|Dev: CS1 Team|
|Release: March 15, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 720p-1080p|
by James Trujillo
If you're just now hearing about the Yakuza series, you're a bit late to the party. But, you're better late than never, right? Trust me, the answer you're looking for is yes. This hugely popular Japanese franchise is something that the general western audience might take for granted, but that doesn't mean we can't change our tune. The majority might consider it just a Japanese Grand Theft Auto, and in some ways that might be correct, but it's far more complex than that.
Actually, it's almost an entirely new take on the brawler/beat-'em-up genre, but far more elaborate. Just imagine what Streets of Rage would have been like if it had been open world with today's technology to back it up, and you might begin to get an idea. However, even that doesn't begin to do Yakuza any justice. Brawlers weren't known for telling any worthwhile narrative, but Yakuza has a script on par with a great movie franchise; and the fourth in the series seems to take things even a step further.
Yakuza 4 returns to the city of Kamurocho, the home of the main protagonist Kazuma. At first glance, the city might seem familiar to returning fans, but there have been a few subtle changes. It is a more expansive game world than it was since first being introduced in the original Yakuza. The city is almost a fully realized recreation of Tokyo's "Sin-City District," filled with hostess bars, pachinko parlors, and other adult entertainment aspects that are only found in Tokyo's nightlife scene. Also, Kazuma isn't the only playable character this time around. We got to observe a demo that began with a character named Akiyama, a loan shark, who works for a company called Sky Finance.
For those unaware, the Yakuza are an organized crime syndicate much like the Italian Mafia. The main difference is that they are in the public eye. They even go as far as making their presence known within major legitimate businesses and corporations. As the demo progressed, Akiyama got a phone call while taking a breather at his office in Sky Finance. It was from a woman named Hana who apparently caught him taking a break he shouldn't have been taking. She informed him, rather intently, that it was collections day and it was time for him to get back to his duties.
The cutscenes in Yakuza 4, along with the rest of the series, are quite lengthy. The demo we saw was roughly forty-five minutes in length, and was almost entirely cinematics. Granted, there were opportunities to explore and do various side missions, but the presenter only spearheaded through the story mission. Exploration is still a huge part of the game, but unfortunately we didn't get to see much of that. The number of cutscenes may be a turn off for people who are more interested in the gameplay, but the plot is extremely engaging. I won't give away any plot spoilers, but even with the short time we spent with the game, I was already hooked by the character depth alone.
While Akiyama was on a stroll through the rain on route to his next collection, he happened upon a familiar member of the Tojo Clan who was in a bit of a hurry. After following him and prying into a conversation about some nearby trouble, he proceeded to give a few clan etiquette lessons to another younger member of the Tojo. Things became tense as moods shifted and a sense of uneasiness filled the scene. The topic swayed towards the theme of respect. The dialogue was well laid out, and it felt like any number of things could have happened at any given moment, even though everyone maintained an appearance of friendliness to one another.
After Akiyama eventually left, there was another cutscene that detailed his job as a loan shark in the city. It spoke of the unusual "conditions" people had to agree to before he would lend them money, and revealed an unexpected twist in his character that strayed far from any typical thug. Anyone familiar with the series will know the details behind his particular character-arc, but those who don't will surely be drawn in by its intrigue. Akiyama is only one of four characters you will play as throughout the game, including the franchise star Kazuma, and it's obvious each will have a very deep, unique backstory that will captivate audiences.
Like the rest of the series, Yakuza 4's combat is primarily hand-to-hand in a brawler-style scenario. When wandering the city streets you'll experience random encounters similar to older Japanese role-playing games, which come in the guise of "street punks." They'll stand around looking for a fight, and once you get close enough to trigger them, a crowd gathers to give you a makeshift combat arena. You can perform various kicks, punches, and throws to best your opponent, as well as unleash special context sensitive finishing maneuvers once you fill your combo meter. Depending on where you're standing in the environment, you can do a multitude of brutal finishes, like a knee-drop to the face, a face smash against a wall, or just a plain kick to the face while an opponent is laying on the ground. I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that facial reconstruction is a pretty lucrative business practice in the city of Kamurocho.
The increased scope of the city isn't the only thing that's changed in this addition to the series. The famous hostess clubs are back after being omitted from Yakuza 3, along with plenty of other activities like bowling, pool, blackjack, and even karaoke. Each of the four playable characters will also have their own fighting style to change up the combat scenarios a bit. Also, the landscape has expanded in tiers with building rooftop access, which were never featured in any previous game, as well as an intricate underground system of tunnels and sewers.
Even with the little we've seen of Yakuza 4, it's already shaping up to be a must-own title in your PlayStation 3 library. The story on its own is as captivating as anything I've seen in terms of crime-dramas, and the gameplay looks as smooth and polished as ever. The graphics, particularly the facial animations, have grown leaps and bounds over its predecessor and make the story all the more immersive. Do yourself a favor and check out Yakuza 3 if you want a detailed recap on the series backstory. It features two optional cutscenes that detail the first two games before you begin your playthrough, and it will get you aptly prepared for when Yakuza 4 releases on March 15th, 2011 to North American shores.
CCC Freelance Writer