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Platforms: Playstation 3
Yakuza 5 is a fighting/driving/hunting/dancing/karaoke simulation/action-RPG game by SEGA. The Yakuza series, (known as Ryu Ga Gotoku in Japan) which has won excellence awards in its home country with practically every new release, is basically the Grand Theft Auto of Japanese gaming. Yakuza 5 was originally released in December 2012 but Western audiences have had to wait 3 years for a version which didn’t require them to learn Japanese. Was it worth the wait? Oh god yes!
It’s important to first take note of the main criticisms garnered towards the series. Can Yakuza 5 be considered more of the same? Well, you do take control of a number of characters, free roaming a crowded city area of Japan, taking part in various leisurely activities. Eating at restaurants, visiting hostess clubs and playing mini games like darts, pool or shogi. (Japan’s ridiculously complicated version of chess) You also get in to many fights with various gangs thinking themselves tough guys, trying to shake you down.
The combat system, which seems to be a main focus of criticism for the series, admittedly has not changed very much at all aside from a few extra special moves. You still punch, kick and throw your enemies around the street, satisfyingly unleashing said special moves when your ‘heat gauge’ fills enough. These brutal special moves range from dragging an enemies face across the pavement to smashing a motorbike down on their helpless, broken body. It’s still a great combat system and possibly one of the most satisfying amongst this kind of action/fighting genre. Each character has a different fighting style and the complimentary levelling system, which extends to a maximum of 20 levels each, has perfectly balanced progression throughout the game.
Yakuza 5 is not a fighting game though. The fighting system exists as a means to an end. It is comparable to the combat system of the Elder Scrolls series in that, you wouldn’t expect the next Elder Scrolls to have a massively different combat system to Skyrim, but at the end of the day, the Elder Scrolls are not for example “swordfighting” games. The combat in Yakuza is still great and that’s all it needs to be to serve its purpose in Yakuza 5.
This 5th entry is just as story driven, if not more-so than its predecessors because rather than shoehorning gameplay around that story, the gameplay serves more than ever as a conduit for each individual character’s story. In my first few hours of the game I was controlling main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, who has chosen to move to Fukuoka to distance himself from his former clan. A large amount of this opening was spent watching cutscenes and driving people around in taxis as this depressed, middle aged, ex-yakuza tries to settle in to his new life. You might think that sounds boring, but I loved every second of it and that’s exactly the kind of thing I play Yakuza for.
Each chapter features a primary set of side missions such as the taxi driving missions and I found myself enamoured with them all. To do well as a taxi driver, Kiryu must drive carefully around the city, making sure he indicates before turning and pays attention to stop signs and pedestrians. There’s a hunting mini game where you must brave a harsh snowy wilderness to gather food and animal skins. The secondary side missions are incredibly varied and can feature just about any activity in the game. Returning from Yakuza 4 are the hilarious revelations, hidden events that give access to dormant powers once the characters can capture a snapshot of them on their phone.
The character Haruka makes a return from Yakuza 3 & 4 only this time she’s a playable character and I have to say her entire chapter seems like a stroke of genius from the developers. Haruka is on the road to becoming a Jpop idol. Her “fight” sequences are actually dance battles in which failure to press the right buttons in time to the beat will result in loss of HP. There are also her live performances which take the form of a far more challenging rhythm game. Luckily for those without much rhythm, there is an easy mode with no penalty to the player.
Haruka must keep up her rehearsals of both her singing and dancing, whilst keeping her fans happy by way of a hilarious hand shaking mini-game where you must shake hands with queueing fans for as long as possible before they’re dragged away by a bouncer. Her talent agency levels up with her number of fans giving her access to more and better paid jobs. Haruka’s chapter isn’t the massive tonal shift away from crime drama you might expect however. There is still plenty of intrigue and emotion to be felt when things take a little more of a darker turn and this crime drama becomes more of a murder mystery.
Tatsuo Shinada, is a brand new character and makes a great addition to the series. While playing as the other characters is an empowering experience, playing as Shinada is purposefully dis-empowering to the player. Shinada is an ex-baseball pro who is now smothered with debt and depression. This chapter forces the player to be more cautious about getting into fights willy nilly. This is not only because Shinada’s weapon focussed fighting style is the most difficult to master but because going to a restaurant to restore health is not particularly affordable for him. Once his baseball focussed side missions get going though, the game’s momentum picks back up and you can pig out once again.
The amount of side quests in Yakuza 5 is staggering, but even more staggering is that these side quests almost always involve interesting or quirky characters and Japanese humour or trivia. These are never merely contextless references though and always play well with your controlled characters personality. Food is a massive part of the Yakuza series as it restores your health and this time it has even more benefits in the form of buffs to your fighting strength or heat gain. As always there are a massive amount of restaurants and meals to choose from with tantalising pictures and explanations of each dish. Because of these things, some have taken to calling Yakuza a ‘tourism simulator.’
So where do all these activities take place? Well this is Yakuza 5’s main addition. Alongside the red light district of Kamurocho in which every other game has taken place, there are a total of 5 main cities to explore alongside various other areas. There’s Sōtenbori, a fictional Osaka district based on Dōtonbori and a returning area from Yakuza 2. Nagasugai, based on Nakasu in Fukuoka. Tsukimino, based on Susukino in Sapporo and finally Kin’eicho, based on Sakae in Nagoya. All of which are brimming with detail, colour and vibrancy. Yakuza 5 may not have the highest texture quality on the PS3, but damn, the colours are beautiful.
The sounds are good too. The music can evoke a variety of emotions, right off the bat I was met with a wave of nostalgia for the earlier Yakuza games and it was the thoughtful guitar melody in the Song of Friendship that did it. There’s a whole range of diegetic and non-diegetic music from the cool jazz played in bars, each character’s own techno/metal-like battle theme and then there’s the Jpop which is a level of cheese that only the Japanese can get away with. The voice acting is tremendous and even features various Japanese dialects, this is referenced both by the characters and by the subtitles for certain characters using English slang.
Let’s put this all in to its final context shall we? When I saw Famitsu’s review score of 40/40 for Yakuza 5 when it first released in 2012, my first thought was “how could it possibly be better than Yakuza 4?” That game featured 4 characters with 4 intertwining stories set in one primary location, you could say in some ways, it was 4 times better than Yakuza 3. It was one of the biggest and best games I have ever played. Yakuza 5 has 5 playable characters, 5 intertwining stories set in 5 different locations. The amount of activities available to the player has reached a higher number than ever but it’s the way Yakuza 5 does so many different things whilst also doing them better than most games do, that is its greatest achievement. Alongside its story which is quite frankly one of the best ever told in any medium. Yakuza 5 deserved that 40/40 from Famitsu, it deserves a 10/10 from me and it deserves a heck of a lot more attention than it’s ever likely to get.