him (except for the end, for very specific reasons) did I even come close to losing.
Where Akiyama and Saejima are about Speed and Power respectively, Tanimura is more about "Flow" in both an offensive and defensive manner. Not only can he block, but his opening window for a block actually allows for something of a reversal where he grabs his foes fist and steps around it, sending them to stumble a few steps forward. I didn't make too much use of this, but it certainly speaks for his style at least and when it happens it always helps. His real strength, however, is the offensive flow I mentioned; through the upgrade system, you can eventually purchase a skill that lets you add on a Heat action at the end of a combo finisher (Square x2-5, with a Triangle attack to end it) which absolutely destroys everything. He has a ridiculously big Heat capacity and fill rate as well (when fully upgraded, but even just going through level ups and the base stuff) which means you stand to be able to use these attacks a lot. If you use those attacks a lot (you will), they even unlock follow up attacks, which means you'll unleash a combo, use a Heat action, and then use the second Heat action. Most enemies won't even -last- that long, so you end up going into pure overkill.
After Tanimura's section, you finally get to step into the shoes of the man himself, Kazuma Kiryu, whose style is the one I find the most difficult to define with just one word. It's a clear symptom of the fact that his style keeps getting changed and moves tacked on haphazardly until they realized that Kazuma is not a Kung-Fu master, but his random assortment of crazy moves isn't a detriment in the least; it just makes it hard to categorize. If I had to use a word, however, I'd charitably go with "Versatility" since Kazuma seems to have a Heat move for every situation you could hope for. Guy on the ground? Heat move. Guy standing up? Heat move. Picking up a guy off the ground to stand him on his feet facing away from you? Heat move. Decide to have a mid-battle smoke? Heat move. Etc. etc. Akiyama has a similar devotion to situational heat moves, but they see far less, well, 'versatility' than Kazuma does, as they need you to be fighting around rails, poles, or the like.
Beyond the actual fighting mechanics is, obviously, the rest of the game which is still quite rich and varied beyond running around and fighting and doing story bits. For those moments when you don't want to punch guys (because you're crazy, I guess) or you don't want to advance the story yet, there's all sorts of Mini-games that you can take part in to get that 'authentic Japanese experience' with, I'm sure. Arcades provide a few games for you to play in the form of a couple arcade games and a crane game, rhythm game based Karaoke singing (pictured above, clearly) lets you have a few laughs at seeing someone capable of stomping on a man's face, sometimes twice in a row, sing a touching melody to a hostess you decide to bring along or to no one in particular, alongside several other type of games. It's honestly a bit too much effort to list out everything you can do, since there's baseball, bowling, golf, table tennis and fishing on top of everything else mentioned as well as several other things.
Having so many side games to be able to do is kind of a double-edged sword, depending on how OCD you can be when it comes to 100% completion of a game. Sega is a little more merciful to this than some other japanese companies, only requiring you to play a good portion of the games and achieve a specific goal (get a turkey in bowling, hit two panels with one ball in baseball, etc.) if you're looking to get all the trophies, but actual in-game completion is a little more stringent. One such example, as I pointed out to a friend just last night, is the Pachinko side game, which is so foreign to me that I don't even know what. It's kind of like pinball in that you have a board somewhat like a pinball table, but rather than skillfully trying to bounce a ball around to get a good score, you're more trying to direct a flood of balls in a specific direction to give you a chance at winning a jackpot of...more playing balls.
The trophy attached to Pachinko is earning 3,000 balls (and quitting the game before you feed them all back into the machine to try and get -more-) and taking them to the prize counter to exchange for a Pachinko trophy. Yes, you get a trophy for buying a trophy and it's so goddamn meta it hurts. So if you're only concerned about trophies, there you go; you are now officially done with Pachinko. However, if your aim is to have full mini-game completion, you'll look into the category for it and realize that it says 3000 (or whatever amount you ended up with)/5000 Balls because to qualify for completion on that level, you have to win 5,000 balls, rather than just 3000. So if you cared, at this point you're likely cursing Sega's name because goddamnit you have to play Pachinko again. And play it well, even. And there's several, several instances of this, clearly.
