(Originally written as an assignment for the course Game Design as a Cultural Practice)
Yakuza 4 is the 4th iteration of Sega’s long-running simulation games focusing on the Japanese underworld.
This crime underworld does not exist in a vacuum, so Sega’s designers have also modelled a fragment of Tokyo society, one of the nightlife and red-light districts. How much they model and how accurately they model changes with each title.
This school of open world game modelling that Sega has championed begins with Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue, and this shows. Shenmue is one of the pioneers in the modern day sandbox game.
Simulation games have to be selective in the information that they expose, and the amount of variables that the player can interact with. Yakuza 4 seems to be especially linear in its approach. Players play through several 4 main stories and sub-stories for each, which are not procedural. Players have a certain freedom to engage with these stories, but each story is often strict in how it ends.
An exciting peek into an ancient underworld
Yakuza 4 is set in the Kamurocho district in Tokyo. This district, meant to be a fictional representation of Tokyo’s Kabukicho district, is a city entertainment hub, the center of Tokyo’s ‘water trade’. This is a term that describes the night-time entertainment businesses: bars, nightclubs, host and hostess bars, and cabarets.
The game offers 4 story lines, told through 4 different characters, that come together in the last part of the game. Each of these characters have different roles in this world. Akiyama is a loan shark, owner of Sky Finance corporation; Saejima is a fugitive from the law with a mission; Tanimura is a police detective; and Kiryu is a gangster.
All of these characters interact with the crime world in this game. Players learn about the story through conversation with city dwellers and expository cut scenes. The world and the logic of the Yakuza is represented here quite faithfully: the syndicates referenced are fictional, but the appearance and manners of the members, as well as the member hierarchy, concerns and ways of doing business of modern Japanese gangster associations are presented faithfully.
Walking, Item fetching, Simulation-RPG and Fighting
The gameplay, as some tend to describe it, is a ‘walking simulator’: characters walk through this crowded district, talk to NPC’s and collect items. Along the way they eat at various restaurants, shop at anything from convenience stores to high end clothing boutiques, drink at bars, play pool, gamble, play arcade games, visit the sauna, go fishing, practice at the batting cages, and talk to NPC’s of various types. Players can spend time at hostess bars, karaoke bars, cabarets, date hostesses and, in the case of Akiyama, recruit and train hostesses for his own hostess club.
Players also take part in ‘action’ segments. There are chase segments, where players chase an NPC or try to flee from an NPC, and then there is the fighting. The fighting engine has been called ‘Virtua Fighter Lite’. Players use the four face buttons: the Square button for a standard attack, the Triangle button for a slow, powerful attack, the Circle button for grabbing enemies or weapons, and the X button to execute a quick step. The L1 button makes the player guard against enemy attacks. Depending on the button pressed and positioning of the enemy, sometimes special attacks will be triggered that launch a brief cut-scene. The player can also pick up random items off the street: bicycles, steel pipes, clubs, knives, wooden signs and more can provide a temporary boost in attack power (these items break after some use).
The story progresses through key fights between the player and various groups, be it the police, gangsters, or lesser criminals. In addition, the player is constantly challenged to fights while exploring the city streets. Beating all of these earns the player experience points and an item of some sort. Experience points increase player stats and allow the unlocking of various fighting moves.
A simulation game with personality
In this sense, it would be appropriate to describe the overall design as a game of progressive gameplay with emergent gameplay moments.
While some may argue that this approach favors the game stories over the realism of the simulation (to the detriment of the gameplay), when Yakuza 4 makes it work, the game is marvellous. The simulation comprises realism for fun and story.
A large amount of elements are represented in the game that really drive the experience of living in the heart of Tokyo’s nightlife. Busy crowds of trendy youth, office workers , petty criminals and elderly vagabonds roam the streets and parks. Hawkers, promoters and scouts of all kinds try to attract customers to their stores. Restaurants and convenience stores are full of authentic items that you can purchase and consume, even if the items are redundant: the end result of most items is to increase your health or HEAT gauge (this is an attack gauge). The same goes for the clothing available in the game.
