Diving back into Japan’s criminal underworld with Yakuza mainstay Kazuma Kiryu as its narrative anchor is like jumping into another season of a well-received cable TV drama. It usually doesn’t take eight years for a show to reach its fifth season but Yakuza 5 was worth the wait. It even manages to be more feature-rich than its predecessors thanks to a robust set of stories and minigames spread across multiple urban districts across Japan. Savoring Yakuza 5 is about being pulled in by not only its woven plotlines and energetic combat, but also the numerous activities that bring its world to life.
Just like the games of Brendan McNamara (The Getaway, L.A. Noire), the Yakuza series has always belonged at that end of the urban open world game spectrum where gameplay takes a backseat to story. We’re talking about Metal Gear Solid levels of exposition through lengthy cutscenes. Yakuza 5’s heavy themes of honor among criminals and workplace loyalty are aptly presented through the lens and production values of a big budget TV show, and you’d be hard pressed to come up with any game outside this series that features this much melodramatic piano music.
If there’s one key feature from Yakuza 4 that this sequel capitalizes on, it is the value of having multiple stories. As much as Kazuma Kiryu could be effective as a solo protagonist, having four other playable characters, each with their own lengthy and fleshed-out storylines, adds immense value to Yakuza 5. These journeys are personal, and plot threads intertwine like those of a Tarantino film, and converge at the end like a narrative Voltron.
Kazuma kicks off Yakuza 5 on an intriguing note: disguised as a taxi driver making a modest living in Fukuoka. Between highway racing challenges and standard driving missions, there’s a lot of entertaining taxi gameplay to distract you from the story for hours. Unlike other games of its ilk, Yakuza 5 treats driving around city streets as a challenge, with strict traffic laws to follow--until you get on the highways, where anything goes. Another chapter puts you in the shoes of ex-con Taiga Saejima, deep in a snowy forest and far away from the game's concrete jungles This leads to a surprisingly engrossing hunting minigame where stalking prey without startling them is harder than it looks--especially when the intensity of snowfall fluctuates frequently--causing you to take a breath and compose yourself before every shot.
Although Yakuza 5 never attempts to be a real simulation of life in Japan, the areas of selective realism within are one of its biggest draws.
Taxi racing and hunting are just two of myriad diversions that support Yakuza 5's tale, and with over two dozen types of minigames, there's a lot to discover when you're out and about. It’s brilliant that arcades in the game feature an arcade-perfect version of Virtua Fighter 2 and that Namco Bandai’s Taiko Drum Master exists, even if it only has a three-song playlist. Casino games like poker and baccarat are well-represented, as are traditional sports practice areas like batting centers and driving ranges. When enduring the failure of my fifth attempt at grabbing a plush toy from a UFO Catcher, I couldn’t help by recall my struggles at the similar games of chance in Shenmue, and in real life.
Nothing in Yakuza 5 underscores the series’ passage of time more than Haruka Sawamura’s story arc. Originally the young girl who was the plot’s focal point in the first game, she is now sixteen years old. Her continued and consistent relevance in the series serves as one of the many rewards to fans who have followed Yakuza since the first game. In Haruka's world, there is only one sensible career path for a Japanese teenage girl: idol singer. I afforded myself one eyeroll at this unoriginal premise before I wholeheartedly jumped into the early stages of her burgeoning career.
Given the series’ history with rhythm-based action, mostly through karaoke, this chapter will be familiar to Yakuza fans. It’s not just about matching button inputs to on-screen prompts during a practice session in the dance studio. There are meet-and-greets with fans, appearances on various TV shows, and even dance-offs in the streets.
Haruka’s variety show appearances are impressively authentic, not just with the banter between her and the host, but also with the lighting and camerawork. It’s not for everybody, but it's a welcome interlude from the heavy doses of suspense and intrigue in the other plotlines. Still, Yakuza 5 never veers too far from the beaten path, with Rival idols and conflicts with competing management companies providing a dash of drama to Haruka's tale.
Although Yakuza 5 never attempts to be a real simulation of life in Japan, the areas of selective realism within are one of its biggest draws. I still remember walking into a convenience store in the first game and admiring the level of detail, from the magazines to the bright and unflattering overhead lighting. This and many other types of business look all the more detailed in Yakuza 5, right down to the pastel color schemes in the pharmacies. And as much as one can survive the game’s more hostile sections with a boost from energy drinks, sometimes you just want a bowl of health-replenishing ramen or curry. Given all of Yakuza 5’s urban attractions and the vibrancy of most of its various large locales, you’d think that Sega received a subsidy from the Japan National Tourism Organization.
The core combat in Yakuza 5 is mostly unchanged since the first game and it’s a credit to the series that this hasn’t become totally stale after all these years. Fans will immediately recognize Kazuma’s fighting animations, especially when he’s smashing opponents’ faces with a unusual weapons, including the likes of a bicycle. The tried-and-tested combat serves Yakuza 5 well, but without any type of counter system for self-defense, it shows its age.
Make no mistake, though, there is depth to Yakuza 5's combat. Throws, dodges, and opportunities to learn new moves ensure that fights aren't a one-dimensional affair. The series was one of the first street brawlers to include context-sensitive environmental finishing moves, a feature that was improved upon by United Front Games’ Sleeping Dogs, and it's put to great use here. Smashing a thug’s face on the side of a building never gets old; it always looks brutal, but more importantly, it offers a gratifying sense of finality to a fight. As much as you can mash your way to victory with quick attacks, these deadlier moves are doubly effective in scaring off the other gangsters, turning a sixty-second brawl into a fifteen-second display of intimidating might. Of course, moments of slapstick complement the harsh side of combat, including the use of an injured foe as a weapon against his unfortunate buddies, adding insult to injury.
Yakuza 5 makes up for its modest shortcomings with enthralling diversions and eye-popping settings that compel one to look at travel deals to Japan.
While playing the prior games isn’t a prerequisite, loyal fans who have followed the Yakuza series up to this point will feel rewarded with every throwback, whether it’s the return of a supporting character or a revisit to a ramen shop that has remained in business for multiple games. Even if melee combat lacks the sophistication of modern action games, Yakuza 5 makes up for its modest shortcomings with enthralling diversions and eye-popping settings that compel one to look at travel deals to Japan. Come for the stories, but stick around for Yakuza 5's world; it's unconventional in the best way possible