After three games starring Kiryu, Yakuza 4 branches out and provides four separate protagonists to play as. They all feel very different, with Akiyama being a speedy fighter relying on kicks, Saejima being slower and absolutely brutal, and Tanimura being terrible.
Since Yakuza 2 [龍が如く2]
, each new game in the series has added a new city to explore. Yakuza 4 bucks that trend, confining the player to Kamurocho, which is making its fourth appearance. Kamurocho has been expanded with new rooftops and an underground parking garage, sewers, and an underground mall. The mall is kind of cool, but the parking garage is mostly pointless. The rooftops are annoying to traverse, and the sewers aren't much better.
The best part of a new Yakuza game is exploring the new city and playing tourist. Thankfully, they would realise this with Yakuza 5 [龍が如く5 夢、叶えし者]
, but that's another topic.
The game is split into five acts: one for each protagonist, then a finale where everyone meets up. Every character gets four chapters, and a unique minigame. This structure would continue in Yakuza 5.
Before I get into specifics about each character's section, I need to address the elephant in the room. There are two major characters in the story who completely ruin it.
First is Daigo, the chairman of the Tojo Clan. In Yakuza 3 [龍が如く3]
, he stood up for what he believed was the right thing to do, getting himself shot and put into a coma in the process. He was ready to die, rather than betray his morals.
In Yakuza 4, Daigo is completely spineless, and goes along with a minor clan leader on his plot, even though he clearly doesn't want to, and it goes against all of his best interests. Daigo doesn't even attempt to use his leverage as chairman, and just follows along like a scared child. This game completely ruined his characterisation, and made the majority of the fanbase think he was always like this, when he was a great character in Yakuza 2, 3, and 5.
The second character I need to address is Yasuko. Yasuko is the absolute worst character, and there are two major story examples to address.
First: When she's taken in by Tanimura, he takes her into his custody and tells her that he needs her help to find out why his father was murdered. She gets mad and calls him selfish for this. This is, of course, after we find out that she has been murdering people on behalf of the villain after he promised to get her brother released from jail. One of these seems far more selfish than the other.
Second: After armed men try to kill her in Okinawa, Kiryu takes her to Kamurocho to find her brother. Since armed men are trying to kill her, Kiryu leaves her at the bar Serena with Officer Date. She, of course, drugs Date and runs off because she's a moron. She then runs off to find Akiyama and Tanimura, so they can have the "Kiryu beats up the new protagonists" boss fight. Predictably, she is captured and ends up dying.
Yasuko is legitimately stupid, and hypocritical. The entire story runs straight through her, and she is the most infuriating character until Park in Yakuza 5.
Part one starts you off as Akiyama, the best of the new characters. His fighting style feels great, and definitely unique after three games of just Kiryu.
Akiyama's section has two modes as far as the story goes. First, you have long, long exposition, then you have meetings with Yasuko, where Akiyama will ask her a question, she will pause for what seems like a full minute, then respond with "I can't tell you".
Akiyama's substories are the best in the game, but that isn't saying much. His personal minigame, though, is godawful. If you liked the hostess maker in Yakuza 0 [龍が如く0 誓いの場所]
, don't get excited. Yakuza 4's hostess maker is a slog, and all about trial and error in coordinating outfits. It's less terrible than Yakuza 2's hostess club minigame, but that's not saying much at all.
Part two starts with Saejima breaking out of prison, fighting Kiryu in Okinawa
, then going to Kamurocho. The end of his section is the absolute worst forced stealth segment. Saejima himself is a great character with one of the best fighting styles in the series, but his sections in this game and Yakuza 5 are simply the worst parts of their respective games. He needs to return as a playable character in a future game so he can redeem himself.
Saejima's unique minigame is fighter maker, where he has to train fighters to win tournaments. This sounds cool, until you realise that the AI controlling your fighters is the absolute worst. You can train your strength all you want, but it doesn't matter, since the AI hates throwing punches. Your fighter will simply stand in place and get the shit beaten out of him.
Part three features Tanimura, a character who is exclusive to this game. His voice actor/face model was wrongly accused of drug use and quit acting, but he was replaced with someone else in the PS4 remaster, so he may return later.
Tanimura's fighting style is garbage. His basic moves suck, and his only saving grace is his plethora of heat moves that keep him from being unplayable. Hope you like buying tauriners.
While it's interesting being able to explore Little Asia, the fact that they had to cram it into the existing space makes it an annoying labyrinth. It really sums up Yakuza 4's additions to Kamurocho.
Tanimura's unique "minigame" is random crimes on his police scanner. It's probably the best unique minigame, even if it's just the standard gameplay. The best one is when you get a report of a man on a ledge who is going to jump, and to stop him, you beat the shit out of him or even just throw him off the roof yourself.
Part four rounds out the main cast with Kiryu, the hero of the previous three games. Kiryu's involvement feels very tacked on, because he has absolutely no personal stake in this. It was the dying wish of the guy who stabbed him at the end of Yakuza 3.
Kiryu's story is basically just chasing after Yasuko until everyone is back together.
Kiryu's personal "minigame" is beating up gang members. It's one of the better ones, since it's just the base gameplay.
The finale is just stupid. "Let's put all the money on the roof of a tower; no one will think it's a trap, and no one will have the genre awareness to realise that these games always (up to this point) end with a boss fight on a tower"
Every character gets one final fight to call their own. Akiyama's makes sense, but Saejima's just screams "uh we forgot to give him any characters to beat up just give him that one guy". Kiryu's is a cool fight, but Daigo shouldn't have been there in the first place, as I said
. Tanimura is last, and he doesn't even get a boss, he just gets a fight against a bunch of bodyguards. In a series known for having absolutely great final boss fights, Yakuza 4 doesn't even get one.
Substories in this entry are also poor. Yakuza 2 and 3 had some really memorable ones, and Yakuza 5, 0, and 6 would have an amazing selection, but Yakuza 4's are just kind of there. Akiyama's substories with Shiobara are nice, but nothing else stands out as being memorable.
The karaoke selection for Kiryu and Akiyama is good, with Kiryu getting a great rock song in Machine Gun Kiss, and both Kiryu and Akiyama getting a duet called Pure Love in Kamurocho. Akiyama and Hana's duet is absolutely perfect. Unfortunately, Saejima and Tanimura don't get karaoke songs, with Saejima avoiding the place altogether, and Tanimura just cheering on the girls.
The IF7 minigame is fun with Akiyama, Saejima, and Kiryu. Basically, you refight story fights, but you can't use heat moves. In return, you unlock new abilities and moves. You can even fight all the protagonists. However, it's near-impossible with Tanimura, because his fighting style is, as I mentioned, complete shit without his heat moves.
Yakuza 4 has a terrible story that isn't "so bad it's good" like Yakuza 3 and 5, and every single thing it did well is done better in Yakuza 5. You can't really skip it, because you'll go into Yakuza 5 without knowing who Saejima and Akiyama are. It's a frustrating game, and I was glad to see it end. By far the worst in the series.