Three years can be a long time.
The last three years have seen the release of the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One, almost certainly too many Assassin's Creed titles and at least two-dozen video gaming controversies. Oh, and one Yakuza game that took its sweet time making the leap from its Japanese homeland to the West.
Yakuza 5, originally announced in August 2011 and released in Japan in December 2012, was unveiled as a West-bound release at the 2014 PlayStation Experience. To say it's been a long, long wait for Yakuza fans is some understatement, with the previous Western release in SEGA's series, zombie spin-off Yakuza: Dead Souls, being a bit of a disappointment for those of us who had grown to love the Japanese melodrama that follows in the wake of main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, the hardest bastard in all of video gaming.
So, what's Uncle Kaz been up to since the events of Yakuza 4? Well, he's now a taxi driver in Fukuoka, trying to put his old life of violence behind him and make a fresh start in a new town. For six months, Kazuma has been working, keeping his head down and sending money to support his orphanage back in Okinawa (first seen in Yakuza 3), and living a life of lonely, relative peace. This comes to an end when Daigo Dojima, the Sixth Chairman of the Tojo Clan – Kaz was the fourth – gets into our hero's taxi and starts him on the road back to Tokyo, back into the hyper-violent world of the yakuza.
'Yakuza 5', launch trailer
The previous Yakuza games have been full of twists and revelations, and the fifth main game is no different. Like Yakuza 4, you'll get to see the story from several perspectives, with 5 featuring five playable characters: Kazuma; Yakuza 4 vets Taiga Saejima and Shun Akiyama; new boy Tatsuo Shinada; and finally Haruka Sawamura, finally playable after being in all the games since the 2005 original.
Each of the characters controls differently, and they offer not only another view on the main story, but also have their own side-quests and sub-stories – and these comprise some of the highlights of the game. Take Kazuma's sub-story where he, in his role as a taxi driver, takes on the Devil Killers, a street racing gang that terrorises the locals. This combines a new type of gameplay to the series, car racing, with a totally unrelated plot tangent and an excellent Eurobeat soundtrack. It's totally bizarre and out of place in a game about honour, politics and conspiracies, but it's in these moments that the game truly comes into its own.
The bread and butter of the Yakuza series is its combat, and while it's not vastly changed from Yakuza 4, the brawls of this fifth entry are still deeply satisfying to play, even if sometimes it can be a little grisly. Throwing kicks and punches, or using weapons, begins to fill your Heat bar, which, once full, lets you unleash some of the most intensely violent and funny attacks seen in the medium. There's maybe nothing more satisfying, not to mention totally OTT, than seeing an enemy get absolutely wrecked with a traffic cone, or watching as Kazuma cycles a bike at a street thug and flips it into their face.
But that's something you can only do when playing as one of the four male protagonists. Haruka, while playable, doesn't use her fists to settle arguments – she uses her dancing skills. The father/daughter relationship between this orphan girl and Kazuma has always been the warm heart of the series, and here it's interesting to see her going out on her own, becoming independent and separating herself from the violence of her earlier life. Again, her sections of the game showcase something new, dance battles, but they surprisingly succeed in keeping the tone of proceedings intact and, more importantly, they're a lot of fun.
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When it comes to extra-curricular activities, playable when you're not pounding skulls, Yakuza 5 is the most accomplished game in the series so far. The five cities it takes place in are packed full of distractions. In the arcade, you can play Virtua Fighter 2, crane games and Taiko no Tatsujin, the best drumming game on the planet. You can also go fishing, hunting, sing karaoke, hit the batting cages, play VR machines, enter fighting tournaments, read manga or just pick up customers in your taxi. While the game area is much smaller than something like GTAV or Just Cause 3, it's densely packed and highly detailed, full of atmosphere and life.
The thing is, like I said earlier, three years can be a long time, and while this game will delight and surprise with its depth, there are some aspects that can throw the player. The save system remains untouched from the first Yakuza, released just over 10 years ago, with you having to save at telephone booths or in other set locations. This isn't a deal breaker, but autosave has become such an integral feature of modern games that it's easy to turn the game off, forgetting that your last manual save was over 30 minutes ago. Too easy.
While it's not fair to compare the graphics to recent games, there are still issues with pop-up and collision physics that have plagued the series. And while some of the faces you'll meet are beautifully detailed, there's still an abundance of generic looking thugs clogging up the streets of Japan. Bear in mind, though, that this is a PlayStation 3 game, and we've been rather spoiled by the looks of some current-gen console games. (I mean, just look at the first trailer for Yakuza 6, which is PS4 exclusive coming out in Japan in late 2016.)
Maybe more than anything else, the biggest criticism that I have about Yakuza 5 is also one of the things I love about the series as a whole, and that's the sense of familiarity. While the plot changes from game to game, their structures remain almost untouched. New elements are added – more characters, new cities, mini-games and so on – but how you progress through the series never feels like anything but like a straight line.
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Some might see this as repetition, with the potential to leave the player treading the same old ground, but for me the common elements of Yakuza games have always had me thinking of the Zelda series, where game-makers firm up a solid foundation to build a saga upon. Open yourself up to these stories of honour, family and friendship, and you'll be constantly rewarded with a world that doesn't just feel familiar, it feels like home.
As someone who loves this series, getting to play Yakuza 5 after so long, at least without some poorly translated guides or YouTube videos, has been one of my highlights of 2015. It might well be the final new game worth firing the PS3 up for, and even if you're new to the series, it's a fine starting point, with a fresh story and an option to watch catch-up films covering the events of previous instalments, to get you up to speed. If, like me, you've been a fan of the series since it first arrived in the West, you'll be pleased to know that the epic wait hasn't been in vain.
Yakuza 5 is out now, exclusive to the PlayStation 3. This review made possible by NVIDIA SHIELD - check out the NVIDIA SHIELD library here.
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