Then there are the hostesses and hostess clubs. Previously taken out of Yakuza 3’s American release, this very Japanese establishment returns. Host and hostess clubs are places where adult men or women go to chat and share drinks and snacks with hosts of the opposite sex. Patrons pay a lot of money for these activities. Needless to say, the career of a host or hostess is competitive and short. Patrons look for young, attractive hosts/hostesses, and the frequent drinking and smoking takes a toll on their health. In order to keep customers returning to the bar, the host/hostess often goes out on dates with their customers.
All this is represented very well in Yakuza 4. The rituals inside the hostess club are also presented accurately. Players can chat with random hostesses or request a specific one. The hostess lights the player’s cigarette, orders food and drinks for the player, and shares banal conversation with you. Topics range from pets, ex-boyfriends, hobbies, dreams, gossip, cell phone games and beyond. Depending on the player’s responses, the hostess will like you more or less, as measured in a ‘heart bar’ in the top corner of the screen. Once the time is up, players pay an exorbitant fee (at least 20-50,000 yen ,approximately 500-200 dollars). Once out of the club, the hostess sends a text message full of emoticons and punctuation, thanking the player and hoping for his soon return to the club.
The simulation falls short
While the gameplay modes, minigames, NPC’s and substories come together to create an interesting city experience, each of these elements lack a certain polish that undermines the whole game.
Overall, the simulation is inconsistent in its level of detail. All simulations must do this, of course, but in the exploration segments, only a fraction of the buildings in Kamurocho can be entered. This is a shame, as many locations are intricately decorated from the outside. It probably couldn’t be helped, as this district is way too big to be able to detail all of it.
Earlier reviews comment on how the game has been made much easier than previous Yakuza installments. Others say Yakuza 4 is just part of a trend to make contemporary console games easier, often by hand-holding the player with the use of task lists for the player. This is present in our game: clear maps denote points of interest, task lists clearly describe the next objective for the player, and if the player is left standing idle for long enough, the player mutters to himself what the next objective is, which appears in the dialogue box.
Following the suggestion of these online commenters and reviewers, I started playing the game in ‘hard’ difficulty. This difficulty setting seems to mostly affect the action segments.
When players -are- given freedom to move between cutscenes, the main story is suspended, and the player to move around Kaburocho. Day and night does not change in a cycle, it only changes according to what the story needs. (Mind you, this is a review of the main gameplay mode, and not of the -free play mode- that is unlocked after beating the game once). The city dwellers, the game’s NPC’s, are mostly not meant to be interacted with. They look and act realistic enough when the player is just running past them. The walking routines of most NPC’s are also very arbitrary: following a random NPC’s walk for more than 3 seconds and you will see NPC’s end up walking in circles or zigzagging. The few NPC’s that can speak display one unique dialog tree, or just repeat the closing statement of their dialog tree once the dialogue or sub-story has been completed.
The fighting stages remain very easy, it hasn’t been until the 2nd character story arc begins that I’ve had true challenges in this department. The game throws many enemies at the player, when the engine seems to be designed to fight, at the most, 4 enemies. Most player attacks target one enemy, and most annoying of all, groups of enemies stand back, while the player picks off 1 or 2 enemies at a time. Fighting in the Kumarocho streets is too easy, as the player is usually given a healing item after every encounter.
Minigames range from very complex( the pool game, casino games), but some games are too simple to engage long-term. For instance, the local arcade allows you to play Boxcelios, a ‘shoot-them-up’ style game. It has great graphics, but gameplay consists of a player ship shooting at a single enemy blob over various stages. It would have been great to play a more complex game, even it had simpler graphics. It should be noted that the upcoming Yakuza 5 includes Virtua Fighter 2 as a playable game in the city arcades, which is great, deep game.
Conclusion: a flawed, but interesting product.
Yakuza 4 is a nuanced ‘city-exploration’ game, allowing players to explore a small area with many gameplay options. It provides depth in exchange for the breadth of bigger games like GTA V. Not all of the game modes are as fully fleshed-out as you’d like, but the sum of its quirky parts make for an unforgettable experience. Yakuza 4 shows a side of Japan that may be quirky or uncomfortable, but help to understand how Japan and the Japanese mind function. It allows us to explore the dynamics of the city, by having players move and interact in it. This reviewer would love to be able to play as a local in other cities. How about a game set in downtown Tehran, or a district in Nairobi, or Old San Juan? Those of you curious to explore big cities, interested in Japan or the Japanese underworld should play this game.