Yakuza 4

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 April, 2011, 12:00am


Yakuza 4

You're forgiven for giving that title a double-take. Yes, this is the fourth entry in a series of games you've probably never heard of. In Japan, Yakuza is immensely popular: with four canon games, two spin-off games, two movie adaptations (both directed by celebrated filmmaker Takashi Miike) and a host of books, soundtracks, radio dramas, web TV shows and other related materials, it's the country's Grand Theft Auto.

In the English-speaking world, the series is unfairly ignored. But those bored by the current first-person-shooter trend should give it a look, with players sent deep into Tokyo's seedy underbelly through a clever balancing act of gangster politics and brutal action.

Yakuza 4 is the ideal jumping-on point for those new to the PlayStation series. The latest entry starts afresh with an entirely new character, a loan shark with a heart of gold, and throughout its 30-hour-plus playing time, puts players in the shoes of three more people, the kicker being that each one of their lives is eventually connected. That sounds like a lot of story, and most long-time gamers are justifiably wary of a heavy plot that takes away from the 'gaming' experience. But Yakuza 4's slow-burn story is a large part of its appeal. The Rashomon-like narrative is a clever way to tell its tale, and each of the four stories have enough shocking surprises to fill a game of their own, with all coming together in a conclusion that's worth the wait. Add to this its lifelike animation, cinematic style and brilliant voice-work, and sitting through numerous half-hour-long cut scenes doesn't seem so bad.

Whereas the story builds considerably on previous entries, the game play is kept virtually the same - which is far from a bad thing. The missions go far beyond the standard drive-somewhere-and-kill-someone formula so overdone in the Western world.

From the completely satisfying (rooftop chases, killing street punks) through to the questionably strange (helping a nerd get a date), not every mission is perfect and some are downright boring - but each is so thoroughly original that one can't help but appreciate their creativity. Yakuza 4 might not break new ground with its game play but by seamlessly blending classic gaming styles with a unique, involving story, those willing to take the risk will be rewarded with a game unlike any other.