It’s been a long, strange trip to the states for Yakuza 5. Originally released in Japan in 2012, fans stateside had begun to give up on the idea of getting the latest installment in the series that has symbolized the ideology of gaming depth and diversity. Almost exactly three years later, Yakuza 5 makes its US debut as a “download only” title on the PSN store, and is greeted with a fervent reception by its fan base. Yakuza is back, and it’s better than ever. Grab yourself some sake and sit next to your hostess… it’s time to tell her the tale of five intertwined souls!
Two years after Yakuza 4’s story, we find our hero, Kazuma Kiryu, living the quiet life. He has taken a job driving a hack in Fukuoka and has remained under the radar for six months. Kiryu’s world begins to unravel once again when a fare gets into his cab “in the middle of the queue,” breaking the hardcore taxi driver’s code of social conventions. It is not before long we find out why, as when this fare is dropped off at his destination it is revealed to be Daigo Dojima, the seventh chairman and dear friend of Kiryu. When Dojima fails to arrive at his appointment, the real story begins to unfold.
Yakuza 5 is the story of five main protagonists and takes place in five different Japanese locales. There are four previous games (duh!) worth of backstory that lead into all of these personalities and clans coming together (or clashing together, as the case often proves). If one is so inclined, they could bring themselves up to speed on the deep storyline by searching for “Yakuza Reminisce” on YouTube. It’s not a necessity to do so in order to enjoy Yakuza 5, but if one has not played the past titles it will definitely enhance the experience. The storylines and plot details in the Yakuza series play out in a similar fashion to a daytime soap opera, so the whos, whys and wherefores run deep.
One must understand that this title was actually released in Japan three years earlier than this US/EU release. It is only available on the PS3, so one should expect PS3 style graphics and presentation. That is not to say that this is a bad thing, as Yakuza 5’s graphical presentation is very gorgeous and satisfying. Every town and city is rendered in a very believable fashion, and will take you back to the feeling you first got playing Shenmue on the Dreamcast back around the turn of the millennium. The character animations are a bit stiff and clunky at times, but it feels proper for this series and is part of its charm. The title’s graphics have a tendency to make a player feel like they are actually taking a stroll through Japan, and it makes you want to walk into every single door or alley you come across.
The sound design is thick and convincing, with apropos musical queues throughout. Some culture shock may befall American ears, especially when a sequence starts blaring a J-Pop number at you while you are supposed to be concentrating on a very ‘whack-a-mole’-ish minigame. The sound effects and music are very Japanese in their design, and it shouldn’t be any other way. The voice actors (who all speak their native tongue with English subtitles) deliver splendid voice acting talents. Regardless of whether or not you can understand the language, you can still feel the emotional undertones.
In addition to the many kung-fu battles your characters will engage in on the streets and in tournaments, the game offers a seemingly endless array of side quests, mini-games and compelling distractions. There is even a fully working Sega Arcade you can visit, and spend endless hours playing Virtua Fighter 2 or Taiko: Drum Master. Add in the gambling parlors, hostess clubs, restaurants, bars and taxi races and you’ve just begun to scratch the surface as to the nightlife choices for you and our hero.
The main gameplay mechanic, the kung fu combat, has remained pretty much the same since the first Yakuza game. It’s still a simple set of button commands for punches and kicks, and a simple trigger pull at the right moment to activate more powerful special moves. The camera problems and enemy lock on still suffer from the same issues they always have, but is only rarely a real problem. The skill tree improvements make leveling up your character a straightforward, easy task and, if you don’t want to bother at all, you can set it to automatically divvy out the upgrade points. The fighting is still as fun and rewarding as it ever was.
Yakuza 5 is a real blessing in this day and age of gaming. It’s a wonderful gaming experience that players can get lost in for forty hours and not even be half-way through. This giant version of a “not entirely realistic” Japan drops players into its world and lets them have at it, which is the way video gaming should be, regardless of culture or platform. If you like your kung-fu and melodrama mixed together and brought to a rolling boil like a nabeyaki udon, download yourself a copy right away.
Reviewed By: Russell Garbutt
This review is based on a digital copy of Yakuza 5 for the PlayStation 3 provided by Sega.