Games of 2011: Yakuza 4

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games 2011 posts.

I broke out of an island prison for a crime I both did and did not commit, only to wash up ashore at the door of an orphanage run by a retired yakuza chairman.

I honed my fighting style on the roof of a building with a crazed military vet, who shot at me with a machine gun loaded with blanks.

I cared for two kittens that some homeless guys had found, which eventually lead me to find riches in a locker in an underground mall, left to take care of the cats after their caretaker passed away.

I played crane games to win prizes for my girlfriends, warbled karaoke, swung for the fences in batting cages, and played a *lot* of pachinko.

I loaned money to people in need, but rather than charge them interest, I made them demonstrate they were good people. And if they weren’t, I made them pay.

I helped magazine writers find the best restaurants, helped a ramen chef develop a new recipe, and helped an enthusastic foreigner enjoy the local social scene.

I served as a bodyguard, a bouncer, a hostess club promoter, a fill-in for a triple date, and a crime fighting sidekick.

I uncovered a massive web of deceit, brought down corrupt cops, cleared my name, and avenged the deaths of countless friends and family members.

There are plenty of great story driven games in the world, but I can’t think of many that can claim the depth of story, experience, and emotion that Yakuza 4 can.

The plot rotates between four characters – eccentric loan shark Shun Akiyama, gruff convict Taiga Saejima, dirty cop Masayoshi Tanimura, and long standing series hero Kazuma Kiryu. Their plot lines overlap and eventually converge in the final chapter, but for much of the game you’ll just be focused on their own particular domains and relationships across the sprawling city that is Kamurocho.

Let me not underplay the Yakuza world: after four main games and three spinoffs, the [character list]( is simply massive. The game world is so rich, the game offers players a “Reminisce Mode”, with ten-minute videos that encapsulate the previous games. Spending thirty minutes catching up isn’t necessary, but it certainly helps fill in the gaps.

The series is also notorious for the side activities, both in the form of side missions and just places of business you can frequent. After Yakuza 3 was released in the US with significant missing content, Yakuza 4 was released pretty much complete, and it contains an overwhelming assortment of things to do. The variety of side activities is so great, the main plot often faded into the background for me. Who cares that I can go confront the men who trashed my club? I’d rather help this woman who thinks I’m her fiancee.

Perhaps it comes without surprise that some of the joy of this game gave me came out of my desire to get back to Japan. The city of Kamurocho is somewhat accurately modeled on Shinjuku’s red light district, and feels authentic. The main streets feel busy and vibrant, while the back alleys and underground concourses can have tiny tucked away bars with a few people in them. It’s not without some gaming-induced liberties – there’s almost always someone trying to pick a fight with you – but it operates much you like would expect a real city to.

In that way, it felt like a real solution to my gripes about Saints Row: The Third yesterday. The Yakuza series comes across as unconcerned in appealing to the chaos and carnage crowd. (The breadth of the dialog might cause someone with ADD to give up before the game even starts.) Instead, it is a smart, neatly packaged, intoxicating world, ready to reward those who have the patience and discipline to help right the wrongs that occur there.

Yakuza 4 is available for the PS3.