My first impressions of Yakuza 5, never having played any of the others in the series, was that it was going to be a Japanese themed GTA. Not normally a fan of open world games I was in for a real treat. Originally published only in Japan in 2012 it’s finally made its way stateside and it brought so much more to the table than expected, and I am glad I played it.
The story of Yakuza 5 is actually 5 stories, each following a person who has some connection to the Yakuza. Kazuma Kiryu, going under the name Suzuki Taichi, is trying to move forward from his Yakuza days by becoming a taxi driver in Fukuoka.. Taiga Saejima, fulfills a 2 year jail sentence. Shun Akiyama is traveling and conducting business. Haruka Sawamura is pursuing her dreams of becoming a pop star idol. Finally, Tatsuo Shinada is trying to move forward after being banned for life from professional baseball for gambling, there is a possibility however that he was framed.
Each of these stories has different tones, themes, and keep you engaged, wondering what is going to happen next. The pacing of the stories is very reminiscent of classic Japanese cinema, the long build. Stories start out with the introduction of drama and then dials way back to almost no drama. The tensions build slowly, very slowly. Until, BAM!!! The tension snaps in a fury of quick action, (which is ridiculously over the top and awesome) and then it’s over. This is pulled off very well through some of the best voice acting I’ve heard. This game is entirely in Japanese with English subtitles, there is no English dub. The subtle emotions portrayed in the voice acting transcend language and is clear throughout the game. Scenes that directly tie in the main plot are pre rendered cutscenes, while subplots are still voice acted but not pre rendered and only minimally animated, and minor scenes are text only. This brings me to one of the only few negatives of this game. The cutscenes are long, long enough to make you look at the time wondering how long they are. Some of my gameplay sessions were half cutscenes. Though they were well done and revealed a fascinating story, my intention was to play the game and the long unplayable sequences pulled me out of the experience of playing a game.
Yakuza 5 at its core is a brawler with RPG elements mixed in. The brawler mechanics are fairly simple, there’s a quicker lighter attack and a heavier slower attack, a grapple, a block, and a dodge. You can activate special moves and go into a more powerful “Heat Mode”. More options become available to you during fights when you use weapons and the environment which once certain conditions are met allow you to unleash ridiculously crazy special finisher moves. Along with weapons you can equip armor and accessories, these primarily give you a boost to defense while sometimes offering other benefits.(PRO TIP: If you are playing and your heat gauge isn’t filling up all of a sudden check to see if you have the item “Calm Towel” equipped, this item keeps your heat gauge from rising. END PRO TIP) Completing missions and fighting gives you experience leveling you up. As you level up you choose which perks you’d like to pursue, everything from more fighting options to more health. These RPG elements give the characters’ fighting abilities a solid sense of progression.
To compliment this is the immersive world that this game takes place in. Each character’s story takes place in a different city. Each of these locations are certainly not as big as titles like GTA V or Skyrim, but they are very fleshed out to an almost ridiculous level of detail. You can go to a store and read full volumes of manga that are on the shelves. They are completely in Japanese, but still! You can walk into an arcade and play full versions of games like Virtua Fighter, crane games, and more. Visit restaurants, complete sidequests, take photos, go to hostess clubs, snowball fights, there is no shortage of things to do and explore. You can even run a ramen stand with one of the most insane mini games I’ve ever played centered around how long you cook them for. You can take on taxi missions where you have to obey traffic laws, drive safely, and respond to the client. To counter that you can also participate in street races. At one point they even introduced a cleaning the city initiative where you get rewards for picking up garbage. A lot of time was spent playing this game checking out all of the fairly mundane yet fascinating details you could interact with.
Visually Yakuza 5 is good, but not great. There is a great variety in the playable characters’ designs and even more so in all of the random people you walk past in the streets. The animations are solid and convey a great sense of motion and acting, at least during the fights and cutscenes. Nothing is really visually spectacular. Granted this is a game originally released in 2012, and it just didn’t age the best in the three years it took to get to the states.
Yakuza 5 was an enjoyable experience. It’s overly long cutscenes and aged graphics didn’t take away from what made this game awesome, solid gameplay with a myriad of things to do, “edge of my seat” incredible dramatic story, and it’s over the top crazy fun action. It’s an excellent game and I’m sad to see it come to the US at an unfortunate time in the PS3’s cycle. I say hit that power button and take your PS3 for one of its last and best rides it will have to offer.