Few would expect a game titled “Yakuza” to carry much in the way of good vibes and charm, but here we are — the fifth game in the series has finally made it to Western shores after three years of waiting, and its tale of mobsters in Japan really does inspire the warm fuzzies. Oh, sure, there’s plenty of violence and criminal activity, but somehow Yakuza 5 manages to make all of it more endearing than threatening.
Never before has an enemy combatant coming up to me, shoving me, and insulting my clothing felt so much like a friendly hug. But then again, this is a series that somehow finds a way to incorporate adorable taxi-driving and noodle-cooking minigames with the rest of the gangster melodrama at hand, so maybe it’s not that strange at all.
Yeah, okay, let’s get this out there: the narrative of Yakuza 5 throws in about every cliche possible, and it’s not going to win any awards for subtle storytelling. But you know, in an era when games seem to be moving toward increasingly cinematic depictions of their events, there’s something really refreshing about a title that isn’t afraid to go back to the ridiculous traditions of early gaming. This time, beloved series hero Kazuma Kiryu has changed his name to “Suzuki Taichi” and settled down as a cab driver in the Japanese city of Fukuoka. Of course, he won’t be resting for long, as the ever-changing alliances and betrayals of the series’ yakuza clans will eventually find their way to him. Things are going to get violent.
Following in the footsteps of Yakuza 4, there are also additional playable characters in this game who get arcs of their own: Shun Akiyama and Taiga Saejima make return appearances, Haruka Sawamura makes her playable debut and newcomer Tatsuo Shinada debuts as a disgraced baseball player who may have been framed for the gambling scandal that ended his career. Naturally, it’s a bit difficult to sum up the entirety of the events here, so let’s just leave it at this: if you’re looking for a tightly-paced story with a lot of human drama and intrigue, this is not the game for you. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of player who can enjoy flagrant use of cliche, hilariously overwritten dialogue and constant melodrama, you’re in for a hell of a treat. And that’s no joke — for a certain audience, this is sure to become a cult favorite. Just be prepared to sit through some long cutscenes and stretches of dialogue: some reach the 15-20 minute range, which can be an exhausting amount of time to sit around waiting.
Thankfully, when you do regain control of your character, you’ll be delighted to find the way old gaming tropes makes their way to Yakuza 5’s gameplay. The game is, on the surface, an open-world urban adventure title that fits in pretty well alongside contemporary examples of the genre (GTA, Saints Row, etc); you’ve got story missions that move the narrative forward and side missions that offer some sort of bonus to your stats or inventory, all conveniently labeled with radar blips on the maps of the sprawling cities you can explore. Move past that basic set of elements, though, and you start to see the quirkiness that is quintessentially SEGA: old-school combat where you initiate enemy encounters with random punks on the street JRPG-style; mini games that involve cooking noodles to the correct hardness and following the rules of the road with passengers in your taxi; and best of all, a ton of missions that just come out of left field, like helping a student cram for his exams by answering questions about physics and grammar.
A lot of this stuff will probably come off to some gamers as dated, and they wouldn’t be wrong for feeling that way. Fighting is pretty clunky, with your character’s movements often feeling a bit more stiff and responsive than in most contemporary games — and over-the-top “Heat” moves, which are basically quick time events, do get old fairly quickly. The minigames are of variable quality, too, ranging from pure fun (the noodle-cooking game is just pure, unadulterated video game silliness) to downright questionable (remind me why I want to play a minigame where I follow normal driving rules, again?). And sure, one could complain that the missions here are just standard fare gussied up with eccentric window dressing: kill this, collect that, et cetera. Keep in mind, though, that many of these qualities are part of some of the most popular games of all time, and that their inclusion here does a good job at helping great gaming memories. That’s not to say Yakuza 5 is fueled only by nostalgia, either; it just demonstrates a love for the medium of video games at its most pure, unafraid to sacrifice realism and immersion for fun.
Putting the “Game” Back in “Video Games”
Yakuza 5 may not be the last game to come out for Sony’s last-gen system, and it has reached Western shores a whopping three years after its initial release, but SEGA’s Japanese gangster drama feels like the swan song the PS3 deserves. It manages to reconcile the warmer, lighter action-adventure gameplay of the fifth and sixth generations with the often dark and gritty open-world formula popularized by the seventh. At a time when gaming largely seems to be moving toward more realistic, cinematic experiences, it’s nice to see some traditionally “video game-y” elements — goofy minigames, ludicrous combat and over-the-top writing — make their way to this fifth entry unscathed. Some will find it incredibly irritating, while others will get the warm fuzzies of nostalgia — a heartening reminder of how much joy this hobby can bring us.
Review code for Yakuza 5 provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 3. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.