A Taxi Driver, a Convict, an Idol, a Moneylender, and a Baseball Player Walk Into a Bar
Yakuza 5 stars five characters, three playable in Yakuza 4, one completely new character, and one series veteran who makes her first playable appearance. Each of the characters have minor tweaks in combat, and four out of the five have side stories that feature unique gameplay mechanics.
Before I dive into what I liked and did not like about the characters, I believe I should mention that as of writing, I am on part four out of five. I have played 60 hours and spent time with all of the characters to get a hold of their mechanics, but I have not seen the conclusion of the game. At this point I am confident in my opinion about the game and I do not believe the ending will significantly change that.
The first playable character is the series main character: The Dragon of Dojima, Kazuma Kiryu. It’s nice the game starts off with the most familiar character, as it makes it easier to digest the changes to the game from Yakuza 4. The biggest change is the addition of the “Climax Gauge” which allows a flashy move to be performed after it fills. Other than that, Kiryu’s combat controls exactly like it has before. That is not necessarily a bad thing; the brawling is still really fun and as brutal as it has ever been. Slamming people into walls, riding enemies over with a bike, and rubbing faces on asphalt is still simultaneously funny and cringe-inducing.
After the events in Yakuza 4, Kiryu relocated to a new town, acquired a new identity, and became a taxi driver. His side story focuses on transporting passengers and racing jerks that challenge him. The transporting of passengers requires the player to follow real traffic laws. Signaling, stopping at red lights, and accelerating at a steady rate keep the passenger in a good mood. It may sound tedious, but each of the missions are two minutes long tops, so it never overstays its welcome. I enjoyed it a lot because it offered a driving experience that most video games tend to avoid. The racing is also enjoyable, but it is pretty standard. The taxi handles well enough for the handful of races in the side story. The story that ties all of it together gives some depth to Kiryu’s coworkers, all of whom have short appearances in the main story.
The second character is Taiga Saejima, who made his first appearance in Yakuza 4. And just like that game, this one opens up with him in prison. And just like that game, it takes way too long for him to break out of prison and get access to the open world. I do not know why that choice was made, but it makes Saejima’s opening hours a real drag. His style of combat is a lot slower and more heavy hitting. He can charge up his moves and puts out a lot of damage. For some reason, I was not a fan of his style in Yakuza 4, yet I really enjoyed playing as him this time around. Maybe I was able to grasp the strengths of his style and stopped trying to be as fast paced as the other characters.
His side story is the one I enjoyed the most. Saejima’s side story focuses on a small hunting village being terrorized by an unusually large bear, and Saejima decides to help them solve the problem. The hunting is very simple; the various guns feel the same and setting traps is a very simple process. Yet, much like Kiryu’s taxi driving, its simple and fast enough to get into, enjoy, and get out. Because of that, I spent at least five hours with the mode, and finished everything. However, getting back to town while hunting is a bit of a drag. The fast travel makes Saejima drop everything acquired on the hunt, so the only way back is to go back to the start of the map, and Saejima moves really slow. That’s fine for stalking animals, but I dreaded having to walk back to town every time.
Haruka Sawamura has appeared in all of the main Yakuza games and is playable for the first time here. Since she’s a teenage pop idol, she does not get into fist fights with middle-aged thugs. Instead, she dances it out with young people in a simple rhythm minigame. When she’s not doing that, she is singing and dancing for crowds, which takes form in a different rhythm minigame, shaking hands with fans, or doing interviews. Haruka’s side story and overall gameplay suffers from being too simple and repetitive. At some point all of her in-game jobs start feeling like an actual job to get through. For the first hour or two, it was a nice change of pace from the usual Yakuza gameplay, but then it wears out its welcome.
Then enters Shun Akiyama, also a returning playable character from Yakuza 4. He appears in the same part as Haruka, and because of that he lacks a side story. I was fine with that, as Haruka’s story felt completely unnecessary to the main plot until Akiyama appeared and the crime drama that Yakuza is good at finally started. He’s also my favorite character to play as. His style is really fast, and focuses on constantly beating on enemies before they can strike back. He is able to perform special moves at a faster rate than the others, and features a lot of kicking dudes in the face.
Last, and most certainly least, is newcomer Tatsuo Shinada. He makes a real lame entrance, and comes off as a lazy, whiny brat. On top of that I do not like playing as him. His focus is on using weapons, which have always lacked depth and are used very sparingly in combat. Of course, he can attack with a weapon, though he controls sluggishly and has the smallest amount of health of all the characters. His side story is a modification of the batting minigame available in previous Yakuza games. So while it is not as boring as Haruka’s side story, it is the most unoriginal and brings nothing new to the table.
The five playable protagonists do add variety to the game, but the pacing of the plot feels off. Instead of having one narrative that transitions from character to character, we get four separate narratives that culminate in a conclusion. At the beginning of each part, the narrative is set back to square one, and the big reveals of the previous parts get recycled. I am also worried that by the time I get to the end, I will have forgotten minor things from earlier sections that become important too late.
Yakuza 5 makes some improvements on the technical side since Yakuza 4. The character models look better, more civilians are roaming around in the various towns, and the cutscenes look more like an early next gen game rather than a 2012 PS3 game. The best improvements are the random encounters; in previous Yakuza games, the transition from exploring and fighting would be separated by a brief load time. In Yakuza 5, the transition is seamless and does not interrupt the flow of the game as much as previous installments. However, the frequency of random encounters is still a bit too much, and at times can make getting from point A to point B a little frustrating.
Spread throughout the five cities are the mini games that have been featured in the other Yakuza games, and little has been done to change them. Their existence does make the locations feel a little bit more alive, such as being able to walk into a bar and play a game of pool with a stranger, but I have never found many of them engaging. There are a wide variety, from darts and batting, various forms of gambling, and even pachinko. There’s nothing awful about them, I just personally do not like playing them. Although I am impressed that the full arcade version of Virtua Fighter 2 is included.
The Verdict: 8.5 out of 10
For better or worse, Yakuza 5 is another Yakuza game with some minor gameplay tweaks. The Yakuza games are really unique, so it’s not like we are getting a glut of these games. The changes here, mainly the five playable characters and five cities, make it worth checking out for fans of the series and maybe even people who have yet to play one of the games.
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Riley Berry is an Associate Writer for MONG who loves his crime drama/soap opera video games. You can follow him on Twitter.