I’ve been wanting to write a review for Yakuza 5 since the day it came out. I knew I was going to like the game. For years now I’ve been a fan on the series and when it seemed like the fifth entry was never going to get localized, I went ahead and imported a copy for myself and started playing. Considering I barely know any Japanese, I had no idea what was happening within the plot but I could still tell it was the game I’ve been enjoying for years. Then, no more than I started, Sony announced they would finally be localizing Yakuza 5 for release in 2015, 3 years after it came out in Japan. So I stopped playing my import and I waited.
Since its release, I’ve been continuing the story of Kazama Kiryu, The Dragon of Dojima (& Co.,) literally every chance I can, kicking sleep aside some nights and even letting my 1 year old pretend she’s playing with a spare controller. I wanted to fly through this game and get a review out so I could tell everyone if the wait was worth it or not. But I just couldn’t fly through it. I’ve been enjoying nearly every aspect of the game and all I wanted to do as I played was dig deeper into it.
In the 55 hours I’ve played Yakuza 5, I could probably write up a shorter list of things I have not done, but to give you an idea of how much stuff is packed into this game, I’ll give you a few examples. In Yakuza 5 I smashed a gangster’s face into a car door, took down a street racing ring, fought a bear, became a pop idol, played Virtua Fighter 2, and served noodles at a busy restaurant. And that’s only a sliver of what’s in the game. There’s so much to see and to experience within the world that it gets really hard to get bored. Even after the credits rolled I thought to myself, “Man, I need to play more and finish this guy’s side story, and then I’d really like to raise my weapon skill higher so I can use this lightsaber-looking thing.” I’m not lying.
That’s what the series is really all about, and Yakuza 5 does it better than any other entry by not only giving you more to do, but making these extra side-quests and mini-games fun to engage in, instead of just a means to an end. Regardless of the complex, gangster storyline, it never forgets that this is a game, so why not make it a bit ridiculous and fun? And where games like Saints Row lean into their outrageous world, seemingly winking at the audience, the Yakuza games play everything off completely seriously, as if everything you do is a part of their normal, everyday life. So what if one of the previous leaders of one of the biggest clans wants to sing karaoke and then get picked up to be a replacement actor in a cheap action movie someone’s making? That’s par for the course for Kazama Kiryu. I mean, you can only spend so much time beating people up.
You’ll be doing that a whole lot though, so don’t worry if you were thinking this is some sort of mini-game compilation. Yakuza 5, at its core, is an action game with a rather satisfying combat system. Think about the fun you used to have playing beat-’em-ups back in the early 90s: taking on hordes of foes, picking up weapons occasionally, and maybe even unlocking some extra moves. Yakuza feels like River City Ransom met Shenmue and made a crazy, beautiful baby.
While running through the streets of multiple fictional Japanese cities, you’ll fight random thugs, gangsters, and fighters, as well as the more versatile opponents found throughout the storyline. Starting out, there’s not much you can do other than punch and kick, but the more you fight and complete side quests, the more experience you’ll gain to unlock new abilities. These can range from dodges, to increased health, or the awesome “Heat” actions (basically special moves.) As you fight, you’ll gain Heat and as long as you can keep from getting hit too much, you can raise that Heat bar to use a Heat action depending on the situation of the fight. Even though you only press a button, the act of raising the bar and unleasing a brutal attack on your enemy feels immensely satisfying no matter how much you do it. Luckily, there are plenty of new ones to unlock to keep things fresh. You can scrub a downed enemy’s face on the pavement, you can counter an incoming attack, and you can even throw some foes out a window (so long as you’re near a window ,of course.) And these animations are so pleasing because of how brutal they seem. I’m pretty sure I saw a couple teeth get knocked out!
