Saturday, March 26, 2011

Review: Yakuza 4 is startlingly similar to Yakuza 3 and really showing its age, but is nevertheless a fun, intriguing, and sometimes thrilling ride

It was a very nice surprise when Sega reported that Yakuza 3 sold well enough in the Western territories to warrant the localization of this 4th installment. This is a series that's Japanese in every sense of the word, and Yakuza 4 represents both what's so wonderful about Japanese game development along with what's currently so wrong with it. From a storytelling perspective, Yakuza 4 is (almost) as successful as past installments in presenting a narrative with amazingly-directed cutscenes, facial expressions, a well-translated and acted script, and of course, all the plot twists you'd expect from a crime story. There's a great feeling of immersion as you wander through Kamurocho, a fictional depiction of Toyko's Red Light District, and the amount of things to see and do, from gambling, to bowling and golf and arcade games, to sidequests and of course the awesome karaoke, is incredible. (And that's not even scratching the surface.) Despite the serious, intense, and emotional narrative,  there's a Japanese sense of humor and quirkiness visible in almost every corner of Yakuza 4, which sets this series apart and helps to make each of these games such an enjoyable experience. On the other side of the coin, though, the inescapable sense of dated game design and almost complete lack of innovation or improvements from its predecessors serves to highlight the "play it safe" nature of some Japanese game design and it's in full force here.

Graphics and Atmosphere: Yakuza 4 looks nearly identical to Yakuza 3 from a visual standpoint, which is a tad disappointing, since Yakuza 3 looked dated last year. There are, though, a couple factors that save Yakuza 4's visual presentation, and those are the cutscenes, the amazing sense of detail, and the atmosphere. The environments in this series are filled to the brim with detail, and it's almost impossible to wander this city and not feel like you're really in the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. When you enter a store, a bar, or a mahjong parlor, you can sometimes hear loud music booming from a club next door, and a supermarket sounds exactly like a supermarket should. These games are  rich with detail and the lovingly-created city is one of the main attractions. This sense of detail applies to the cutscenes as well, which show off top-notch facial expressions and are directed with all the visual flair and skill you'd see in a crime movie. Load times are for the most part short and the framerate remains consistent in all but a couple of the more intense fights.

That said, the presentation, like a lot in this game, is in some serious need of an overhaul. The cutscenes look great and absolutely next gen, but the visuals when wandering through the city are...good, but unmistakably from 2009, when Yakuza 3 released in Japan.  The abundance of voiceless text box conversations, especially in the main story, is a big problem, and continues to be for this series. Granted, there's a lot of story to tell, (one or two of these cutscenes can rival scenes from Xenosaga Episode 1 in their sheer length) and I understand that it's not realistic to expect all of the dialogue to be crafted into these meticulously detailed cutscenes, but the text boxes seem to be getting more, not less, frequent as this series has gone on, and it's adding to the dated feel of the game. Oftentimes cutscenes will switch back and forth from text to cinematic as the scene progresses, and while this would be okay for the occasional small event, in Yakuza 4 it happens even during the most crucial confrontations, and that's unfortunate for a series that prides itself, as this one does, on its storytelling.

The boxy menus are clunky and feel like they're from last gen, as does the fact that you need to pause in the midst of combat to use items. All that said,  though, the sense of style and detail, not to mention the amazing cutscenes, assure that while this series is beginning to show its age in a big way with the visuals, this game is still far from an eyesore.

Gameplay: As with all Yakuza games, you're placed into the city of Kamurocho with a GTA-like radar and a combat system that's all about making your character as badass as possible. As you walk from one location to another, street punks will often come up to you and demand to fight. To the game's credit, the developers are well aware how ridiculous this concept is, so the fight challenges are played for laughs. Once you've beaten the crap out of your challengers in the brawler-style fights, you're rewarded with EXP and whatever else your defeated opponent gives to you. Fights are pretty much exactly what they were in Yakuza 3, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Where Yakuza 4 does shake things up is that this time you play as not one but four characters, each with their own fighting styles and moves. With the exception of Saejima, who frankly sucks at combat, all the characters fight well, and all have their share of crazy, over-the-top moves. As you deal out damage, a Heat meter charges, and once your character reaches Heat mode, you can activate cinematic (and hilarious) moves with whatever weapon you're holding. Or, you can drag a character near a wall and use that to your advantage. The weapons you can pick up in battle include everything from swords and knives to bikes, sign posts, traffic cones, golf clubs, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. Combat's fun and addictive, and you'll never go for too long without a jaw-droppingly brutal finishing move taking place.

