Yakuza 5 review - "Like a dragon" is right, this is awesome

Yakuza 5 isn't a perfect game, but it's perfect for what it is.

Leave it to a Japanese PlayStation 3 game from 2012 to sneak onto the international PlayStation Network in the last month of 2015 and steal my heart.

Yakuza 5's release date was mostly a mystery until just a couple days before it made a semi-surprise visit to the PSN after a cool release announcement two days prior to the release itself. There was no ceremony, no marketing -- just a few day window between the release date announcement and the day it was meant to grace international PlayStation 3 consoles.

Fans of the series, myself included, had been waiting a long time to see the fifth entry to the free-roaming sandbox yakuza drama. Yakuza 5's abrupt release was and still is a welcome surprise, but SEGA's lack of marketing has done this series a great injustice.

Here are two questions:

  1. Does anyone know this game is even out except the core fans?
  2. Has SEGA ever made the Yakuza series seem like anything more than a Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row clone in the west?

The answer to both of these questions is a very hard "No".

The series is like GTA and SR only in the fact you have a city map to free-roam and a plethora of side activities. The similarities end there: Yakuza is its own type of distinctly Japanese monster.

Like a 5-headed silly dragon

The Yakuza series follows Kazuma Kiryu, a (now) former yakuza trying to keep his life together amidst some difficult circumstances, while repeatedly being drawn back into the Tojo Clan's problems.

This really sums the games' stories up in a spoiler-free manner. Of course, you play as other characters to tie the story together -- and in Yakuza 5 you control a total of five characters in five different cities.

Kiryu, Saejima, and Akiyama all make a return as playable characters, with the new additions to the playable roster being series mainstay Haruka, who is finally 16 and ready to chase her dream of being an idol, and baseball player Tatsuo Shinada.

The game is segmented between each character, with each one having its own story that meshes into the others and eventually blends together to bring to light what is really going on with the Tojo Clan.

It can be jarring when you've spent over 15 hours doing substories and leveling with one character, only to restart with another once you finish a segment. This is pretty typical for the series, but it's especially jarring in Yakuza 5 because there is simply so much side content.

It's all too easy to get wrapped up in minigames and substories and forget about the overarching story entirely. This isn't so much a complaint, but it is something the uninitiated need to be aware of. While the story in Yakuza 5 is amply entertaining, it's not as entertaining as simply exploring and messing around. This is not a game for someone who wants to take everything seriously.

The meat's the side dish in Yakuza 5

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell you Japanese games aren't as popular in North America as they were before 2006.

We don't get the downright bizarre titles we'd occasionally get on the PlayStation 2 and below, whether this is due to actual market demand or a lack of marketing itself is a topic of debate. What isn't a topic of debate is the fact that Japanese games are simply different from Western games in terms of design philosophy. The take on a free-roam sandbox in the Yakuza series is no different.

You are certainly free to roam each city as much as you like in Yakuza 5 and there are plenty of additional non-story activities, but that is the end of the similarity list when comparing it to anything in the Grand Theft Auto series. Contrary to popular belief, this is not that type of game. Yakuza 5 is very structured while maintaining the illusion of freedom.

The freedom to play minigames, more like.

The real bulk of Yakuza 5 isn't in its actual plot. Rather, the real (juicy) meat lies in its plethora of side content. This often takes the driver's seat while the plot hangs out in the passenger seat waiting for its turn. But when it's time for the plot to drive, it's leaving town.

You can spend 10 ~ 30 hours doing substories (sidequests and minigames) in a single city before moving onto the next, you are still ultimately bound by story progression. There is no going back once you've concluded a chapter until the post-game Premium Adventure/New Game+, meaning you have to stick around and wrap everything up before you push forward or wait until after the game is over.

This is something that irks me enough to comment on it, but not enough to sully my feelings about the game. It's something you have to accept when you go into it, but it can be frustrating for someone who has never played a Yakuza game. Even I was frustrated when I finished Saejima's chapter without finishing the hunting activity -- but I knew it was going to happen and accepted it.

You do spend a very large amount of time in-game doing story-related content. Cutscenes are long and plentiful, and often force the player into the middle of the action between 5 ~ 45 minutes of video and self-playing, fully-voiced conversations.

The story itself is full of twists and turns, frequently pushing into absurdity without skipping a beat. It's distinctly unbelievable. It's almost sickeningly full of yakuza stereotypes and over the top Japanese-style drama. And it's almost impossible to look away once it gets rolling.

Let's play the "ignore the combat" game

Along with the plot, the substories, the minigames, and the detailed environments lies the game's primary gameplay: melee brawling. And there isn't much to say about it.

