Yakuza 4 (2011)

Right off the bat, Yakuza 4 really changes up the formula of the series, introducing several new playable characters, along with series protagonist Kiryu. Just like before, jumping into the next game right after finishing Yakuza 3 might have been a bad idea, not only because it was pretty late in the evening, around 1:30am when I hit start on the new game, but also because I was eager to see what happens to Kiryu after the cliffhanger of an ending that 3 leaves off with.

At the end of Yakuza 3, Kiryu is critically injured by a stabbing in the middle of a busy street by Hamazaki, one of the game’s bad guys. Even though a post credits stinger shows Kiryu rehabilitating with the help of his adopted daughter Haruka at the Morning Glory hospital, I wanted to know what was next for Kiryu, and if he would seek revenge on Hamazaki.

Well, that’s not the story Yakuza 3 is interested in telling. Instead they took 4 as a moment to really let that number resonate throughout the entire title. Giving us a game that doesn’t really feel like a mainline Yakuza game until 3/4ths of the way through. Starting out, the player takes control of newcomer Akiyama, a self made loan shark of sorts. With his loan office having the unquie trait of not having to put up any collateral of any kinda, and the loan has no interest either. The only catch is Akiyama creates a challenge of sorts specially catered to the individual asking for the loan, before he will give them the money. That was the hook that drew me to his character. In the initial couple hours, I wasn’t interested in a new character. I wanted Kiryu’s story. And the further I kept playing of Yakuza 4, the more I kept getting pulled in two directions.

I wanted Kiryu’s story, but the new characters who I was forced to play as grew on me over time. Their stories all intersect as specific times, and their backstories of who they are, and where they have been are compelling enough for me to really keep my interest and pull me into their individual stories.

I thought Yakuza’s third game’s plot was pretty complicated near the end, but the fourth,  hands down, is so much more complicated. As to not spoil too much, I’ll try to keep it as brief as I can, but really there is just so much to unpack with the plot.

Akiyama, the loan shark, just a few years prior was homeless, but the 10 Billion yen that rained down from the Millennium Tower explosion back at the end of Yakuza 1, changed his life. Now he loans out money and invests in people who might be down on their luck. He is visited by a girl named Lilly, who asked for a 100 Million Yen loan. Akiyama agrees as long as she completes his challenge test. While on the challenge test, he falls for her. Hard. As he does a bit of digging, he realizes that she has been a real life Femme Fatale, as she is killing powerful Yakuza men around town. While he doesn’t know why, he still gives her the money and she takes off for Okiniwa.

Then comes the next new protagonist, Saejima who we learn is a sworn brother of Goro Majima. Back in 1985, Majima and Saejima were going to go take out a top ranking rival clan’s leader, only Majima didn’t show up. So Saejima went on a killing spree on his own and took the fall for killing 18 men. He gets locked up for the last 25 years and gets sent to some off the grid private prison near Okiniwa. There he meets up with Hamazaki, the one who stabbed Kiryu at the end of Yakuza 3. This is where the game is a bit infamous. You take control of Saejima and have to do several fetch quests to help Hamazaki break out of prison. This was really the big complaint that I saw online, but I personally didn’t find it all the difficult or tedious. The prison yard is small, everyone you talk to doesn’t have a lot to say, and the longer part was the prison break fights that still didn’t take much time. It felt like a bit of an odd place to be in, given the material of these games, and the locations in which they are normally set, but I found it to be a bit of a breather and a welcomed new setpiece.

Once Saejima breaks out of prison, he washes up on shore in front of the Morning Glory orphanage, and he is nursed back to heath by Kiryu and Harkua. Once there he spills the beans of what is going on a bit to Kiryu and heads for Kamurocho to find out why Majima ditched him all those 25 years ago. Once in Kamurocho, he meets up with Majima and they hash things out over a good old fashioned fist fight at the local batting cages.

Smash cut to the third new playable character, Tanimura, who is a “plays by his own rules” undercover cop. He’s the son of a cop who mysteriously wound up dead and no one knows exactly why. Tanimura suspects some sort of cover-up, but doesn’t know exactly how deep or high the mystery really is.

As the game progresses, more and more of the classic Yakuza gameplay is unlocked. Finding locker keys around town, getting in all sorts of random battles, playing mini-games and helping the odd and weird citizens of Kamurocho along with the personal stories of all the main playable characters spreads out the game much more than I was interested in to be honest. As this is now my fifth Yakuza game in the last several months, I wasn’t really interested in playing mini-games or doing fetch quests to gain more money for items I’d never use. I already felt plenty powerful with the combos and items I have gained just by playing the game’s main story. So I decided if there were any sub-stories I came across that really piqued my interest, I’d follow them, but if not, I’d just mainline the game, because I just really wasn’t interested in all the extra fluff for a fifth time, especially since this is a 2011 game, and knowing the substories from Zero, Kiwami 1 & 2 were much more interesting than anything that could be found in Yakuza 4.

Finally, once Kiryu is unlocked, I was already starting to wrap up the main story, and just had a couple hours left to play through, which mostly were cutscenes. Which honestly wasn’t a bad thing in this case. I wouldn’t call Yakuza 4 a bad game, it’s just very different from the other’s in the series, and honestly I quite liked it. I do wish the games started off with Kiryu, even if it was just the first 45 minutes doing some odd jobs with the kids and the orphanage in Okinawa, just to keep fans not wondering for 15 hours  “what happened to Kiryu!?!?!” It just was unnecessary to keep him out of the main game until the end.

Other than that, I really was impressed with how well told the overly complicated storyline was, and how the game pulled it’s punches when it came to the over the top nature of the series. Yakuza 4 is a bit more subdued and a bit more mature when it comes to it’s overall story. And I found that inviting as a now series pro, and thinking I’ve seen it all from the series. With just a couple more games to wrap up the Yakuza mainline series, and Kiryu’s story as a whole, I’m fascinated with how well done these games are. Sega continues to knock it out of the park in providing a hugely complicated production of a multi decade story with intertwining and twisting storylines that intersect and overlap, while still making perfect sense.