Yakuza 5 is another strong chapter of the long-running crime drama that started its run on the PlayStation 2 back in 2005 as Ryu ga Gotoku, a then Japan-only action adventure game that set its sights on a then relatively unexplored genre for videogames, the seedy underworld of the Japanese mob. Having acquired a pretty loyal following in the West since then, the series has seen quite a number of releases outside of its native land, even though they usually take a long time to be carried over. Yakuza 5 was no different, spending over two years as a Japan exclusive title before being localized for other territories, as well as forgoing a physical disc release in favor of a downloadable only format on PSN.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why SEGA decided to go this route with Yakuza 5. Even though its following is extremely loyal, yours truly included, it’s a relatively small slice of the overall gaming public, thus a digital only release makes more sense than a physical one, which would eventually limit its run. As it stands, having played all of the localized entries in the series, as well as a bit of the still (and probably forever, at this point) Japan-only feudal time Kenzan!, it’s safe to say that Yakuza 5 is a fantastic game, proving that the series hasn’t lost any of its steam, regardless of how long it took SEGA to bring it over the West.
Much like Yakuza 4, which shifted sights from the series’ bad ass protagonist Kazuma Kiryu in order to also focus on a handful of other similarly tough and just as cool players living different lives that skidded the moral lines of society, 5 shakes things up by taking place outside of the series established home turf of the fictional red light neighborhood of Kamurocho, in Tokyo. This time, the game starts out in Fukuoka, with Kiryu lying low after giving up his life and position in the yakuza and his job heading an orphanage in Okinawa. But it doesn’t take long before the past starts to catch up with him and shake things up.
Speaking of the past, it’s the driving force behind most of the stories in this game, which also takes things to Osaka, Sapporo and Nagoya, shifting the focus among a varied and extremely likable cast, which now includes Kiryu’s unofficial step daughter Haruka Sawamura as a playable character for the first time in the series. Her chapter in the game is probably the most unique of the bunch, since it doesn’t involve any of the brawling found in the rest of them, even though it’s not short on drama, as she builds a career as an idol singer and performer. We’re once again teamed up with Taiga Saejima, a former hitman for the yakuza, who’s about to go back to prison, in one of the game’s most interesting sections, as well as Shun Akiyama, the lovable no-interest money lender with a passion for lost causes. Tatsuo Shinada is the sole newcomer, a down on his luck writer who used to be a famous baseball player, who sees himself unwittingly caught up in a huge decade old conspiracy.
Regardless of the pacing, which slows down considerably during Haruka’s more music minigame oriented section of the game, Yakuza 5 manages to carry and expertly combine various stories into a single, concise and deliciously complex tale of greed, family and betrayal which is just as strong as what was told in past yakuza fictional media. Nothing is truly what it seems, even though there are some beats that you might see coming from a mile away if you’re paying attention. Fans of the series in particular might be a little wiser in picking up the hooks considering the overall lore of the franchise, but overall, Yakuza 5 does well in keeping the storytelling bar quite high.
Similarly to SEGA’s own Shenmue, the Yakuza series as always toyed with the idea of portraying a living, breathing representation of Japanese life in videogame form, with various degrees of success. Yakuza 5 has by far the best game world yet, mostly because it takes place in so many different places in Japan. Even though they’re relatively small maps in comparison to the steel and concrete monstrosity that is Kamurocho, every single one of the cities portrayed in this game is unique and feels quite different from the rest, from the snowy and Christmas-y fictional section of Tsukimono in Sapporo to the more open, but extremely crowded streets of Fukuoka. Every bit of this game drips with a flavor of Japan that is rarely seen, one that shies away from anime tropes and internet memes, but is more often seen in films from the gritty likes Miike and Kitano.
That’s also prevalent in each of the character’s own chapters, in which outside of their own storylines we’re also treated to side stories, sections of the game that help cement their personalities, stats and lives even further. For instance, Kiryu’s side story is tied to his current job as a cab driver, doing exactly what you’d expect to see a former gangster do when behind a wheel: driving people to their destinations and of course, crashing bad guys off of the road, power sliding and leveling his cab in the process. Other characters’ side stories are equally busy and focused on keeping you in the game’s world for much longer than the main story will, if you’re looking for more, but aren’t paramount to progression.
What’s vital to continuing on with these games, though, is how well they play, and in that regard, Yakuza 5 keeps with tradition and is largely the same as the series have always been. Each of the characters has their own unique fighting style, with Haruka’s being the tongue of dancing her way off of encounters, but the core gameplay is still very much the same as ever. Streets are littered with what could be considered random encounters, basically fodder enemies for your characters to level up as you run from one location to the other moving the story forward. The core fighting is practically unchanged in comparison to the very first Yakuza, only with the added special moves and bells and whistles that came with later installments. Tougher enemies pop up from time to time, requiring you to creep outside the button mashing box and actually dodge attacks, which helps keep things a little less mindless, even though most of these encounters feel a little cheap, especially towards the end of the story, thanks to numerous opponent health bars and unblockable moves.
Like mentioned before, the towns in this games aren’t just corridors to run through and are chock full of personality. Their voice is heard at high volumes in the way they’re presented through the many shops, restaurants and activities to do all throughout your time playing. Old time wasters, like the SEGA arcades, batting cages and bar games are still around and are as amusing as ever. There are also new side gigs that help you stock up your coffers from time to time, like running a noodle stand, delivering packages quickly and shaking hands with fans for bonus charm points. All of these are entertaining and rarely run for longer than a few minutes.
Many might consider Yakuza to be another one of SEGA’s cash cows in Japan, with too many entries over the years, but the quality of these games hasn’t dipped. In fact, with each new game, the Ryu ga Gotoku Studio has been upping the quality in just about every regard. 5 in particular looks great, all things considered. The character models for the main cast are very detailed and expressive, not to mention the look of every one of the cities the game takes place in, which really makes them feel lived in and in their own particular ways alive, crowded and noisy. It also goes a long way that SEGA has kept the original Japanese voice acting throughout the game, a wise cost cutting move, since the entire cast is beautifully acted and very well localized by way of Enlgish subtitles.
Make no mistake, Yakuza 5 is sure to bite a huge chunk of your time, even if you beeline through its dramatic and action-packed campaign. This is most definitely one of the strongest entries in the series. Pacing issues aside, the split protagonist approach to the story makes every scene change feel like a page turn in a book, where you’ll often ask yourself what could possibly top what came before it. In all of these splits, Yakuza 5 delivers. Even so, this is yet another risky gamble that SEGA is once again taking by taking it outside of Japan. Sadly, there’s always the risk of the next one of these being the last. Thankfully, Yakuza Zero is confirmed to be released to the West, so savor this while you can. You haven’t seen the last of the Dragon of Dojima yet!