In between typing the very words that you're reading now, I've been staring out the window of a hotel in Yokohama, Tokyo. It's weird, because the whole city feels strangely familiar to me; the bustling streets, the diddy little noodle joints, the infinitude of vending machines, the general hubbub of daily life, and I can attribute that familiarity to only one thing: the Yakuza series. While the beat 'em up mechanics at its core are more than a little over the top, the world itself is brought to life with stunning attention to detail. The fourth game in the series returns to Kamurocho; a fictional yet entirely realistic take on Shinjuku's red-light district, Kabukichō. This is where the next arch of Kazuma Kiryu's turbulent dealings with the Yakuza takes place, although this time around he's going to have to share it with others.
For the first time in the series, the game is told through the eyes of more than one protagonist. While Kazuma is still the anchor that ties the plot together, players can expect to assume the role of four different characters throughout the course of the game. Masayoshi Tanimura the cop, Shun Akiyama the money lender, and Taiga Saejima the escaped convict all have stories that intertwine with Kazuma's, as well as their own unique features in combat. With a plot that's funnelled down four different paths, the game therefore feels quite different character wise, but the mechanics underpinning the experience remain largely similar to that of Yakuza 3.
The section of the game I played at a recent SEGA showcase was as Tanimura, the cop. Running around a dockyard in the middle of the night, Tanimura finds himself ambushed by hordes of Yakuza. Due to language barriers, I wasn't able to ascertain quite what he was doing in such a place, but given his profession, it was probably to lift the lid on some nefarious operation the Yakuza were running at the docks. I was told that this was quite far on in the game, but its context in terms of the narrative as a whole I really couldn't say.
Combat wise not all that much has changed. Taking down an opponent is still achieved through combinations of punches, kicks and grabs, and the item system implemented in Yakuza 3 is still firmly in place. What's different this time around is the finishing moves. Given that there are now four characters, there are four times the number of finishing moves available, and even from my short time with the game I saw a great deal of variety. These moves are context dependent too, so if there's a wall or bench nearby, it will undoubtedly be used in some fantastically violent way to bring your foes to justice.
Continuing the themes laid down by Shenmue back in 2000, Yakuza 4 still makes use of the odd QTE, usually at key points in a boss fight. Love them or loathe them (and for the most part I really do loathe them), the scenes of violence playing out as you mindlessly tap buttons are genuinely entertaining. Given how incredibly long boss battles can be, these QTE sections do a surprisingly good job of keeping the combat fresh and exciting.
There seem to be very few changes to the overall formula of the game, but as the old saying goes: if it 'aint broke, don't fix it. Fans of the series will likely be coming to Yakuza 4 for story at this point anyway, so it's not much of a problem. It was hard to get much of a sense of this from the partially localised version I played, but I think it's safe to say it will continue to be of the same high quality we've come to expect from the series. The game released in Japan back in March, and SEGA has already announced that Yakuza 5 is on its way. It's an incredibly fast moving franchise, and if you don't want to get left behind, it wouldn't be a bad idea to finish up Yakuza 3 before 4 hits early next year.
Yakuza 4 will be available for the PlayStation 3 in 2011.