Of course, there's also Mini-Games with a little more meat to them if playing Golf or Table Tennis just doesn't offer you enough stimulation. There's the Hostess Maker game I've talked about before at length as well as the more manly equivalent of Fighter Maker where instead of making sure your girl knows the right way about tricking a man out of his money, you put a fledgling combatant through his paces with the eventual goal of winning a tournament in the underground fighting ring. (Which is literally underground, and not just a turn of phrase.) While they can be compared to one another easily, given their nature as "Maker" games they're actually different enough to make them both worthwhile, though Fighter Maker requires a lot more planning out, surprisingly enough, since some of the fighters you get simply benefit way more from some training regiments than others. There's also the satisfaction of being able to select "Sparring" to raise your students abilities by absolutely wrecking him if you need to vent about his latest loss or skipped training.
While I could go on and on, I'm sure you get the point in that there's a -lot- of extra stuff to do beyond fighting mans (this isn't even counting the 60+ actual side-missions), so let's move on to the actual meat of the game: the story. Now, I'm sure with the knowledge that the game unfolds throughout the perspective of four different characters, you have to wonder how the story manages that. It's not one of those games that gives you multiple characters and bases their stories around conveniently happening at the same time, but rather tells the overarching story of the game through those four characters in sequence. It's still a little coincidental for my tastes as it basically means Akiyama has three or so eventful days, then nothing really, Saejima has a couple eventful days, etc. etc. It all makes sense within the context of the story happening, really, but the flow doesn't quite work for me.
Really, the story isn't handled in the best way, which is unfortunate, but not to the point where I'm willing to use adjectives as "weak" or "unfocused", yet I'm sure others will do so in my stead. The issue with telling one story through the perspective of four different characters is that you want to also tell the stories of the four characters themselves, which Yakuza 4 does perfectly; too perfectly, even. I got so invested in the stories of the characters themselves that I couldn't really get into the overarching story that sort of grew from the piecemeal parts you gather over the course of the game. It all just doesn't mesh as well as it could, but it's not, again, a detriment, it's just telling that the personal stories were far more interesting than where they ended up.
Would you believe that my other complaint about the story is that, despite me putting 70 hours into it to beat it twice with a modest completion, it's a bit too short for my liking? The bulk of those hours were spent chasing non-story content, of course, or watching the plentiful cutscenes that the game has to offer to deliver the majority of the story. My second play-through, which was an Extra Hard run for the trophy associated with that, I skipped all the story and ran through the text as fast as possible and ended up beating the game rather quickly (after pressing through the entirety of Hostess Maker to actually -beat it- this time), far too quickly for my liking, really. Some of the chapters, if you don't rely on the story for the most of its 'content' are really, really short, which I think speaks more for the outcome of the overarching story than anything. Still, I guess a lot of games are really short if you take out all the cutscenes and story added in.
- The fighting system is visceral and varied; every character brings something unique to the table and you'll find yourself longing for them when they're gone before you're beasting with your new character
- While the overarching story is hard to connect with, the personal stories of each of the four characters isn't, and are very very interesting in their own ways
- Because of the personal stories, there's a lot of character and personality in the game that is entertaining and easy to connect with
- There's no such thing as a "bad" character, as far as the ones available; you may find one difficult to play, but only as you're learning
- The music really grows on you and you eventually leads to increasing the impact of some of the scenes and battles
- There's so much to do in the game, and will give you a lot to handle if you're a completionist
- Seriously, the fighting is pretty much the best anyone could hope for in a brawler or, really, any combat-oriented game
- As I said, the overarching story isn't the best in the series and isn't the best point of the game itself
- If you stay away from everything but story content, the game will be a bit short
- It is very 'Japanese' so if you're not a fan of that, you'll likely find the game off-putting
- The Mini-Games, numerous in number as they are, also have very stringent completion goals, which will eat at you if you are a -real- completionist
- While I didn't mention it in the review, for story-spoiler reasons, the game really doesn't like Saejima which makes his sections the hardest
Mogs SaysStaying to what I said earlier, I like Yakuza 4 because I think it's a really good game, and not the other way around. The story is presented in a very slick, stylized way that is highly enjoyable, as is the combat of the game itself, which will always leave you wanting to find that next fight because it's that good. It could very well be called an RPG masquerading as a Action/Brawler game with the amount of extra content it holds, which, in my opinion is a bit too rare these days, so if you're looking for a great game to hold your interest for a while, this is definitely something to consider. It's definitely one of my favorite games of the year, so look for it towards the top, if not -on- the top of my list come January.