Yakuza 5's encounter rate is much higher than its predecessors, which is sort of balanced out with the faster combat. You get into a lot of fights, the vast majority of them entirely forgettable, and you do a bunch of other unrelated stuff and have a good time.

Despite being one of the biggest aspects of the game, the combat is not anything to write home about. Mastering each character is fun, but normal mode combat is often woefully easy.

Hard mode provides more of a challenge and requires you to train under each character's master(s) and get their revelations to do well, but it's not anywhere near the focus of the game. I even forgot to bring it up in this review and had to come back and add this section. I feel that speaks for itself.

I'll take some minigames with my story, thank you

While Kiryu is trying to figure out what's going on in the very first chapter of the game, you can spend time driving a taxi, making ramen, gambling, playing shogi, playing darts, river fishing, street racing, playing Taiko no Tatsujin and Virtua Fighter 2, dating hostess girls... I could go on.

You go pretty Initial D during street races.

Each city has a wealth of activities for you to partake in, and each one counts toward your overall completion. Rumor is that it takes over 200 hours to 100% the game, and I'm inclined to believe it after how much time I've spent messing around. I don't know how I spent 6+ hours driving a taxi and chatting with customers, but I did and I'd do it again.

The game is full of moments where it throws you into absurd or unexpected situations and minigames and expects you to take them on like a manly man (or a pop idol, depending on where you are in the game).

I'm still having a hard time getting over the fact there are parts of the game where you literally fist fight bears, and then a few hours later you're a totally different character doing dance battles to raise your stats for televised concert battles. Really.

The plethora of activities certainly aids in making each city feel massive despite their admittedly constrained sizes, but what wraps it all up is how human many of the characters you meet are and how many small details there are absolutely everywhere.

Yakuza 5 brings a kind of virtual tourism

This cheesy term so succinctly describes the overall feeling of the game that I almost feel ashamed to slap it into this review as a header.

There's something to be said about the amount of detail SEGA's Ryuu ga Gotoku Studio put into every little aspect of the Yakuza series, with Yakuza 5 being the most robust yet.

Every large area is modeled after a real city, and each city is packed to the brim with buildings, people, and miscellaneous details that make it all feel very real. There's something to be said about walking down a bustling, busy street and being able to look at all the buildings with their detailed signs, interiors (that you can't enter), and outdoor decor.

As someone not living in Japan, it can be a bit of a culture shock. The game goes to great lengths to make each area feel as authentic as possible, from the building details and character accents right down to popular local cuisine. And it certainly helps there is product and brand placement absolutely everywhere. I'd like to see if Sushi Zanmai's dragon seafood bowl really is that good.

Substory NPCs are also written to be painfully human. While popular Japanese personality and story tropes definitely worm their way into just about every aspect of Yakuza 5, as an adult it's difficult not to relate to the many insecurities and problems NPCs frequently come at you with during the course of the game. Even if you taking care of their problems doesn't necessarily make sense.

A note on graphics

There's a ton of detail in Yakuza 5, but it doesn't look perfect. There are details aplenty, but it is graphically lacking, being a game originally released three years ago for the PlayStation 3.

The little details go above and beyond, but there are some very defined limitations. Walking NPCs disappear and reappear, invisible walls block alleyways, and character model details vary greatly (and at times are downright awful).

This is a video cutscene. Unimportant NPCs in text scenes look maybe 1/5 as good.

This is to be expected considering budget and hardware constraints, but it is something to bear in mind if you're walking into the game in 2015 and expecting it to look like a game from 2015. Yakuza 6 will be another story.

Wrapping it all up

There are a ton of positives to say about Yakuza 5 that, even in this long of a review, I couldn't begin to touch on. I could probably count the negatives on one hand.

The game treats the player like an adult and doesn't assume you won't get some of the themes presented. You can choose to play around or you can choose to progress the story. You have to accept that you just can't please everybody and sometimes you're just not going to get the best ending in a substory based on your actions or choices.

Despite being a game packed with drama and adult themes, it provides plenty of A++ fun on the side. And that side dish is pretty big. Yakuza 5 is by no means perfect, but the positive aspects far outweigh the negatives to the point the negatives are almost a non-factor.

Could combat be better? Yeah. Graphics? Yeah. But that's what sequels are for, and Yakuza 5 has been out in Japan for a while now. Spin-off Yakuza Ishin! already improved on these aspects and Yakuza 6 looks to smooth it all out even more in 2016.

You have to know what you're getting into with Yakuza 5 and I do not recommend it as the first game to play in the series unless it's your only choice, but it is absolutely the most fun I've had with a game in a few years and I could not recommend it more as a whole.

Our Rating
Yakuza 5 isn't a perfect game, but it's perfect for what it is.
Reviewed On: PlayStation 3
Published Dec. 16th 2015
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