Yakuza 5 Review
Posted by Sammy Barker
Should the long awaited Yakuza 5 prove to be the PlayStation 3's swan song, there couldn't be a more fitting release. Like the last-gen system itself, the latest instalment in SEGA's seedy soap opera is occasionally convoluted and slow to get started, but it's deeply entertaining all the same. It may have taken series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu and crew over three years to journey overseas, but boy has it been worth the wait.
Much like its numbered predecessor Yakuza 4, this dense Japanese adventure delivers a meaty narrative which criss-crosses more than your favourite knitted sweater. Starting out as the Dragon of Dojima – who, incidentally, has assumed life as a taxi driver in Fukuoka since his last outing – you'll experience five separate storylines, each of which work towards exposing a larger plot involving underbelly arch-enemies, the Omi Alliance and Tojo Clan.
It's a huge hunk of story which takes upwards of 30 hours to see through to its conclusion, but despite its length, it remains fairly engaging from start-to-finish. There are low-points – an uneventful couple of hours in a hunting village as man mountain Taiga Saejima, for example – but it generally keeps you hooked, offering just enough exposition to hold your attention without ever really answering any of your questions until the end.
But what's really impressive is just how much ground the developer manages to cover over the course of the title's running time. Sure, its occasionally glacial pacing will put many off, but the character building here is top shelf: practically every personality is given enough time in the limelight to be properly developed, and each individual is given a different story to tell. As a result, you're exposed to a seemingly never-ending array of different narrative arcs.
Haruka Sawamura's story is perhaps the best example of this. Having travelled to Osaka in pursuit of stardom, the youngster gets sucked into the sleazy world of show business. As opposed to exploring the glittery side of the pop idol lifestyle, the title instead exposes its exploitative angle, as lecherous producers and bitchy rivals all try to abuse the 16-year-old's success. It gets quite dark at times, and even though the many twists can make it difficult to invest in some of the subject matter, there's still some dense stuff here.
Similarly deep are the sheer wealth of systems, which provide the package with a dizzying quota of content. Sawamura's section of the story will see you competing in dance battles, partaking in surprisingly enjoyable Hatsune Miku-esque minigames to raise the profile of your agency and earn fans. Meanwhile, as Kiryu you'll be completing taxi simulation missions, all while attempting to unsettle a racing gang while obliterating them out on the open road.
And it doesn't end there: hunting, baseball, first-person snowball fights – there's even a playable version of Virtua Fighter 2 to be found in the Club SEGA arcade. Not every minigame is especially entertaining, but with such a selection on offer, it's easier to forgive the pathetic physics in 8-ball pool and dodgy darts pastime. The hostess clubs from previous games also return, allowing you to go on virtual dates with some of Japan's most eligible ladies.
The game can be tonally inconsistent at times: one minute you'll be fighting back the water works over an untimely suicide, while the next you'll be sitting in on a disastrous blind date. But that zaniness is part of the release's distinctive charm – you can never really predict what's coming next. And with almost 80 sub-stories spread across the title's five main cities, there's an absolute monstrous amount of content to devour – even after you've seen the credits roll.
Perhaps the main problem with the game, then, is that it can look comedically bad. Some vibrant colouring aside, the Yakuza games always looked visually dated back in the day, but playing this entry in a post-PlayStation 4 world is a real wake-up call; animations outside of pre-rendered cut-scenes are atrocious across the board, and the resolution is so repugnantly low that the whole game looks like it's been covered in shoe polish somewhere along the rendering pipeline.
It doesn't really matter, of course, but even the archaic save system feels outdated. Meanwhile, the combat, which follows the philosophy of previous entries, is mostly fine, but it lacks that tactical backbone of the Batman games, and subsequently gets stale rather fast. This is particularly problematic when you're running towards a waypoint, only to find yourself constantly jumped by gangs of good-for-nothing louts along the way.
But with feature rich skill trees and five totally unique fighting styles for each of the main characters, it's hard to stay mad at the game for long. Even the different backdrops, which all re-use assets seemingly dating back to the PlayStation 2 era, are so well intentioned that you can forgive the presentational repetition. It's one of those games that strives so far beyond the status quo that you want to root for it, and it will reward you for doing so.
Yakuza 5 may no longer be dressed for the part, but like any respectable gangster, it has a good heart beating beneath its unkempt exterior. It's a fitting analogy for a game that's ultimately all about aging, so while time may have been tough on Kiryu and crew, this dense and occasionally oddball adventure still has plenty of strong stories to tell.