This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Yakuza 4.
"The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan was an unqualified tragedy, and Yahtzee offers his deepest sympathies to a country and people that has long held his admiration and respect.
"This statement is given to karmatically balance out the following one."
Boy, the Japanese are into some weird shit, aren't they? Comes a point where acknowledging cultural difference doesn't cut it any more and you have to say "What the fuck, guys?" Generally the point when tentacle monsters molest fifteen-year-olds on subway trains. It makes reviewing a game like Yakuza 4 extremely difficult, because virtually all my negative points can be countered with the argument, "Well, that's what they like in Japan." Now, this counterargument can itself be countered by going through the list of some other things the people have been known to like in Japan, which I won't read out in full because I'd have to brush my teeth afterwards.
The thrust of that rather weak opening is that it'd be difficult to think of a way Yakuza could make itself more Japanese. It's set in a faithfully accurate depiction of modern Tokyo and the only language option is Japanese with English subtitles, so I hope you like having to exclusively watch the bottom two inches of the screen throughout all the drama. The amount of modern Japanese culture that gets worked in makes you wonder if it's not actually aimed at foreign tourists. The equivalent would be a British game in which you play a bobby in Olde London Towne healing up by eating fish 'n chips and using a fighting style that mainly employs rugby tackles.
Anyway, throughout the course of the plot you play as four individuals with interconnecting storylines and universally inexplicable kung-fu skills: Akiyama, a suave moneylender who resembles Alan Wake crossed with Leisure Suit Larry; Saejima, a prison escapee with a face like the San Andreas fault; Tanimura, a 14-year-old boy who has somehow joined the police force; and Kazuma Kiryu, previously Yakuza games' protagonist, who's absent for just long enough to make you think the series has moved on but is smashing faces with the best of them by the second act.
You see, in the world of Yakuza 4 (and the series as a whole), faces are the source of all evil, and the best way to drive the evil out of your enemies is to smash it out with both feet or the occasional handrail to the septum. The main characters all go for the face like it's the last drop of toothpaste in the tube. It's actually quite alarming the number of times you'll see a random street thug profusely apologizing with his nose hanging around his chin.
It might sound like I'm ragging on it, but I'm really not. I actually really like the fighting engine in these games. It's fast and skillful and broken teeth fly across the screen like pulpy ladybirds in exactly the right way to give it a strong visceral appeal, and I defy you not to get enjoyment from smashing a bicycle over someone's head before beating his friend to death with one of the wheels. It does have a bad habit of making you fight groups in really tight spaces, but that just increases the concentration of faces, testicles, and kneecaps that go together to form a sumptuous fruit basket for your fist.
What I don't like about the combat is this: gameplay should drive the car while the story navigates and picks the radio station, but Yakuza 's story and gameplay are in different cars heading in different directions, and the story car is an overloaded lorry with one tire missing. Yakuza 4 is a sandbox game in the very peculiarly Japanese style that's seen in such games like Shenmue and Deadly Premonition. There's a main plot and then there's a whole bunch of other unconnected bullshit that makes the main plot seem a lot less urgent.
And it's not the kind of sandbox where you can start curb-checking passersby if you get bored; here, combat may only take place vithin zee designated area! There are combat random encounters that take an almost Final Fantasy approach by teleporting you and your future shoe ornament into a small pocket dimension presided over by the gods of reconstructive dentistry. And it doesn't flow well for me. Some of the grievances the random encounters come up with to justify the fights get pretty ridiculous, too. Tokyo apparently has a population with such low self-esteem that having a confident walk is grounds for burly men to beat you to death, and crowds will gather and cheer them along because you deserve it, walking around all smug and emotionally balanced.
Now, while sidequests are always nice, Yakuza 4 's are a little hard to find. Yes, I like exploration. I even like how they don't mark sidequest objectives on your map so you have to call on your Boy Scout orienteering skills. But I think there has to be something wrong with a game where I can plow through the whole story and never even notice half the content. And even if I did I usually saw no benefit or just plain didn't want to do it. A lot of sidequests just eventually get resolved by someone getting up in your grill and you wearing their mandible as a winklepicker.
But then there are the minigames. Most perplexing of all is Akiyama's side business in which he runs a hostess club - this is another Japanese cultural thing in which I don't see the appeal, because it's basically paying to sit and get blue-balled for an hour - and has to take an individual girl under his wing, choosing her dresses, makeup, and training options to make her into the best little not-whore in the not-brothel. And if this had been the only gameplay mechanic in a Japanese game, I would have expected to be sticking things up the girl's buttholes by the end of the week. As it stands, it's a bizarrely out of place pretty princess dress-up mode going on ten feet away from two-fisted face ruining. I don't know what the eventual rewards are, but they can't be important, because I got through the whole story campaign without too much difficulty.
If last week's Pokémon review didn't make this clear enough, I'm a man who's never been bothered by 100% completion, especially when most of it's unrelated to the plot. I don't see why everything needs to be my responsibility. If every passerby needs a kindly stranger to bring them their packed lunch, then perhaps it would be better to leave them to Darwin.
But to conclude on the story, that takes a bit of a Final Fantasy approach, too. Cutscenes run on like the hot water in an Alaskan bathhouse. Nothing is said once that can be said seven times. It's frustrating, because unlike Final Fantasy I actually like some of the characters, but they make it pretty hard to me with all the time they spend pausing for effect or making reaction noises. "Nuh?" "Duh?" "Nani?" You could stitch them all together and make a pretty funky remix.
And the plot as a whole isn't stellar. From a relatively stable starting position, the story goes eight ways bananas by the end. Everyone who isn't dead betrays each other about seventeen times apiece, and the game ends with every single one of them having a big, shirtless fistfight on the roof of a tall building, like an argument broke out at the Homosexual Male Models Base Jumpers Club. And to my dismay, nobody says "Blimey, it's windy up here! Do you mind if I put my shirt back on? Because my nipples have turned into little rosy jelly beans."
Still a bit muddy on how you pronounce it: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
The list starts with 'visual novels', then 'visual novels with no tits in them' and pretty much goes downhill from there
Hooray, another new entry for the ZP alphabet