It’s been three years since Yakuza 5 hit the mean streets of Japan, and remains quite possibly one of the most anticipated games to be localized for the western market during the PlayStation 3 generation. This latest entry in the long-running action-RPG series sees gamers taking over the lives of Kazuma, Saejima, Akiyama, Haruka and Shinada as they are engulfed into a conspiracy that began 15 years prior, and has finally reached its climax.
Yakuza 5 is a long game, not only because of the scope of the story engulfing the five characters mentioned above, but also because of the mini-games linked to each one that adds in more backstory and fun to their adventure. Starting with Kazuma, you will play through each character in sequence, and once Kazuma’s story in finished, it moves on to the next in line. Sadly, there is no choosing the order of who to play as; it’s all predetermined. Still, with each protagonist getting a lengthy story, it makes structural sense to keep the complex narrative intact.
Unlike previous PS3 Yakuza games that take place mainly in Kamurocho (Tokyo), with the exception of Okinawa in Yakuza 3, Yakuza 5 is played through five distinct cities. Kamurocho is back, but joining it are Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo and Fukuoka. Each area is based on a famous district of the city, just as Kamurocho was based on Kabukicho. I won’t lie, seeing the Ferris-wheel and TV tower in Nagoya’s Sakae district gave me goosebumps. I used to live in the area and pass by those landmarks every day.
The scope of the additional cities are not as big as Tokyo but they add something new for those who are tired of playing through the same area the game has been located in since the original Yakuza. A downside of the new cities actually has to do with the characters. With the exception of Tokyo, only the character of that city can go back there. For example, Kazuma can’t go to Nagoya and Shinada can’t go to Fukuoka, and so on.
All the random side quests are back but have been expanded upon, essentially giving each character a literal mini-game for extra story elements. Kazuma is a taxi driver, Shinada is a baseball player and Saejima hunts. The developers took the time to flesh out mechanics to expand on the gameplay, and add in light RPG elements. Completing missions will give experience points specific to that mini-game, either upgrading skills (Baseball) or unlocking better equipment (Taxi). None of them are needed to complete the main story, with the exception of a tutorial that is streamlined into the narrative. You can play them or ditch them as you please, but they add a lot of replay value to the game once you enter premium new game or premium adventure mode.
Combat plays smoothly, with each character getting their own unique move set. Shinada is the only character with a new moveset, as the other three characters’ techniques have been carried over from the previous game. The exception are red heat moves being added. For example, pressing R2 when Kazuma is in his normal blue heat mode will make him go super saiyan and allow him to do more damage and different moves.
Graphically, we need to remember this game is coming to us in the west three years late. The CG movies are stunning, giving off little details like facial tics that can match up with modern-day games. Character models during normal gameplay are fine, but some of the NPCs lack that unique quality to them which relegates them to look like the cutouts from the crowd in a sports game. Still, they are not offensive to the eye. Sometimes during fights there will be some graphical clipping, like pieces of a body going into the walls. It happens infrequently so it is the exception, not the rule, and the amount of CG cutscenes more than make up for those slight eye sore moments.
There is enough story and dialogue to make even Hideo Kojima throw up his hands and decry it is too much. Half of it can’t be skipped through due to them being in cutscenes unless the player wants to skip the whole sequence. Still, it is an option, and there is a reminisce mode on the main menu to allow you to re-watch them to your hearts content. To do so, however, ruins the crime movie flavor of the game and you’ll be lost figuring out the complex story. There are so many twists and turns up until the very end that a good helping of popcorn will be needed while sitting through all the cutscenes.
One drawback that came up enough to be an annoyance was the lack of translation consistency at times. Translating strictly from one language to another sometimes doesn’t make sense due to expressions and euphemisms not matching well. Just watch Working Designs’ behind-the-scene footage as an example to that. Still, when literally one word replies are consistently getting a different translation, it ruins the immersion. This also became a problem when English was being spoken by the characters but what was written in text was something different. If you’re on the side that is just happy the game came out at all, this won’t be an issue; for those translation purists however, it might be an annoyance to the mood when it does infrequently pop up.
Being the fifth installment in the main series at its original release, one of the biggest concerns for newcomers to the franchise will be how much is it related to the others. How much prior knowledge is needed? Thankfully, the answer is very little. The story is relatively self-contained, with only a very basic understanding of 3 and 4 to know who the characters are. Therefore it is a safe joining point for anyone new to the series. Sadly, there is no section of reminisce mode for the previous games but a simple wiki search can help you out.
The musical score keeps the tradition alive of bringing the listener electrifying tunes for inside and outside of combat, like Shigeki Baba’s theme. With Haruka taking the stage as a pop idol, there is also a smattering of J-Pop for good measure. The default tune for Kazuma’s driving mini-game gives off an Initial D feel for those familiar with the iconic anime series. Suffice to say, listeners won’t be disappointed by the soundtrack.
It took a long time to come out to the west but Yakuza 5 was well worth the wait, and a fitting swan song to end the PS3 generation. All the fun of combat and mini-games are back from the fourth game, with new additions, as well as a new, gripping story to consume fifty hours of your time by itself. New to the series or a veteran, it is a must have game for your PS3 library.