Yakuza 5 (PlayStation 3) review
"Consoles still exist so that you can have experiences like Yakuza 5."
Although it was originally developed and released in Japan in 2012, Yakuza 5 is in my opinion the single best reason to own a PlayStation 3 in 2015. When I realize that the game very nearly didn't reach North America at all, well, that's just plain sobering.
First introduced in 2005, the Yakuza series has been around long enough by now to amass a devoted following, but I can only assume that recent installments didn't sell well enough to justify the money SEGA spent localizing and distributing them. Why else wouldn't the publisher bring the next main installment stateside? Why wouldn't the series be given the chance to again compete directly with the likes of Call of Duty, Madden and Grand Theft Auto?
I have nothing against those game franchises and others like them, but I appreciate variety in design, setting, and theme. Yakuza 5 seems to have been developed by people who understand my preferences perfectly, and who genuinely share them. It offers a massive world to explore, but a nearly complete absence of the dingy brown and gray corridors that in other titles blend to form a great big ball of boring. The game also features memorable protagonists with hopes and dreams, characters who are capable of talking for minutes at a time without losing my attention. Their conversations are a welcome change from the grunts that count as discourse in the typical first-person shooter. And yet there also are plenty of those "game things" that I like so much, such as brawling, arcade action and character customization. The game has a little bit of everything. Or perhaps I should say "a lot of everything."
Yakuza 5 is divided into five huge parts, each with more to offer than a lot of other major game releases bother including on the disc. The first four parts are for the most part devoted to a single character apiece, and further broken down into individual "chapters." The fifth part weaves the first four together, so you can finally look at the whole breathtaking cloth that until that point you only glimpsed. That kind of approach, though ambitious, had the potential to drive me nuts. I would spend a number of hours getting to know and appreciate one hero, only to find myself forced to acquaint myself with a different one entirely. If any one of the five characters had failed to capture my interest for long, my enjoyment would have stalled. Fortunately, that never happened.
In the first chapter, players control Kazuma Kiryu, a recurring character and (you could say) the series mascot. A couple of years have passed since the events depicted in the previous game. The slick-haired "fourth chairman" is now living in Fukuoka and working as a taxi driver who calls himself Suzuki Taichi. His goal is to forget his past. He still sends his wages to the Sunshine Orphanage, though, because the kids he was previously helping to raise there are never far from his mind. But the new life he has built for himself threatens to fall apart in the most spectacular of ways when a man from his past--Daigo Dojima, the current leader of the Tojo Clan that Kiryu once led--takes a ride in his taxi and then disappears from the city under suspicious circumstances. Trouble is clearly brewing, and Kiryu is at the middle of it whether he likes it or not.
Until Yakuza 5, I hadn't actually played a Yakuza game except for the very first one, and that was such a long time ago that I've since managed to forget virtually everything about its plot. Despite my lack of familiarity, however, I was able to quickly get up to speed for the fifth outing. The new plot makes brief allusions to recent events that I suspect returning fans with better memories will recognize and appreciate, but those references don't linger long enough to threaten the narrative's considerable momentum. If you're even the slightest bit confused, there also are character profiles you can easily check for relevant backstory.
As I mentioned already, the game is divided into parts. I spent a considerable amount of time with the first of those parts, getting to know Kiryu in Fukuoka. The city is quite large and, like subsequent environments, a proper treat for the senses. Buildings line the streets, pressed close together like shoe boxes on a shelf. Crowds walk the streets in front of them, street gangs loiter near intersections, and the dull roar of traffic and conversation fills the air. If you want, you can enter numerous buildings to purchase items and weapons, or to visit a hostess club, or to eat at a restaurant or even just play old arcade games. There's no shortage of things to do, and a lot of it is optional but still rewarding. I was able to fish along a shoreline, for example, or stop by a restaurant and make noodles for anxious customers in a fun mini-game. I went on dates with a hostess and eventually I got to know her better than I would a "girlfriend" in any other recent game I can remember playing. Besides that, I worked as a taxi driver and took on gangs of street racers.