The problem? None of this is new. Many of the Heat moves with weapons are re-used from Yakuza 3, which is a huge bummer. And while many are awesome, it's still easy to notice the laziness taking place on the part of a developers. It makes little sense that when you trigger a finishing move for a sword, for example, your character beats the enemy over the head with it in the same way he would if he was using a traffic cone. 

To be fair, there are several new finishing moves that don't involve weapons, which is good, but the amount of rehashed content in Yakuza 4 is surprising. Kamurocho is pretty much exactly as you remember it from Yakuza 3, and though they've added new areas like an underground sewer system, a series of rooftops to explore, and a small network of alleyways known as Little Asia, none of these add as much as, say, the city of Okinawa did to Yakuza 3. The gigantic list of fun activities to participate in throughout the city is amazing, but less so when you realize that you've done pretty much all of them in Yakuza 3 as well. The Revelations system (where each character can record hilarious events they see throughout the city to learn new moves from) is a great feature (and one that's *incredibly* Japanese,) but it's another Yakuza 3 feature that was carried over, and even this shows signs of laziness when a couple of the events repeat themselves. It's unfortunate that the developers haven't added more to this installment from a gameplay perspective.

On the other hand, that's not to say that improvements haven't been made. The seriously annoying fetch quests you had to do for the orphans in Yakuza 3 thankfully did not return, and the chase sequences have been made much less frustrating (and less frequent) this time around. The four characters you control fight differently enough that combat doesn't get stale, and even though you only play as each for four chapters or so, there are plenty of moves to learn through acquiring EXP. Yakuza 4's main storyline is also several hours longer than the rather short Yakuza 3, and with much less filler. (You're looking at 17-20 hours for the main quest alone, which is less than 10% of what Yakuza 4 has to offer, going by my completion screen.)

Still, the gameplay is by far Yakuza 4's biggest weakness, and as fun as combat remains and as amazing as this city still is, the foundation upon which this game was built is showing its age. There's a big list of places to enter in Kamurocho, but still, I can't escape the feeling that some of the city's more exciting-looking buildings remain off-limits. The area you have to explore, while certainly not tiny, feels almost hilariously limited when compared to the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City and the other next gen open world games. The lack of ability to mark waypoints on your map when heading somewhere that's not marked is irritating, because you have to then pause to bring up your map several times to make sure you're heading in the right direction. Then there's the concept of the battles themselves as you walk around the city, which I wish were easier to avoid than they are.

Yakuza 4 seems like two different games in one. The story aims to be the absolute best (and most technically accomplished) that it can be, while the gameplay ends up feeling dated and uninspired. Each characters' journey essentially involves you walking through the city from one place to another as dictated by a radar blip while you get in battles along the way. One character's quest will require him at one point to wander around looking for information (always a chore when this series does this) and then all characters have scenes where you'll fight enemies one after another as dictated by the story. Journeying up to the top of a construction site as you wipe out wave upon wave of enemies is about as uninspired as gameplay gets, and there are many variations of this throughout Yakuza 4, including probably the lamest prison break sequence in recent memory. It just all feels so dated and not particularly inspired; I mean, we're on the PS3 and we're still dealing with sending items to item boxes!

Yet again we have showdowns at the Millennium Tower, yet again we have to do a spectator fighting match in Purgatory to get information from Kage, yet again we have a mindless hostess mission that we must complete to progress the story.

(Note: Yes, the hostess mini-game which was removed from the Western release of Yakuza 3 has been put back.)

All this said.....what saves Yakuza 4 (aside from the story, which continues to make this series frankly better than its somewhat lazy gameplay deserves) is the fact that, as much as I hate to admit it, this is all As uninspired as this gameplay is and despite the fact that wandering this city would feel a lot more exciting if this wasn't our 4th time visiting it, I can't deny that Yakuza 4 is a blast to play almost from beginning to end. As someone reviewing a game, I can't let these issues with the gameplay go un-noticed: it's dated, this series is in desperate need of a revamp, and the amount of this game's recycled content from Yakuza 3 is unacceptable. Still, don't get the idea that this isn't a fun game to play. Though Yakuza 4 brought me the closest I've yet been to dropping this series' score below the 7 mark, overall, I just can't do that, and a big reason for this is...

