It’s hard to know whether Yakuza fans in the west are lucky or not. At the recent PSX Experience in Anaheim California on Dec 3rd, Yakuza Kiwami (a remake of the Yakuza 1) and Yakuza 6 both got announced for release in the west, summer 2017 and early 2018 respectively. That brings the total of Yakuza games in the west to 9. Considering that this is pretty much a niche series with small sales volume, Yakuza fans treated the announcement like winning the lottery.
I’m reviewing the last title to be released, Yakuza 5 which I recently finished, a game that made its way to western shores at the end of 2015 on the aging PS3. With three years between the Japanese and Western releases, it was a little rough around its edges. Part of the reason it took so long for the title to be released was because the team had moved on to the PS4 and localisation of 5 was left behind, but I believe that deep down, they wanted to continue the saga and knowing that there were going to be more Yakuza titles down the line (0, Kiwami, 6), 5 was basically a gift for long time fans.
For want of a better term, Yakuza 5 is a sprawling game in every sense of the word. Its narrative is long and at times bloated, but it also rewards its fans with engaging scenes. The game world itself is also huge, now taking place over 5 different locations, Kamurocho (Kabuki-cho in Tokyo) and Sotenbori (Dotonbori in Osaka) return along with new locations in Nagasugai (Nakasu in Fukuoka), Sukimino (Susukino in Sapporo), Kineicho (Sakae in Nagoya). Like Yakuza 4 where there were 4 main characters which you take control of for each chapter, in Yakuza 5, there’s 5 main characters, one for each ‘Part’ of the game. In Part 1, players take control of long time series hero Kazuma Kiryu in Nagasugai where he tries to start a new life (again) as a taxi driver away from the troubles of the Yakuza in Tokyo. In Part 2, Saejima is back from Yakuza 4, where once again he’s imprisoned and a large part of this section is spent within these walls. In Part 3, series fans finally get to control Haruka, the young girl that Kazuma has protected since the first game. In Yakuza 5, Haruka is attempting to make it big as an idol so this section is all about dancing and rhythm mini games rather than fighting ruffians on the street. This ‘part’ also features Akiyama who ends up helping Haruka here. Finally Yakuza 5 also features a down and out of luck retired baseball player Shinada who’s given an opportunity to reinvestigate what happened when he was forced into retirement. These story threads all come together like they did in Yakuza 4 in the final section to a satisfying conclusion.
The core structure of the gameplay hasn’t changed much from the original game, and that’s a good thing as the games have found many other ways to continually improve. The same tasty story beats are found here, while the brawler aspects are as good as ever. For some reason, beating street thugs after they come looking for a fight never seem to get old. In fact they deserve to be punished and face slammed into a wall. Each of the main characters (with the exception of Haruka), have their own move set which can be further upgraded with moves, special and passive abilities. The heat moves accessible later are nasty and cold blooded. Dragging someone’s face over asphalt had me wincing (and laughing).
In between the fights and story moments, the player is generally free to explore the cities. The game has a mega ton of mini games and side activities to fool around with. A few to try include ten-pin bowling, darts, pool and billiards, gambling, mahjong, shogi, batting cage, arcade games like Virtua Fighter 2 and Taiko Drum Master, Karoake, noodle making mini game, nightclub hostess dating and more. In addition each main character has a set of side stories and side quests to fulfil should you wish for more content. For example Kazuma’s side story has him going to work as a taxi driver and you’re given a bunch of taxi driver missions. It is almost akin to a Diner Dash style game where you have to stay on top of all your actions and make the right decisions. It is pretty fun though. You have to pick up your passenger, stop at lights, don’t hit other cars, make the proper signals, keep the passenger engaged with chatter by picking the right answer to his questions.
It’s all good right? Well here comes the not so great part. It’s a long game that’s over 45 hours long to finish the story and the middle part of it is a real drag. So much, that I put off finishing it for six months. While Parts 1, 4 and 5 of Yakuza 5 is some of the best the series has seen yet, both Saejima’s section (Part 2) along with parts of Haruka’s (Part 3) outstay their welcome. The Yakuza series is known for some bloaty scenes and long winded dialogue, but some of the stuff in prison with Saejima was terribly slow. It doesn’t help that his section in prison is similar to his section in Yakuza 4 only longer! He only reaches the city area by the end of his part some 7 or 8 hours later. With Haruka, it was exciting to control her to begin with especially as she does no fighting, but 5 or 6 hours later, I was really itching to beat up some bad guys again. Her story also takes far too long to get interesting. Aside from that Kazuma’s and Shinada’s sections were fantastic and were reflect why this series is loved so much.
If you’re looking for the complete package for a first time Yakuza fan, its far easier to recommend Yakuza 4, which has just as much to do but has a shorter story and tighter script. Yakuza 5 is by no means a bad game, but there are times where the story is a bit too long for its own good.
Score: 6.5 out of 10