Have you ever strolled down the side streets of a Japanese entertainment district, minding your own business, when suddenly a group of punks armed with metal bars decided they don't like the look of your face? Man, that sucks when it happens. All I want to do is manage my hostess club and hit the arcade for some Virtua Fighter 2, but every jerk in a five-mile radius wants a piece of me. Can't a middle-aged ex-crime boss enjoy his pastimes in peace? Thank god for gigantic traffic cones you can use to smack them down to the pavement.
Such is a night in Sega's Yakuza games. While you've been wasting time in Grand Theft Auto, visiting faux-American cities, I've been staycationing on the mean streets of Tokyo. And you should too, because the Yakuza series, which just released the fifth game on PlayStation's online store, is fantastic.
The Yakuza series, called Ryu ga Gotoku (Like a Dragon) in Japan, follows the adventures of Kazuma Kiryu, a key player in the world of organized crime. Kiryu tried to leave things behind, attempting to start fresh by running an orphanage in Okinawa and, most recently, becoming a taxi driver in Fukuoka, but whenever he thinks he's out, the crime world pulls him back in.
What makes open-world games so engrossing is their dedication to capturing the feeling of being somewhere. Yakuza's goal is to make you feel like you are exploring the underside of modern-day urban Japan, and it accomplishes that beautifully. As you wander across the pedestrian-packed main drags and the neon-lit back alleys, there are myriad distractions available to you that are very distinctly Japanese.
You can go bar-hopping at various themed establishments, hit up a pachinko parlors with recreations of actual machines, rent a karaoke room and belt out some j-pop and/or enka, get a massage, play some mahjong, visit a hostess club (or manage your own), and even swing by beloved cheap/weird household goods chain Don Quixote.
While Kamuro-cho, which is modeled after Shinjuku's Kabuki-cho neighborhood, is the main base for most of the series, there are also locales in Osaka and Okinawa that play prominent roles in Yakuza 2 and 3. Yakuza 5's big selling point is that there are five different areas, including all-new locales based on neighborhoods of Nagoya, Sapporo, and Fukuoka. Imagine if gigantic areas based on neighborhoods of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and Boston were all crammed into a single open world game—that's basically what Yakuza 5 is doing, only with major Japanese cities instead.
As a saga of underworld politics and Japanese society's less savory aspects, it can get a bit ridiculous at times. For example, in Yakuza 2, Kiryu punches two bengal tigers to death. But there are also points when it addresses actual social issues, like the controversy over US military presence in Okinawa and the plight of racial minorities living in Japanese society. It manages to walk the tightrope between overdramatic silliness and sincerity surprisingly well, switching between moments of absurd badassery and engaging character drama.
Unlike many other open-world games, Yakuza's story also gives you some limitations. Kiryu might be entangled in Japan's criminal underworld, but he isn't devoid of a personal moral code: he only curb-stomps other Yakuza members and punks trying to start shit. You can't commit random violence or chaos, as to do so would go against the characterization these games work so hard to establish. It's also true to the idealized image of the Japanese gangster within various media: they might be ruffians, but they have a code of honor that must be upheld. This point is very important to series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi, who has expressed his dislike of Grand Theft Auto's loose approach to player morality.
The series has only been around for a decade, but it's grown into a massive franchise within that time, inspiring movies, novels, and multiple spinoffs. Yakuza 5 is the latest release in the West, and it was just announced at Sony's PlayStation Experience that we'll eventually get Yakuza 0, the PlayStation 4 prequel set in late 1980s Japan. Given that 1980s Japan at the height of the economic bubble was rife with organized crime influence, it has the potential to be the best entry yet in the saga.
But for now, you can download Yakuza 3, 4, and 5 from the PlayStation Network. Yakuza 4 is both inexpensive and a great jumping-off point for the series as a whole, but they're all solid picks. If you're looking to travel to exotic locales by way of video games over the holiday break, forget Grand Theft Auto V or Fallout 4, and consider a virtual trip to the mean streets of Japan.