Story: Yakuza 4 proves that even one of the weaker storylines in the series is still vastly better than most. Its biggest strength by far is the fact that its four main characters are all incredibly likable and quite well developed. It's hard to believe that despite only playing as each for a relatively short period of time, they all manged to leave a bigger impression on me than Kazuma's watered down personality in Yakuza 3 did. Yakuza 4 puts you into the shoes of Akiyama the loan shark, Saejima the prisoner, given the death penalty for the murder of a Ramen shop full of Yakuza members, Tanimura, the corrupt cop who accepts bribes yet still has his own values, and of course Kazuma Kiryu, the main character of the other 3 Yakuza games.

Each one is likable, and they're all brought together, in one way or another, by a mysterious woman who first shows up in Akiyama's loan office begging for a 100 million yen loan. A bar fight that turns into a murder is another factor, and the fates of the four characters, as well as many others, are all tied together. It's a story that takes a while to really get going, not helped by the fact that it must start over, in a sense, 3 times, when you begin each new character's journey. As intriguing as it was, I was actually incredibly disappointed during the first half of the game by a story that felt even slower than Yakuza 3's. I'll always remember the first 2 Yakuza games for their sense of urgency, and this was less present in Yakuza 3, and in the first half of Yakuza 4, it almost feels nonexistent. I can't stress enough, though, that you should stick with this, as the 2nd half brings this urgency back in full force, and it does something that Yakuza 3 never did; it put me on the edge of my seat, and I found myself unable to turn the game off in order to see what happened next.

The incredible characters, the great cutscenes, the sharp pacing in the 2nd half, and the intrigue in the 1st half allow for another memorable Yakuza storyline that alone is a reason to play Yakuza 4. The gameplay occasionally stops the story dead in its tracks, which is a shame, but story-wise, Yakuza 4 is another epic adventure you'll be glad you experienced.

Audio: The soundtrack is leagues above Yakuza 3's, delivering great cutscene music and also some fantastic environmental audio. As with all Yakuza games, the music's cut when wandering the city, (except during certain points in the game) and this allows you to fully experience the sounds and feel of Kamurocho, and it sounds as great as ever. In cutscenes the music's epic and really complements the action well. The jazzy track that that occasionally plays as you run through the city during intense moments is also great, and the battle themes, not to mention the Jpop songs that appear in various bars and other stores, all work wonders. A great game to listen to from start to finish. Voice acting is, as with all games in the series beginning with Yakuza 2, Japanese-only, but don't let that stop you from playing it, as the star-studded Japanese voice cast does an incredible job, as always, of bringing these characters to life.

Verdict: Yakuza 4 is another solid, if flawed and outdated, entry in the consistent Yakuza series. The storyline's as well-presented as ever, the characters are some of the best in the series, and the sense of immersion, helped by a bustling city and great audio, makes for yet another fun romp through Kamurocho. The gameplay's still fun, especially when in battle, but it's familiar to a fault, and the storyline takes so long to get going (and is occasionally interrupted by the dated gameplay) that I'm worried that not everyone will make it to the much better 2nd half. There are definitely issues here, but after completing Yakuza 4, I put the controller down and realized that, in spite of my reservations, Sega has done it again. They've created another memorable Yakuza experience. Though I may not be so kind to it if it doesn't provide some big new innovations and updates in the gameplay department, I have to say, I'm very much looking forward to the inevitable Yakuza 5.

Presentation: A quality storyline that's slow to get going but eventually takes off. Beautiful cutscenes, not to mention a city that truly feels alive. Dated menus, and let's please work on reducing the text boxes in the main story cutscenes, Sega!

Graphics: Showing their age technically but the sense of detail is incredible.

Gameplay: Fun combat system and immersive city keeps things entertaining, but aspects of this gameplay are decades behind the times.  Interesting 4-character idea and a removal of Yakuza 3's annoying fetch quests is nice. Recycled content from Yakuza 3 and lack of innovation is not.

Audio: Fantastic. Not much else needs to be said.

Replay Value: So much to do that it's mind-boggling, and great New Game Plus options mean you can come back to this game again and again after beating it.

Overall: 7/10. (B-)

(Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale.)

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