Coming out very late in the year in America, and three years after the Japanese release, Yakuza 5 seems to have been greatly overlooked in 2015, but it shouldn't have been. The world of Yakuza 5 is impressively in-depth. It's the closest you will ever get to being in Japan without leaving the country, and it's a perfect example of why Japanese developers shouldn't hold off on localization.
In the fifth title in the Yakuza series, you play as five main protagonists over five sections. Three, former Yakuza members Kazuma Kiryu, Taiga Saejima and multi-millionaire money lender Shun Akiyama carry over as protagonists from previous games. Orphan turned pop idol Haruka Sawamura is made playable for the first time, and ex-pro baseballer Tatsuo Shinada is completely new to the series. Each character carries out their own individual story line in different Japanese cities before converging in series staple "Tokyo's" Kamurocho.
The story is one of Yakuza 5's strong points so I don't want to give so much away. As someone who lives in Japan, I will say that the game's environments felt very close to the real thing. As I walked around my town, Fukuoka, I knew exactly where I was, and the taxi missions emulated perfectly the sheer terror and frustration of driving ten kilometers per hour around the city center. So much of the gameplay emulates everyday life, from buying things at the convenience store, to eating at the riverside ramen stalls and drinking ridiculously expensive beer at the hostess bars. All of it felt like "Life Simulator 2012" to me if not for the random guys in the street who try to beat you up.
Each of the four fighters feel completely unique and really help to mix up the standard combat. Kiryu is an all rounder with some killer combos, Saejima is more of a tank, Akiyama is quick on his feet and Shinada's assault is cleverly based on weapons and tackles, which brings in his baseballing past. Gaining levels open up more combos, and pulling them off is very satisfying, especially with the sort of campy gore the series is known for. Yakuza 5 has kept quick time events in the game, which are not for everyone, but I think they work here. Failing a quick time event does nothing more than cut your combo short, ensuring that there is a payoff for success without a great punishment for failure.
My favorite part of Yakuza 5 was when the game switched to Haruka Sawamura as its protagonist. Not only did I find her story the most compelling of the five characters, but I enjoyed playing her as a change from all the burly shirtless dudes. Haruka's "combat" sections focus on her taking part in rhythm based dance-offs. Gameplay here is varied between different styles of dancing, and I must say that they worked brilliantly in changing up the game. Trying to become a J-pop icon may seem a complete tangent to the story at large, but the writers here worked hard to weave it intricately into the main plot.
In general, I think the female characters were a lot better written than their male counterparts. With the possible exception of Kiryu's boss, every dude is made out to be the strong archetype who often hides any kind of emotion. The range of character in the men was so small that they all felt almost interchangeable at times. By comparison, you tended to care more deeply for female characters such as Haruka's boss, who I felt was an old friend with a story arc that had a great impact on me by the end of the game.
The most impressive part of Yakuza 5 is the sheer scale of the project. There were many times when I skipped interesting looking side stories or minigames in order to get through the main story. In the end I spent thirty eight hours in the world of Yakuza 5 and got through just under five percent of the content. If I had infinite time, this game certainly offers exceptional bang for your buck. If you play like me and skip parts to get to the ending, Yakuza 5 gives you the option to go back and explore the world again at your own pace. Yakuza 5 offers literally hundreds of hours of gameplay with no multiplayer, no replays and no procedural regeneration, something which is all but forgotten in a world of five hour AAA titles.
The visuals are so good you might forget that this game is actually three years old. The environments feel authentic, and the difference in the facial definition of the game's dozens of burly male main characters is really a strong point. The soundtrack also fits perfectly, really working to get you all hyped up.
While this doesn't often get brought up in games I would like to give a shout out to the localizers. Everything is pretty much authentic to the original Japanese release, including the excellent Japanese voice actors and the translation is enviously good. This is just what Western audiences have been dying for.
Despite all this praise, I do have a problem with Yakuza 5, and that would be the cutscenes. Dear lord, the cutscenes. Even the memories of the amount of time I spent watching long drawn out cutscenes is almost enough to send me into a coma. I know the Japanese aren't known for their concise dialogue (see Metal Gear Solid) but Yakuza 5 takes it to the limit of what the human brain can handle. Often I was eager to play and instead treated to a thirty minute cutscene or dialogue where all I had to do was press a button to hear the next person speak. The worst of this was the final chapter where it was ninety percent cutscene to about ten percent gameplay. It reminded me of that famous quote, "Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away". Sega, for next time, I beg you. Cut down your dialogue to about three fourths of what you think you need, then delete about half of what you have left. Your audience will thank you.
Asides from this my only other niggle would be that the reveal of the final antagonist was underwhelming for me. As with other titles, there were many turnarounds and double crosses, but I felt like this final big reveal had almost no foreshadowing. I get that they wanted a shock factor, but when a reveal is shocking because it has literally no build up and is completely interchangeable with any other character, then that's not really a shock as much as an "oh".
All in all, Yakuza 5 is simply an exceptional title that does away with everything that seems wrong with the game industry of today. The game length is incredible, the story and gameplay varied, and the female characters are well written without being shoehorned in for "diversity". It's three years old, but feels modern in its execution and has stood the test of time. Yakuza 5 is a good example to all developers of what consumer friendly gaming should be, and I would call a perfect game if I wasn't still sitting in a darkened corner rocking and shaking from reading twenty hours of cutscenes.
Yakuza 5 was provided courtesy of the developer and reviewed on the PS3. You can purchase your copy through the PSN Store.
Do you agree with our critique? What do you think of Yakuza 5? Sound off in the comments below!
Ridiculously long cut scenes can't spoil what is otherwise an immensely impressive experience.