After three games in the series, Yakuza 4 had some big shoes to fill, now with the addition of two remakes in the form of Kiwami and Kiwami 2, and the prequel Yakuza 0, Yakuza 4’s task is bigger than ever.
Yakuza 4 delivers a different game than fans might expect, but also one that changes the formula of the series and creates something fresh.
Yakuza 4’s heavily on previous titles and creates issues for new players. I originally played Yakuza 4 in 2016 as my first entry into the series, and while the game was good at the time, without having already played the three previous titles the game talked about many characters who got no development, and thus the story suffered for it. I wondered why did the game focus on characters it didn’t take the time to introduce?
After playing the previous titles, and falling in love with the series, a return to this game in its remastered form creates a more interesting experience. While Yakuza 4 begins with the assumption of the large history of the series, it expands the world in new ways and creates an interesting take on the series.
While the story will be mostly coherent for new players, the remaster removed the flashbacks for each of the first three games. That means new players will not even get baseline knowledge of this history. This shouldn’t be a major problem for players who have played previous games and will get introduced to characters they have met before as if they are long-time friends. However, moving to Yakuza 4 after a decent length of time may challenge players who struggle to remember what happened in the previous titles.
The introduction of four playable characters is also a massive change for the series. In previous games, players were only in control of Kiryu Kazuma, this time around players will go through the stories of Shun Akiyama, an odd loan shark with his own set of rules, Taiga Saejima, a convicted killer who is now looking for answers, Masayoshi Tanimura, a police officer chasing his father’s murderer, and finally Kiryu Kazuma, because even when the Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio changes the formula it likes to stick with what it knows.
Each character is given a fourth of the story, and each story is told in full before moving on to the next character. This creates a need for each story to keep the player’s attention and Yakuza 4 does this well. Akiyama’s story is the strongest, but it sets up an important narrative that weaves into each of the other character’s stories eventually and players will unravel the larger plot as they play on.
The various stories are good, though having to introduce a new character multiple times throughout the game is challenging. The section of the game revolving around Tanimura was weaker than the rest. The result is a complex narrative that brings all four characters together for a final cathartic chapter with an epic battle that will bring closure for each story.
While the stories in Yakuza 4 start in different areas, the core of the story in Yakuza 4 is focused on the Tojo clan and a clan that is attempting to move in on the clan. This is a rather familiar story to the series, but given the unique way of Yakuza 4 looking at the story from four different viewpoints, each covering a new area of the larger narrative, the experience feels fresh, and there is an interesting path with a large number of twists and turns.
The gameplay in Yakuza 4 is familiar to the series. Players will beat down enemies with whichever character they are assigned at the time and the combat moves at a crisp pace. Most conflicts will be over in a few moments, though larger groups can cause a little challenge.
Each character also has a different fighting style. Akiyama controls the most like the classic Yakuza series with a focus more on kicks rather than a pure brawling style. Saejima’s combat is more focused on grapples and charge attacks, Tanimura is strongest when using parries, and Kiryu returns with his classic Dragon of Dojima style.
The four fighting styles give each character a fresh feel, and the styles feel unique, though switching suddenly between the characters will feel strange since they’re designed in very different ways. At the game’s heart, Yakuza 4 is a brawler, but where Akiyama should combo enemies Saejima should use more of his charge attacks to power through hits.
The struggle with the change between the two characters also affects how Saejima’s story is set up. Saejima has many long scripted battles for the first half of his development without a chance to get used to the style of gameplay. Where the other characters can explore around the familiar streets of Kamurocho and interact with side stories and easier random fights, Saejima’s story is set up in a series of challenging fights that the player must tackle.
Many of the issues of the block heavy bosses in Yakuza 3 have been removed as well, and except for a few fights, Yakuza 4 feels more fluid and welcoming to players, giving them a chance to define the style of combat that they want to pursue, rather than trapping them a specific fighting style that will punish the player if they leave that path.
Kamarocho returns once again and has been expanded. The entire city has gotten a minor facelift, however, there are new locations to explore in the form of rooftop passages, an underground shopping mall, and an expansive underground which includes new parking, sewers, and an old theater. Each of these feels large and makes Kamarocho fresh even if it’s a city that three games have already been set in.
Substories return as well and they present a great way to flesh out each character. Each character is given 15 substories and like always they help Yakuza shine as a series as they are the points where the game is allowed to relax from the serious main story and talk about the homeless taking care of a cat, or an ex-Yakuza looking for a job. Each substory feels self-contained but interesting and most have excellent resolutions.
The only issue is that if the current character finishes their main story segment, the game will require the player to finish the entire story to return to previous characters which will take a decent amount of time.
Ultimately, Yakuza 4 is a departure for the series. The addition of the new characters feels like this probably should have been treated as a spin-off, but the addition of Kiryu Kazuma makes that impossible. Players will ultimately start to wonder “If they’ll play as Kiryu” or since he shows up in the opening video, “When will they play as Kiryu”.
But after playing through the entire Yakuza 4 experience for a second time, I enjoyed the new characters as they felt like a breath of fresh air, even if the story is similar to something that has been done multiple times already. Seeing how loan sharking, or police work is done in the Yakuza universe was entertaining and it proved the franchise could survive without Kiryu.
Yet… Yakuza 4 does struggle with its story and combat. It’s not a major stumble but one that makes the experience weaker than the height of the series.
I still would recommend Yakuza 4 to anyone who has enjoyed the Yakuza series previously. While Yakuza 3 was a weaker entry, I would recommend playing 4 after Yakuza 3 due to a few key story pieces, and returning characters.
I give Yakuza 4 an arbitrary
I enjoyed writing about Yakuza 4 so much that I’m starting Yakuza 5 to see where this series takes the characters after this point. I’m sure I’ll have a review for that before long.
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