Import: Ryuu ga Gotoku 5: Yume Kanaeshi Mono (PS3) Review
So you know the deal, Ryuu Ga Gotoku/Yakuza is a Japanese take on the open world game that is primarily narrative focused. The open world acts as a setting for various distractions and mini-games rather than a sandbox that lets you chaotically have your way with it; the world is not your oyster but there are plenty of oysters to be found.
The newest entry into the series is Ryuu Ga Gotoku 5 for better and worse is a Yakuza game through and through. It still has the same bizarre mixture of comically absurd machismo and borderline implausible scenarios for side-quests but at the same time the formula is beginning to show its age; the game has become obtuse with dozens of game systems that require too much up front explanation, the story and game elements exist (almost) in two different universes and this time around there are a host of technical issues as well.
Ryuu Ga Gotoku 5 is a massive game; 5 cities, 5 protagonists and a 40-50 hour story (making the game around twice as long as any other entry in the series). Each protagonist has their own 10-ish hours long story which details what they have been up to since Yakuza 4 and pushes each of them towards a fateful reunion in Kamurocho.
The Kiryuu and Saejima stories in particular are the highlights of the game. In Kiryuu’s we get to see him having realistically moved on from the orphanage to living alone under a pseudonym. His struggle to keep his old identity a secret and just move on means he keeps everyone at arm’s length and it makes for some very interesting character drama; Kiryuu’s stoic character is transformed into something more interesting simply by the change of context. This culminates in a brilliant battle royale of Dynasty Warriors’ proportions.
Saejima’s story sees Saejima turn himself into the police to continue serving his sentence from the last game; a kind of self-imposed trial by fire that Saejima sees as necessary to toughen him up before he assumes a big role in the Tojo Clan. He spends the majority of his time paired with a new character who acts as a little brother to Saejima; this character pairing provides Saejima with the sounding board necessary so that his convictions, acceptance of the Yakuza way of life and sense of honour can be explored.
Akiyama’s story feels somewhat forced in because…well, I guess you have to find a way to fit someone in when you accidentally make them a fan favourite.
Newcomer Shinada is one of the most interesting characters of the bunch and his back-and-forths with the antagonistic loan-shark Takasugi makes for some really great screen chemistry between the two. Unfortunately his story arc is only tangentially related to the core story and it wouldn’t have been that strange to have it been entirely omitted. Shinada is a character you will definitely want to see more of the future though.
Each character has their own fighting style and…well, it’s Yakuza, you know the drill right by now. There is very little in the way of new game mechanics here that fundamentally mix up how you approach the game; you now have Climax Heat moves (which you can activate after building up a bar powered by regular Heat moves), you can learn how to turn meals into enduring buffs (going over 100% health, ATK up etc) but all of these things simply add more layers onto the same game you’ve been playing.
Fortunately the above changes to the game systems don’t detract from the game itself. In other areas however, it feels like the side-content and main-content are at war with each other. For example you get desperate call for help, the music changes to something high tempo and you rush to aid the caller…only to have your route cut off by an obnoxious unavoidable side-quest/new mechanic tutorial. The tutorial in question also happens to be comical, and totally at odds with the serious situation it just interrupted; making it not only pace-killing, but mood-killing as well.
But it gets worse. NPCs often spend ages unnaturally explaining the mechanics of an upcoming section to you (and in some sections the mechanics are never used again). Upon entering the gameplay segment the game spits out the same advice again but in the form of a formal text tutorial. In one section I was tasked with delivering ramen on behalf of an old-man that had slipped on some ice; this was an unsolicited mini-game that I could not avoid. After receiving an unhelpful double-layered explanation I proceeded to fail at the mini-game (which was over far, far more quickly than the tutorials/explanations) and the side-quest ended with no option to retry. The whole thing came of as clumsy and over-engineered.
The level of explanation is so great (and cumbersomely presented) that the developers even included the option to toggle the level of text-hints. And even at the lowest level you are bombarded with them. This really begins to bog the experience down when you get to take control of Haruka mid-game as all her mechanics and gameplay systems are new which necessitates tutorial after tutorial after tutorial.
It’s perhaps not surprising then that one of the best sections in the game is Saejima’s story; there are almost no side-quests because there are no NPCs to act as side-quest triggers. The moment he enters a town though, all that goes out of the window. This is made worse by the huge number of arbitrarily placed invisible walls which limit where you can cross streets (making navigation a chore). In addition the large number of NPCs in these areas not only drag the framerate down, but make navigation slow and awkward; it is hard to feel immersed in the world when you have to resort to knocking NPCs over like dominos to be able to move along the narrow pathways.
You can’t help but play the game (after it’s mammoth 8GB install) and feel that it is a technical dinosaur. The NPCs crash the frame rate, indoor and outdoor areas are still separated by load times, and the transition between fights and exploration is awkward. The developers talked up the new smoother shift between the two but it only works sometimes; you walk into an NPC, the NPC turns around pissed and walks up to you demanding a fight, fists go up and start flying; that is how it is supposed to work and 1/10 times that is how it goes down. More often than not though you will trigger a fight, the game will freeze for a second and then an NPC will approach you looking angry, the game will freeze again whilst the fight loads, and the NPC will take that opportunity to awkwardly switch to their default expression (normally a really awkward smile), you wait for the HDD and disc to finish chugging the necessary data out and when the game is ready to progress, the NPC, having finished their aggro-break, returns to their fighting expression.
It’s not just from the technical perspective that the seams of the game are really apparent. Different game mechanics (chasing someone down, fighting, driving) feel like they all exist in their own self-contained boxes and each part feels like it was made separately from everything else. There are times during the story where events unfold unnaturally to that they inevitably culminate in either a fight or a chase sequence because…well, that’s all the developers have as far as gameplay goes. Whereas many games these days allow for smooth switching between running, gunning, fisty-cuffs, driving and so on, Yakuza has a different rule set for each style and feels awkwardly outdated for it.
The game feels like it was assembled piece-meal with little regard for how all the pieces would fit together in the end. If I had to describe Yakuza 5 to someone it would be tell them that it plays the way people who don’t play videogames think videogames play: it’s awkwardly game-y with different ‘game’ elements (exp, button prompts, UI elements) that have all been put together rather haphazardly.
This is one game that doesn’t need to be localised and makes for a great allegory on how Japanese game development has fallen behind the west.
The game has some really interesting parts on the story that just about stop it from being an outright bad game, but the technical issues and increasingly outdated presentation drag it down from being good either. You can probably find something better to do with your time.