Thursday, April 14, 2011
My review of Yakuza 4 is up now at thephoenix.com. You could probably tell by listening to the Brainy Gamer podcast: I loved this game. It is so surprising and strange.
Trying to sum it all up in under 600 words was impossible, and even attempting to present a vertical slice still missed a lot. For instance, there's a whole portion of the game set in an underground city populated by the homeless, which has its own economy based on trash. You could become a garbage tycoon down there, if you wanted. You don't have to. But you could.
For all that you can do in Yakuza 4, it's still restrictive in many ways. The reason comparisons to Grand Theft Auto games fall down isn't about ambition, depth, or storytelling mastery. In his book Dave Barry Does Japan, Dave Barry describes seeing a bunch of Tokyo's marginalized citizens hanging out at the park. The members of each group are dressed identically to one another, and perform coordinated dances once it's their turn. That's the approach this game takes to its "go anywhere, do anything" philosophy. In a Grand Theft Auto game, you'd be able to enter the Pachinko parlor and rob it, set it on fire, or jump out the window. In a Yakuza game, you can only play Pachinko. By the rules.
You know what else is missing from this review? Just how much fun it is to play. This has not changed since the first Yakuza game. Your characters are accosted every few blocks by street punks, low-level gangsters, and other assorted miscreants, and you have no choice but to beat the stuffing out of them using whatever you can get your hands on. So you grab whatever is handy -- milk crates, traffic cones, bicycles, even motorcycles -- and smash everyone up good.
All of the characters have a Heat meter that builds up and allows them to unleash even more devastating attacks, which are truly painful to watch. And there's a lot more variety than ever before, thanks to the four protagonists' different fighting styles. The cop will climb up an opponent's body like a monkey up a tree, grab his arm in a bear hug, and snap it. I never stopped wincing.
To dip into the superlatives grab bag, I feel comfortable saying that Yakuza is still the best series you're not playing. There's no better place to start than here!