A 2012 release in Japan, PS3-exclusive Yakuza 5 will finally make its way to international PSN stores in 2015. When it does, international fans can finally play the biggest, though not necessarily best numbered Yakuza game.
Yakuza 5‘s graphics are about what you’d expect out of a late-gen PS3 game, but what’s most visually impressive about any Yakuza game is the level of detail. If you’ve been to Japan, it’ll astound you even more. Outdoor detail is impressive enough, but indoors, Sega still cut no corners.
Walking around any office building, shop, or apartment is an astounding display of careful thought. These are painstakingly realistic in their layouts and contents. More than once, I looked at something and said, “Hey I have that _______,” or “Hey those are my ________.” The team’s hard work pays off by creating an ideal setting.
Sega deserves additional credit for great sound direction. The sights get all the praise in Yakuza, but the sounds of the city also add a layer of realism. Seemingly stock beeps and chirps of the city are actually very accurate replicas of their real-world counterparts. This story takes places in December, and in one area of Sapporo, you can very softly hear “Oh Christmas Tree” playing on the speakers of a shopping center. It’s not the main sound and it’s not BGM, it’s just a subtle touch that adds life to the area. That’s an example of an area where a developer could have slacked off and cut the corner, but went that extra distance to provide a more complete product. It helps me love it when I feel like the makers love it too.
Soundtrack takes a step up and makes itself a bigger part of the experience more in Yakuza 5 than previous games. The soundtracks have always been alright, but this one has more tracks that jump out.
But for all the detail, there’s one thing the game sure gets wrong, though I suppose it has to for the sake of being a game: it makes Japan out to be a giant non-stop fistfight. Wherever you are, the number of people aggressively challenging you to a street brawl is absurdly high. While Yakuza is an action RPG free of the random battles that plague other types of Japanese role-playing games, it sure doesn’t feel like it at some points. At junctures, I’d leave one battle only to have someone else within view run up and challenge, starting a new fight.
Pieces of you, alive in me
I’ve always loved how Yakuza was kind of a spirit brother to the Shenmue series. If you miss Shenmue but haven’t played Yakuza, you’re missing out. Exploration is a huge highlight, as is the arcade game hub Sega World and a thousand other little details portraying daily life in Japan. Go to Japan, come back, then play a Yakuza game if you want to have your mind blown.
Just as Shenmue had its forklift and collectibles, the Yakuza games tend to include lots of content outside the story and combat. One early example is Kiryu’s taxi, which at times can race on the highway, not bothering with silly things like running into cars or signaling. In true Yakuza form, he can use special moves and Heat Actions to take advantage and win races. And if you don’t like it, the nice thing is, you never have to get into this, apart from a few mandatory missions during the Fukuoka portion (including two rather annoying short missions in which he actually does have to obey all traffic rules).
In addition to the return to Osaka and requisite visit to Tokyo, Yakuza 5 takes the series to new cities for the first time: Fukuoka, Sapporo, and Nagoya. Having five areas makes the game in some ways the biggest in the series, and each of these cities has its own flavor for sure. If you’ve ever been to these places, enjoy the local touches Sega put in, and even if you haven’t, the level of detail is still obviously high.
Learn from the past:
One problem with having so many cities represented in one game is that some can feel a bit small. Taxis exist only to ferry you around without having to fight battles, not because they’re saving you much travel time.
Sapporo in particular felt very restricted. To look at videos or screens, one might not realize it, but playing it in person, you notice a ton of invisible walls, places Saejima simply refuses to go, and other devices that funnel you down very specific, narrow paths most of the time. Exploration sadly took a hit in Yakuza 5.
On the bright side, for Fukuoka’s small size and Sapporo’s artificial barriers, Kamurocho was its regular self and Nagoya was rather sprawling. Osaka’s narrow paths were understandable, since the game was replicating the Namba and Dotonbori area. Those places felt perfect.
Who is that girl I see?
Haruka’s story starts as the prototypical anime “I gotta be the best” plot. The dance teacher is mean! He’s such a hardass! And Haruka falls down! But she’s determined! She’s gonna rise up! Mo-ikkai onegaishimasu! Still, as a fan of all that and a fan of music games, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Over time, with the course it takes, it fits into the Yakuza formula. Surprisingly, the Haruka/Akiyama section was 5‘s highest moment.
The biggest problem with Haruka’s section is that it’s hard to know what to do with customization points. With the dudes, you have a long-established routine of punching people in the face and a great familiarity with what lies ahead; you know exactly how you want to use your next level up, or at least you can make a good estimation. They all fight people, but Haruka’s the only one dancing.