I only wish Yakuza 5 made a greater effort to improve the defense of the combat. While it’s absolutely the smoothest and deepest of all the games in the series, for someone who has played previous entries in the series, it’s only a small incremental improvement. Where taking on regular foes is an absolute blast and makes you feel like the most badass yakuza to ever walk the planet, the combat shows its weakness during the one-on-one boss fights. The most “exciting” parts of the story end up being a bit bogged down by a fighting system that shines against an army of weaker foes, but doesn’t feel appropriately tuned for a one-on-one fight with an opponent on your level. While you can block and dodge, and even counterattack — if you unlocked the skill — the defensive part of combat just isn’t quite there. You have no idea if you can counter certain moves and sometimes your guard will break, but there’s no real way of telling what moves should be blocked or dodged. For future entries I would love to see them develop the defensive side of things, because the offense is at a great spot right now.
One of the most exciting things about Yakuza 5 is that you get to play as 5 different characters in 5 cities. And on top of following the main story thread, each character has their own sub-story you can choose to complete, and even their own trainers to help improve their skills. It’s easily the biggest Yakuza game when you include that plus all the extra mini-games and sidequests. What’s special about these cities is how realistic they feel. The series has always had a lot of tie-ins with Japanese companies/personalities that make these worlds come to life. One particular piece of product placement feels awkward — like a cash-grab — but there’s so much in the Yakuza games along with an amazing amount of structural details throughout each city that I feel like walking around in Yakuza 5 is the closest thing I’ll get to visiting Japan rught now. You can walk in a convenience store and check out an issue of Famitsu, or even read an issue of Attack on Titan before heading to a small ramen shop for some noodles. Then on the way, you’ll see someone in trouble or get jumped by a gang, and oops … there goes three hours. It’s so easy to get lost in the world of Yakuza 5 because the cities themselves feel robust and full of life. More than most open-world games, I felt like I was a part of these cities. I found myself simply walking through the streets, taking in the sights, deciding to get some sushi, and then finding a massage parlor that lets you play air hockey at the end of your visit.
With this variety in characters and environments, Yakuza 5 kind of slips up in its storytelling. Each game in the series seems to try to top itself with a more complex, convoluted plot with more twists and turns than your childhood Hot Wheels tracks. Even with my previous knowledge of the series I found it hard to keep up with everything going on from character to character. What starts as a seemingly normal case of in-fighting to climb the ranks of the clan turns into something far more outrageous that involves baseball players and pop singers. One chapter actually turns into a small rhythm game. In the end, everything comes together in a surprisingly nice wrapper, but getting there takes a lot of effort. Yakuza 5 also makes it hard for newcomers to join the series because they don’t have any recaps of the previous games like Yakuza 3 and 4 did. In the end, I don’t think you need those games to enjoy this one, but it certainly will help you be familiar with who’s who.
I’ve been a fan of the Yakuza series for quite a few years now. There’s just so few games out there that share the same energy, variety, and flat-out fun as a Yakuza game. And Yakuza 5 really is Sega at it’s best. You may think that’s not much of a compliment, but this is the game that makes you remember the energy that Sega used to show both in the arcades and on their consoles back in the ’80s and ’90s. In many ways, Yakuza 5 even becomes a sort of museum for classic Sega games. You can earn NiGHTS figurines in a claw machine, fight your way through Virtua Fighter 2, and even turn on Daytona USA or OutRun music for when you’re racing. I’ve absolutely loved playing this game over the past few weeks because it always reminded me of just how much I love video games.
Yakuza 5 may be the last reason to turn on your PS3, but it’s absolutely worth it. Where so many games try to perfect a certain aspect and repeat it, Yakuza constantly throws out new ways to entertain you. They may not be the most developed, but there’s a sort of arcade-style joy to a lot of the game: simple and in-your-face. The story pulls you along with enough twists and turns that make you want to see what’s next, even if it is a bit much. But in the end, just go play Yakuza 5, because above all else, it will remind yourself why video games are, to put it bluntly, freaking awesome.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Yakuza 5 is based on final review code provided to us by Sega. The game is currently available for download on PSN.