If we’re going to talk about Yakuza 4, then we need to talk about jankiness.
How does one describe “being janky”? I suppose it has that indefinable quality that others have equated with pornography – one knows it when one sees it. To be janky is to be, well, weird, and it can be applied to any number of attributes – graphics, controls, dialogue, etc. It is not “weird” in the sense that the uncanny valley is weird – it is something obvious and immediately noticeable. And it isn’t necessarily bad – or, rather, a game having janky qualities doesn’t immediately qualify the game itself as bad. For example, GTA3 is janky all over the place – the combat controls are especially janky, and even more so in retrospect – and yet that game was not only a masterpiece, but a watershed moment for the entire industry.
To that end, I am very surprised at how much I am enjoying Yakuza 4.
Let me start this by saying that I’m at the very beginning of what I’m guessing is Part 2 – my understanding is that you play as 4 different characters, and to that end I just started the 2nd character’s arc. I’m probably around 8-10 hours in, and I’m told it’s at least 25 hours long.
I’ve never played any of the other Yakuza games except for a demo of Yakuza 3, which didn’t do anything for me – the demo was mostly combat-focused, if I remember correctly, and I wasn’t particularly good at it. But I’d heard enough positive things from trustworthy people that Yakuza 4 was a worthwhile experience, and I decided to take their word for it, and as a result I am thoroughly hooked.
What’s janky about Yakuza 4? Well, it’s very Japanese. That doesn’t immediately qualify it as janky, but it should offer a clue as to what makes it janky. It presents itself as an open-world gangster epic – a comparison to Grand Theft Auto is certainly appropriate – but it’s also occasionally very silly. For example, in Part 1, you play as a very strange loan shark – you give out gigantic loans without asking for collateral or a guarantor (this fact is repeated many times), and yet everyone is afraid of you. I’m not quite sure why – I kinda like the guy, he’s funny and whimsical and nice – but I guess that’s Japan for you. Anyway, the silly part is that as you roam around the city, you are constantly getting assaulted by ruffians and gangsters, and then you kick their asses with an incredibly satisfying and visceral combat system, and then, as they stand hunched over, bleeding, they apologize profusely for causing you any harm or inconvenience, and will offer up health power-ups or large quantities of cash in subservience to you. This never happened to Tommy Vercetti.
The city itself is also pretty janky. Maybe a better word would be claustrophobic, actually – the streets seem incredibly narrow, almost as if you could touch the buildings on either side if you stretched out your arms, which would also explain why there aren’t any cars.
And then there’s the outright creepy stuff, like the hostess-training meta-game. Your loan shark character also owns a nightclub, and as such you are responsible for the recruiting and training of your hostesses. When you’re roaming the streets recruiting, you’re looking for cute, young, vulnerable women who need money. And when you train them, you’re literally playing “dress up” – that’s what it’s called in the menu. You roam around your club, eavesdropping on the “needs” of your customers, and then you go back into the dressing room and dress your girl in clothes that reflect those needs. (Again, I should reiterate that I’m only talking about the first character here – I have no way of knowing yet if this stuff is pervasive throughout the rest of the game (although Part 2 is taking place in a prison, so I certainly hope there’s no hostess-training there).)
But to focus on this stuff is somewhat missing the point. The story in Yakuza 4 is surprisingly deep, engrossing, and very well told. The graphics are a bit ugly – it looks like a PS2 game, frankly, and everything seems to be covered in a very thin fog – but the facial animation and motion capture performances are utterly convincing, going a very long way towards keeping you invested in what’s happening. Even the sudden changes in cutscenes – half of a scene will feature voice acting and multiple camera angles, and then the other half, for no apparent reason, will feature text boxes and static cameras – don’t really jar you out of the scene.
And the combat, as mentioned above, is incredibly satisfying. Granted, I’m playing on easy, because I suck at fighting games, but it’s still visceral and powerful and I never get tired of it. And that’s good, because there’s so much of it.
I’ve clearly got a lot more to play before I can give this a formal rating (as I never do here), but I can certainly say it’s worth picking up.