Even two hours into her section, when I’d had plenty of dance battles of different types, it felt like pure guessing as to how to best spend my points. Personal play style played a part in how I chose to spend my points with Kiryu and Saejima, but not so much Haruka. That’s not to say that I felt dire need to consider how to spend the points of the dudes, in terms of making a decision based on my survival, but I knew what to expect with their upgrades.
Haruka is told to go to PR events and perform dances in public to gain more fans, and we in turn see our numbers go up, but we’re not really given any concept of how well we’re doing. It can therefore be hard to get excited by an increase of, say, 70 fans. So ah, is that… is that good? We don’t really know. We have no context.
This problem shows up for other characters as well, to a lesser extent. While I like being able to control my growth, it felt like any old path would have done the job just fine — and with similar results. Customization is overall better than prescribed level-ups, but Y5‘s didn’t feel very satisfying.
That could be a side effect of the otherwise awesome concept of including five playable characters: each one’s chapter is a little too short to feel like the leveling/progress choices matter. While I knew which one I wanted, it didn’t feel like my choice was important. In Kiryu’s chapter, it felt like they mattered a little bit, while in Saejima’s, Haruka’s, Akiyama’s, and Shinada’s it felt like my decisions carried no weight. After that first level or three, it all became relatively unimportant. Customization and having a big cast are generally great, but here we can see a few drawbacks.
All we are saying is give pace a chance
Where Yakuza 5 struggles most is figuring out when to let the player do what. The series thus far has been known for intriguing stories of the Japanese underworld, exploration of highly detailed environments, and fun action-RPG style combat with badass moves and brutal finishes. One hidden secret to its success is how well it has juggled these things.
In Yakuza 5, the first 15 hours are jam packed with long, long cutscenes. The final chapter brings this problem around for an encore. Seriously, when people start talkin’, strap in, because you might be sitting for 10-30 minutes. The developers try to disguise these long segments, by having the player run 10 feet in the middle of the discussion, but it doesn’t help. You’ll have, for example, a five-minute cutscene that uses the game engine, followed by a three-minute CG cinema, but then be asked “Oh, Saejima, can you walk over there?” and then you take 10 steps only to kick in another eight-minute game engine scene which leads into another three-minute CG cinema. So you’ll end up with 20 minutes of play time, but only one minute in which you had control; and worse, that control was seriously just walking from Point A to Point B, without any way to diverge.
The reverse happens as well, with some battle sequences going too long (with no ability to save). This is especially bad when you’re trying to take advantage of Yakuza‘s patented exploration, but can’t because you’re running down narrow paths and getting jumped more often than you’d like. Right after a big string of fights, that doesn’t feel good. You gotta take these things and mix them up.
And this happens all the time in Yakuza 5. Long story sequences can be alright, long battles can be okay, but Yakuza 5 went back to that well too many times. It’s like you ordered a salad, but had to eat a bowl of straight iceberg lettuce first, and then all of the broccoli, and then croutons, and then drink down unaccompanied dressing. Ew.
Gotta fight for your right
Yakuza‘s usual style of action RPG combat is back,with some modifications. Each of the four dudes has his own style, helping to keep things from going stale. Fighting heroes will also have times when he’ll have to charge through swarms and swarms of enemies, most of whom are rather easy, and keep running the gauntlet leading up to a boss.
These gauntlet battles, while more engaging than most segments, still feel like they threw a few too many enemies in. Garbage guys need to be there, but it felt excessive, dragging things out just a tiny bit longer than they needed to be.
While overall good, haters of Quick Time Events might not dig certain moments, especially in boss battles. QTEs often show up when entering new areas and at intervals in boss battles. They stayed in moderation until the final chapter, at which point they became a bit excessive.
The Tropey Trophy
With any video game, including the greatest, you have to suspend your disbelief. There comes a point where we draw the line, different of course for everyone. If you got mad at Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes when Solid Snake backflips, then kicks a moving missile, causing it to change course and blow up in the face of the enemy who fired it… then Yakuza 5 might turn you off similarly.
Plenty of times, we’ll have situations in which a hero wins a fight against 100 bad guys, does triple flip kicks in the air, throws sofas like dodgeballs, and so on. It happens in cinemas, too, where the situation is that the heroes are outnumbered by people with knives and guns, but they’ll win because they’re really good at punching people! This kind of cheese is part of the fun, and always has been. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Our guy not even blinking when rocket launchers are fired at him? I’m okay with this.