By the time I was ready to move on from the game's first "part," I had already sunk something like 25 hours into Yakuza 5, and still I hadn't done everything.
After getting to know Kazuma Kiryu and his friends and enemies, I next met Taiga Saejima, who was preparing to head to prison for two years, a penalty for his various crimes as a member of the yakuza. He had long hair and a gruff personality, plus he talked a little too long with his blood brother as they ate tripe at a restaurant. I decided that I didn't like Saejima. The game had suddenly taken a turn for the worse, in my estimation, but my impressions grew steadily more favorable as things progressed. Then, almost before I knew it, I was getting acquainted with Haruka Sawamura in the game's third part.
Haruka deserves further elaboration because her part of the game wound up impressing me so much. Most of the characters you control over the course of the campaign are comfortable addressing their problems with violence. They wander around the streets, and strangers pick fights with them. It starts to feel a bit like grinding in an RPG. The differences between the four guys is how they fight. Kiryu is a human weapon, with quick moves and a tendency to rely on his fists. Saejima moves more ponderously, but his hits seem to pack more damage. Akiyama is light on his feet, and his kicks keep most foes handily at bay. Then there is Shinada, a former baseball player who is at his best when he has a weapon in his hands. So, how does Haruka fight? That's simple: she doesn't.
Right in the middle of everything, Yakuza 5 takes a break and has you control a young girl who just wants to pursue her dream of becoming a pop idol. She quickly becomes the glue that holds everything together, all without throwing even a single punch. The world of the yakuza is violent, treacherous, and frightening. Here, though, is a girl willing to sing and dance her way to success, and you get to help her toward that goal by clearing a variety of rhythm games. She trains at a studio, heads out to meet with members of her adoring public, puts on performances on television and at increasingly large venues, and finds ways to show her cruelest of rivals that she is above them. And yet her story is no less compelling, thanks to the people around her who are helping her to pursue her goals, and thanks to the solid gameplay mechanics that underpin it all.
Haruka's chapters aren't the only part of the game that offers meaty diversions from the standard brawling, either. Each character has numerous sub-stories to explore, some of them quite humorous, and many of those tales require a lot of time to fully explore. Because I had a review to write, I finally started rushing through the game. I did so not out of boredom, like I might in some other game, but because there was simply so much to see and I was anxious to experience as much of it as I could. A new surprise waited around virtually every corner. I spent a few hours winning over a hostess, and a look at the trophies suggests that there are several others waiting for similar attention. I didn't have time for them, though, and I didn't have time to go hunting and trapping as much as I would have liked in the snow-covered mountains, either. There's always more to see, and that's just one more thing to love about Yakuza 5.
No, the game isn't perfect in the conventional sense. Given the sheer volume and variety of content, how could it be? A lot of times, everything looks so beautiful that I forget I'm playing a 3-year-old PlayStation 3 game and not a recent PlayStation 4 release. Eyebrows wriggle, informants scowl, or a man in a trench coat finds comfort in a few quick puffs on a cigarette. But other times--not often at all, thankfully--the character models look like they came down with a case of the clubs-for-hands. Or they hold a glass a few inches from their lips and pretend they're actually drinking something. The load times and introductory animations when I leave a building or get roped into a fight are something I could stand to do without, as well. And sometimes, it feels like a character can barely take more than a couple of steps before fighting more enemies, and eventually that starts to feel a bit like filler.
But you know what? In spite of those rare moments when I stumbled across some minor flaw in Yakuza 5, there's really very little that I would ask anyone to change if the title is revisited at some point down the road. Several years have passed since I last played a game that captivated me so thoroughly from beginning to end. I'm glad this one came along when it did, and I look forward to seeing what the Yakuza series does next.
Staff review by Jason Venter (December 16, 2015)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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