Everything and the taiko drums: a Yakuza 5 review

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Image provided by Sega.
Left to right: Akiyama, Kiryu, Taiga, and Shinada strutting in the city.

What does a Japanese idol, a money lender, a former baseball player, and several former gangsters have to do with each other? Well, Yakuza 5 is hard pressed to convince you they are more connected than you could have imagined in its latest installment released on Dec. 8. Why’d it take so long to review you ask? That’s due to the sheer scale and scope Yakuza 5 brings in its 23-gigabyte, PS3-only Western digital debut.

For anyone familiar with the Yakuza series, the SEGA staple follows Kiryu Kazuma, a former member of the elite Tojo Clan of yakuza (a family within the Japanese mafia). This fifth game is no different in that it follows our beloved Dragon of the Dojima in the new city of Fukuoka, where he is attempting to live a low-profile life before getting enveloped in a potential gang war once again. Kiryu is only one of five characters the game follows and allows you to play at given times, making Yakuza 5 an incredibly daunting experience laden to the brim with different stories.

Image provided by Sega.
Image provided by Sega.

The game investigates not only Kiryu’s side of the action, but revisits former Tojo member Taiga Saejima, moneylender and comedic relief Shun Akiyama, budding Japanese idol Haruka Sawamura, and disgraced baseball pro Tatsuo Shinada. The somewhat imposing amount of plot a player faces in Yakuza 5 can be confusing and even lead to a disconnect with the overarching story. In a matter of hours I went from escaping a violent prison break, to challenging random people on the street to dance battles, to fact-checking news pieces about adult entertainment venues and what was this game about again?

While it is nice that Yakuza 5 feels the freedom to get outside of its comfort zone, the supposedly interconnected stories feel like they are far more strained to link together via Japanese mafia than they were in the fourth game. How Haruka’s struggles to break into the pop idol scene are related to a bloody power struggle between yakuza clans is head-scratching at best and feeble at worst. This wide net cast with stories unfortunately leads to characters like Shinada and Akiyama feeling a little underdeveloped within the main plot. Shinada’s motivations to find out why he was banned from baseball 15 years ago for example, are completely from left field (pun intended) and only get weaker as the game progresses to the final, oddly paced showdown.

Yakuza 5 allows players to explore five different cities this time around.
Yakuza 5 allows players to explore five different cities this time around.

If there is one thing Yakuza 5 does right, it’s variety. Within minutes of booting the game, I went from driving taxis and knocking out punks, to running a ramen kitchen and beating high scores on Taiko Drum Master. This iteration goes far beyond the run, punch, repeat days of its predecessors, offering up widely varied play styles and activities for each respective character. As odd as it sounds, Haruka’s sections of rhythm-based dance and singing games were incredibly addicting and fun to play than most of the male counterparts.

Indeed it was rather alarming the ease with which one can get wrapped up in the games’ numerous side activities. In addition to the hostess romancing, arcade trolling, and gambling mini-games that are Yakuza‘s staples, this fifth game incorporated entire sections of secondary activities related to different characters. Shinada can improve his batting skill through special training, Taiga can become an expert wilderness hunter, and Kiryu will channel his inner Initial D with taxi racing. It can all be fairly easily bypassed in favor of the story, but the addictive nature of all the mini-games and missions is infectiously fun.

"Get in loser, we're going taxi racing!"
“Get in loser, we’re going taxi racing!”

It’s hard to be too critical of Yakuza 5 mechanically, as it is a three-year-old game. The graphics can get muddy but at times impressively hold up and the cutscenes easily surpass Metal Gear Solid levels of length. The combat is still frustratingly unchanged from its clunky nature in the fourth game. Upgrades are far easier to gain for each respective character but don’t feel like a decent payoff even when they’re maxed out. The ability to switch between characters at will and return to previously traversed cities is a welcome change, given that in previous games you only played certain characters for specific segments of the story.

Yakuza 5 may serve as a nice spring point to the upcoming localization of Yakuza 0, but it is long past its initial launch hype. While the overly melodramatic and weak plot can be a trudge to get through, the variety in play styles and ridiculous amount of addicting side activities allow it to break even for an enjoyable experience.

Final score: 4/5

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About Christen Bejar

Christen BejarChristen Bejar is a freelance gaming writer who started the local blog The Pause Button while studying at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. For Nerdvana, Bejar reviews video games and also previews, recaps and photographs many local events from a gamer's perspective.