But the tropes don’t end with the classic Hollywood stuff, and in fact it starts to interfere with the story. Yakuza 5 ramps up the melodrama to stupid levels . I stayed on board for the first few chapters, thinking it would evolve better, but by the 50th hour going through this kind of thing, it really got old. Deleted scenes are deleted for a reason, and Yakuza 5 felt like it needed some cuts. I won’t say where or when, to avoid spoilers, but off the top of my head…
- We Have to Fight Each Other to Prove We Are Bros – Five times.
- Bad Man Stops Because, Gasp, Someone is Behind HIM With a Gun! – Five times (including twice in the same scene)
- A: “I Was Unable to Kill You, So I’ll Commit Suicide.” B: “No! I Can’t Let You Do THAT, Silly!” – Twice
- “Well Hello. I’m a Mysterious Person Who…KNOWS YOUR NAME SOMEHOW!” – At least five times.
I can only see so many people walk up to one of the cast members, speak in really vague terms, gain no ground in negotiations, and then “shock” the protagonist by saying “Are you sure about that, [YOUR NAME HERE]?” Gasp! After the third time this happens to you, shouldn’t the surprise kinda wear off? When you were somewhat famous before, and you’ve had a bunch of people reveal that they know your name, don’t you kinda expect that from here on out?
If it’s intentionally funny, it does a great job, because I did bust out laughing several times during the final chapter, when the stupid really hits the fan. But unlike great satirical comedies, this doesn’t feel like the laughter is supposed to happen. It felt like the laughter was at the game, not with the game; sort of like how the videos Brenden makes in Home Movies aren’t funny because of hilarious jokes, but funny because he and his friends thought that their serious story was actually a good one.
Finale in breakdown
Yakuza 5‘s middle ground is where the game hits greatness. Fukuoka and Sapporo had their moments, but felt like Yakuza on a leash. Osaka and Nagoya were golden, featuring this game’s best blends of exploration, optional content, story, and battles.
The last chapter was where things fell apart. It was shaping up to be great, with all five heroes in town ready to end this mofo, but the story went from good to train wreck. There were already some plot holes, yeah yeah, some Hollywood tropes, sure sure, some things glossed over, right right, but I rolled with it because the game itself was good and, at the core, there was an interesting story there. (Faith was increased by this being my eighth Yakuza game.)
Gameplay in the final chapter had its ups and downs. It’s great to choose between multiple protagonists and face situations in different ways, but on the performance end, the end parts were the only places where the game ran a bit choppily. I won’t pretend to know why, but there were small instances of slowdown in both battles and story scenes, whereas the game had run smoothly up through Nagoya.
A story being good doesn’t mean you want it to never end. Sometimes, you hit that climax, see some falling action and you’re ready for it all to come to a conclusion… but when that doesn’t happen, something feels wrong. And in Yakuza 5‘s case, that happens and then the story keeps going on and on and on with 10-to-30-minute story scenes that add little to the tale. You can only take so many “shocking reveals” back to back to back before your eyes roll back and you just want the thing over.
Even the final battle was borked. An epic fight loaded with badass moves relied too heavily on having to mash X as fast as possible… and then having to mash O as fast as possible, and then back to mashing X as fast as possible. Ready to mash X ? Good, because here it comes! Oh ho, no we’re mashing triangle as fast as possible. Fancy.
Yakuza 5 is indeed the biggest Yakuza game yet, but far from the best. They’ve all got melodrama, tropes, and cheese, but 5 drags all of these a bit too far, making the fun fade in the late game. It’s got great combat held back by how many garbage enemies there are; it has an excellent cast and interesting story, but drags out “shocking reveals” till it’s beyond hokey and into self-parody; it has cities with copious amounts of detail, but invisible walls and artificially narrowed corridors of travel. Truly, for every thing the game does well, there’s an asterisk.
Game purchased by reviewer. You can read our Review Policy here.
(Post-review notes for importers. Read the PSLS guide to importing here.)
Without knowledge of Japanese, you will miss most of the story. Obviously, in a game with voice acting and cinemas, characters’ emotions can usually be accurately identified, but Yakuza features several stoic characters who deliver lengthy monologues. You’ll miss a lot of the story if you can’t understand those. They’re subtitled as well as spoken, but of course, those subs will move as fast as the speech, so if you’re going to rely on your reading, it had best be quick. It is therefore recommended that you know a good level of Japanese to get the most out of this game in its import form.
Yakuza 5 has been confirmed for English release, and will be available as a digital exclusive later in 2015.