Yakuza 3, for much of its length, left the grimy, neon-lit haze of the series’ familiar Tokyo backstreets behind, and concentrated instead on long-standing series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu’s attempts to achieve inner peace through fostering large batches of children at his beach-side orphanage. Yakuza 4 marks a multifaceted return to more traditional series territory. Not content with giving us a good look at the Japanese capital’s underbelly through the eyes of a snappily dressed mobster, Yakuza 4 has added three new characters. Does this mean that Kazuma’s story has been told?
“I think it’s fair to say we’ve told a lot of his story,” says producer Masayoshi Kikuchi. “The idea, in Yakuza 4, was to give a realistic portrayal of the Tokyo underground community.” Structurally the game remains unaffected by the presence of an ensemble cast – it’s still a JRPG grind through a never- ending series of Streets Of Rage style fistfights, but rather than simply bringing to the game their own unique stories and thematic concerns, the new playable characters grant players the opportunity to try out three new flavours of brawling.
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The first new standpoint is provided by Shun Akiyama, a Tokyo moneylender with strong ties to the city’s homeless – the level we play involves clearing out a yakuzainfested abandoned building on behalf of its down-and-out inhabitants. With his dirty, creased red suit and unshaven features, he looks like Kazuma after a heavy night on the sake, and, fittingly, his fighting style is the most immediately familiar of the bunch. He does, however, seem to favour kicks over punches when possible (one of his combos leads into a blurred flurry of blows which is unmistakably Chun-Li’s lightning kick). Harder to get to grips with is escaped convict Taiga Saejima – or almost-escaped convict when we’re introduced to him.
A prison-yard brawl with the guards in what appears to be a breakout gone awry is the setting in which we get to try his slower, more heavily grapple-based approach to combat. At first, the lack of reach to his kicks and jabs is frustrating, and it’s not until one of the guards drops a baton that we’re able to even the odds. Combat retains its exaggerated, self-consciously gamey visual flourishes, contrasting heavily with the brutality going on beneath the kaleidoscopic colours. One particularly brutal finisher involves repeatedly slamming a foe’s head into a wall. Even when he slips out of the prison uniform, Saejima is certainly the worst-dressed of the cast. His story offers a counterpoint to Kazuma’s own: he’s jailed for the murders of rival yakuza gang members. Still living in his secluded orphanage at the outset of Yakuza 4, Kazuma is as ever destined to be dragged back into the dark side of Tokyo, his story intersecting with those of the newer members of Yakuza’s cast.