Yakuza 4 review: An immersive sandbox.
- There is so much to do in this game (and 99 per cent of it is awesome)
- It could probably do without the chase sequences
Yakuza 4 is true sandbox gaming, with a great story, brilliant minigames and side quests, and a vibrant and interesting world to explore.
Yakuza 4 is the first game in the series I've played. For whatever reason, until now the games have passed me by — perhaps in part because I wasn't as gripped by its spiritual predecessor, Shenmue, as others.
Going in as a complete newbie then, it took all of 30 minutes to be utterly hooked. This is the kind of sandbox I like to play in.
Yakuza 4 is, broadly, a story-heavy RPG. There are long cut scenes to sit through, multiple characters to juggle between, and an epic (albeit underground and urban) story to follow. There are random battles, XP upgrades, and save points.
But looking beyond those raw mechanics, the game radiates a rare passion. The city all this drama plays out in is genuinely open. There are convenience stores to pop in to, multiple cafes and restaurants to visit to chow down delicacies. There are some seedy bars tucked away in small corners with fully functional pool and darts games. There's even an arcade, with an arcade game that supports online leaderboards.
While the city is (substantially) smaller in terms of square metres to a game like Grand Theft Auto, all that means is there's more action per square metre. Whereas in GTA you'll have a lot of down time driving from place to place, in Yakuza 4 (where you're on foot) there's almost always something nearby to get involved with.
In fact, because of that concentrated action, the game does a remarkable job of capturing the energy and atmosphere of a real Japanese city, to the point where as I played I felt a great urge to buy a plane ticket to head back to Tokyo. Street signs, architecture, shop layouts, and fashions are all faithfully recaptured — it feels like Sega has gone and recreated a real part of Tokyo.
There's no real pressure to tackle the main story at any great pace — indeed Yakuza goes to great lengths to get you acquainted with the side quests and minigames it offers. The hostess clubs are a major focus early on in the story, for instance, but rather than disappear into the background, there's a rewarding simulation to play with in going back and helping some hostesses become popular, and flirting with others. It's even possible to 'date' the hostesses, should you check the right boxes.
It's a joy to explore the world of Yakuza. The random battles (typically a death knell for exploration) are paced just right to keep the action level high, but the frustration level at bay. Bump into the wrong street punks and a seamless transition later you're beating the living daylights out of them while a crowd gathers around to cheer you on. Combat is action-based, and very fluid. There are a lot of different kinds of kicks, punches and grabs that can be performed, and the combat gets some amusing variety in being able to pick up any number of objects from the environment to use as weapons. There's nothing quite as satisfying as breaking a guy's head in with a stack of magazines.
The one failing from the entire game is the occasional chase sequence. These don't control so well, and the clumsiness breaks with the suspension of disbelief just enough to pull you out of the experience and remind you that you are playing a game. Thankfully these scenes are few and far between.
As Japan's answer to GTA, Yakuza 4 is a very adult game. The combat is messy and brutal, the themes are dark, the sexual tones run thick and there's plenty of bad language. But it's impossible to go wrong with such a massive, intelligent and open game. And if, like me, you're a newcomer to the series, Sega has been good enough to provide background videos on previous games' events, so catching up is easy.
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