(PlayStation 4 Review) Yakuza 5

Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Action / Adventure
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Yakuza 5 is a sprawling tale of ambition, redemption, and violence. An entry series fans have been clamoring for since its release in 2012, the underworld-themed adventure has finally made its way stateside. Upping the protagonist count to five, players must traverse a series of personal tales that find characters being drawn back into an old, recently discarded life, embracing their potential, and fighting for their future. It’s filled with often disjointed mini-games and some questionable motivations, but as a hard-nosed crime story, few games deliver as thoroughly on their premise as Yakuza 5.

Set in 2012 after the events of Yakuza 4, Kazuma Kiryu, now Suzuki Taichi, is attempting to put the past behind him as a taxi driver in Fukuoka. An unpopular, faltering alliance between clans reveals treachery in the ranks of the Tojo Clan, bringing Kiryu back into the fold. As the story unfolds, Shun Akiyama, Taiga Saejima, Haruka Sawamura, and series newcomer Tatsuo Shinada enter the scene. Each character experiences their own story arc that sees them navigating the seedy side of life as they go through their day-to-day activities, working, hanging out with friends, relaxing, and frequently beating down loudmouths. Given the number of protagonists, it is unsurprising that some of the twists and characters’ decisions make more sense than others, especially when the game tries its hand at sentimentality, but on the whole, the five offer a decent range of experiences within the restrictive world of organized crime.

The storyline progresses via cutscenes whenever key points are reached in the main quest line. There is much to do aside from talking with and beating on key people, however, as numerous mini-games are on offer to occupy the player’s time. Yen can be earned by taking on odd jobs, with the starting job of driving a taxi being addictive in its own right, consisting as it does of holding a good conversation while obeying the rules of the road, which is soon supplemented by other recreational activities offering a chance to fish, grab a bite to eat, or win Sega-related prizes. Players can even try their hand at different arcade games, including a slightly wonky Virtua Fighter 2. Numerous side-quests pop up throughout that will require lending a stranger a hand, and several familiar characters make their return as one of these random passersby. Throughout all of this, roaming thugs, hosts, yakuza, and hooligans will huff and puff, looking for a fight. Players can attempt to bypass them by walking around them on the other side of the road, but if they give chase, or the player accidently runs into them, then all bets are off as the screen shifts into position for a fight sequence. Combat is centered on a small number of combos that utilize punches and kicks, and gradually expands to include quick-time sequences that lengthen and strengthen attacks. After a good pummeling, the losers will offer up an item and beg for forgiveness. I don’t blame them, given that they weren’t just beaten with my fists and feet but also trash cans, bicycles, signs, and whatever else I could get my hands on. Degradable weapons abound throughout the world, and I used them unflinchingly. However, doling out such thorough punishment also requires that players have their character up to snuff.

Experience earned by completing side quests and pummeling enemies goes towards points that are used to unlock new moves. Beating people with objects increases the character’s proficiency with weapons, while leveling unlocks new, more powerful attacks. Flurries of punches and kicks are augmented by grapples and throws that become increasingly cinematic as players attain more over-the-top finishers. Grabs are countered and attacks rebuffed, as weakened enemies are finished off by rubbing their faces along the pavement, punting them into the air, and stomping on their heads. Combat is made easier by equipping accessories, which can do anything from increase the character’s defense to reduce the length of drunkenness, a state which thugs surprisingly find so offensive that they will fight on sight. Weapons can also be purchased and upgraded, many of which are the more traditional sort such as knives and katanas, though these can also be as unconventional as a powered lighter. I did experience the occasional hiccup, such as the camera not adjusting properly to tight corners and finding myself unceremoniously bounced around when surrounded, but it’s hard to get too down on the combat system whenever I found myself double-suplexing someone or tossing another down a flight of stairs. All told, with the wide array of combat moves, numerous weapons, and finishers, fighting is fast, gory, and gloriously ridiculous.

The game isn’t all dragon tattoos, high-end suits, low-end tracksuits, and fisticuffs. Much of the player’s time is spent wandering around and taking in the sights, and living amongst the locals. The world is teeming with interesting characters going about their business. Aside from the occasional robot-like stare or stiff movement, they bring a lot of life to the game, conversing with one another, heading in and out of shops, and rushing across traffic. Not everyone is looking for a fighter, either, as some are looking for a hand with something as innocent and unexpected as studying for a school entrance exam. The scale and detail of the world isn’t quite on the same level as a Grand Theft Auto V, but it is impressive nonetheless.

If there is one complaint to be leveled at Yakuza 5, it’s that, mechanically, not much has changed from previous entries. Save for the non-canonical, what-if Dead Souls spin-off, the series has followed an ever-expanding but traditional formula of an open world filled with mini-games to serve as distractions whenever the plot isn’t progressing. That setup has become increasingly common, but few games go for the type of tone that this series strives for and just as often achieves. What other game allows players to drive a cab, do time behind bars, and attempt to become an idol? Enemies break out rocket launchers during fights, brawls break out at batting cages during downtime, and characters perfect dance routines. This mixture does narrow the game’s appeal, however, as not everyone will appreciate the numerous left-field moments scattered throughout a gritty crime drama, but for those who can appreciate the approach, there’s little else as satisfying as a Yakuza.

Yakuza 5 is a lengthy multi-protagonist crime drama filled with ample charm, head-tilting eccentricities, and brutal combat, but most importantly, it was worth the wait. The at-times curious design decisions won’t gel with everyone, particularly those who prefer more straightforward crime thrillers, but for those who don’t mind a little levity and the occasional oddity will have a fantastic time with Yakuza 5.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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