I don’t think I’ve written about my love for the Yakuza series much. And I do love it, though it is unlike other games I tend to enjoy or write about here. I have been a fan of the series ever since I picked up the original game way back in 2008 or so. I was initially put off, having read bad reviews, likely from that rag Game Informer, but as the second game was nearing release, I picked up the first game used and has a blast with it. It felt like the distant descendant of River City Ransom, with an RPG’s attention paid to the story. While I wasn’t able to find a copy of the sequel, I did nab Yakuza 3 & 4 when I got a PS3. I only finished the fourth game a little more than a year ago, just before Yakuza 5 finally hit. I purchased and downloaded it right away, but put off playing it for a while since I had just spent so much time with Yakuza 4. I’m glad I did, because Yakuza 5 is probably the best game in the series and it deserves to be played fresh.
Like its predecessor, Yakuza 5 splits the game into chapters, each with a different protagonist. Each of these chapters could be their own game, though those games would be a little short. It starts with Kazuma Kiryu, the series longtime protagonist, while Shun Akiyama and Taiga Saejima make return appearances. While there is no sign of Tanimura, Yakuza 4’s fourth protagonist, he is replaced by Tatsuo Shinada. Also, for the first time in the series Kazuma’s adopted niece/daughter/ward Haruka Sawamura is playable. Each of these chapters has its own setting, storyline, and tone. Yes, they eventually connect, but they also stand on their own right up until their conclusions. Kiryu’s chapter is a very much a traditional Yakuza game, with a city to explore and lots of thugs to fight. Saejima’s chapter features another prison break for him, as well as an extended stay in the mountains. The third chapter is a curve ball, starring Haruka as she gets her start as a pop star. All of the fighting is replaced with dance battles and rhythm game musical numbers. At least, they are until the president of her talent agency turns up dead and in debt to genial lender Akiyama. From there the two split the chapter as they try to win a singing competition and get to the bottom of a murder mystery. The last chapter is back to Yakuza business as usual, but this time with a character completely unfamiliar with the criminal underworld. While their stories are separate, they all lead to the same place, with one mastermind behind the whole thing.
The most amazing thing about Yakuza 5 is how varied the gameplay is and how satisfying everything it. I have long criticized a lot of open world games, like GTA, for offering the player thousands of things to do, except none of them are fun. While not everything available to player to do in Yakuza 5 is fun or remotely worth doing, the bulk of the central modes are enjoyable. Kiryu starts the game with a job as a taxi driver, and his racing and driving missions are surprisingly fun. That same goes for Haruka’s rhythm games and Shinada’s adventures in the batting cages. The standout is the hunting minigame with Saejima. There you take to the snowy mountains with just a gun and a small pack to hunt bears, as well as host of other woodland creatures. All of these things are different from the main brawling gameplay, but all of them are also worthwhile in their own right. The pool minigame isn’t half bad either, nor is the golf, though you can safely avoid the slot machines.
The Yakuza series doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would like. It is a very violent game. Overtly, obscenely, unnecessarily violent. But that violence tends to stop short of killing. This is not a murder simulator. The dudes you pummel in the streets might not realistically survive the beatings they get put through, but the game dutifully shows them alive, if aching, after every fight. That goes a long way for me. Even though this is a game about criminals, taking a life is not something even they take lightly. It is a game that strikes a tone similar to Metal Gear Solid. That series can ponder the nature of loyalty while at the same time have Snake track down hidden cartoon monkeys in the forest. This is a game where the protagonists can get caught up in all sorts of silliness, like a man getting into multiple fist fights with a bear, but still features long cutscenes where the characters ruminate on what it means to be a man and how to go about keeping their manly honor.
The tragedy of the Yakuza series is that Kiryu will always be the star, even though it would likely be better for him if he weren’t. By the third game in the series he has retired to Okinawa to run an orphanage, but in each game since he gets drawn back into the action. In the last game worthy successors were created in Saejima and Akiyama, but fans would revolt if Kiryu weren’t in it. Even in the game world he is such a legend that he is deliberately pulled into the action so a character can prove themselves by beating him (they can’t). The trio of non-Kiryu fighters in this game would be more than enough for the game on their own. Akiyama is a personal favorite of mine, with his lackadaisical approach to life, but his deathly serious take on his job. Shinada’s story is the most disconnected from the rest of the game, but it is also the most satisfying. He is a former professional baseball player who was framed for cheating and banned from the sport. More than a decade later he is prompted to investigate the conspiracy that got him banned for life. He is joined by the apparently unscrupulous loan shark Takasugi. While the normally carefree Shinada is forced to confront some darkness he had ignored, Takasugi proves to me much more soft-hearted than he initially appeared. It is an altogether satisfying little story. However enjoyable the other stories may be, the heart of the game is the relationship between Kiryu and Haruka. He gives everything up to let her live her dream, but by the end she realizes that her dream, which began as a way to provide for her surrogate family, will prevent her from being with them.
Yakuza 5 is a jambalaya of a video game. Everything is thrown into the pot and the flavors meld perfectly. The tone ranges from silly to somber, from awesome to heartbreaking. I have enjoyed each and every game I’ve played in this series, but I don’t think any of them are quite as good as Yakuza 5 is. It is too bad I’ll never get to play the Japan only spin off, but at least we can look forward to Yakuza 0, Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami over the next year or so. That is almost enough to finally get me to spring for a PS4.