Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Yakuza 5


Yakuza 5
Yakuza 5 expands its scope far beyond its earlier iterations, sending its five protagonists through melodramatic missions in new locations all over Japan. Its message gets a bit muddled in the explosive expansion of its aspirations, but the essential core of what makes these games special remains.

Yakuza is a hectic blend of the absurd, the melodramatic, and the mundane. In this bizarre world where even the loan sharks have a heart of gold--Sky Finance offers the best no-collateral, no-interest loan you'll get this side of Tom Nook--mafiosos spend as much time dishing out street justice in brutal back-alley brawls as they do distributing pop quizzes to passing students struggling with their entrance exams. Never content just with aping its roots, gritty movies like Infernal Affairs and Battles Without Honor and Humanity, this series has always been a hungry amoeba, ravenously grafting every conceivable iota of Japanese pop culture onto its ungainly, clumsy, admirable mess of a crime drama.

Evil men are corrupting the once-proud Tojo clan with their malicious whims (aren't they always?) and it's up to legendary gangster/foster dad Kiryu Kazuma to clean up their mess, even though he's been "out of the game" since there were Yakuza games to begin with. But he doesn't have to go it alone; Yakuza 5 adds a few more playable characters to mix, trumping Yakuza 4 expanded roster, which was already bursting at the seams with four. The returning incorruptible criminals Kiryu, Saejima, and Akiyama are joined by washed-up pro athlete turned ne'er-do-well, Shinada, and Kiryu's foster daughter, Haruka, who's outgrown the orphanage and set her sights on stardom. Playing out like an anthology series, the game hands each character their own story arc, long as a TV season, drenched in sappy, sentimental pathos, as all the best yakuza flicks are. Whether it be by the canals of Osaka, amid the glitz and glamor of Tokyo's red light districts, or beneath the harsh glare of the prison search lights, each character finds, once more, that they just can't catch a break--just when they thought they were out, they get pulled back in, so to speak.

But for any given hour spent on tearful confessions of intimacy between blood brothers, you're offered just as many silly, superfluous sidequests to leaven things out before the seriousness gets too stultifying. Between sessions of gangland-style realpolitik, Kiryu can take a break and put in shifts with his taxi cab. But this isn't Grand Theft Auto, so mind the rules of the road. Customers hate it when you accelerate too quickly from a stop, and don't act like you're too good to make small talk with your customers just because you're the former chairman of one of Japan's largest criminal syndicates (sorry, "respectable business conglomerates"). And when you park your taxi for the night, you don't have to rush off to the next mission objective, take some time to indulge your civic pride with some volunteer garbage collection. Perennial prisoner Saejima, out on the lam after his second consecutive jail break, can hit the pause button on avenging his slain aniki to do some big game hunting in the frozen north; you can make a pretty decent living trapping rabbits while you track down the gigantic, forest god of a bear who's torn a bloody swathe through the sleepy little hunting village that's become Saejima's surrogate home. Haruka's entire segment is basically one big sidequest about navigating obsessive fans, producers press-ganging her into daytime quiz shows, and passive-aggressive backstage rivals as she makes her meteoric rise from orphan nobody to idol megastar. Taking on extra shifts to help out a coworker with the case of the runs or just indulging in some laid-back fishing, it's almost possible to forget that you're supposed to be a violent thug on a quest for revenge (or is it redemption? or is it both?)

Arguably, the drastic increase in scope hurts in as many ways as it helps. The story's at its best when it's playing out like episodes of a primetime drama, with cliffhangers galore, where the soulful confessions and sneering betrayals are come in hot from every angle of the conflict, good guy or bad--the latter of which might not end up being that bad after all, once both parties have shed their share of manly tears and emerged, reborn, as brothers. But the enormous playable cast hobbles the pacing, and the writing too eagerly gives itself over to switch backs. Each character at square one, unaware of the insidious corruption lurking all around them, so they can be maximally shocked by a "this goes straight to the top!" cutscene nearly identical to the last one the game fed the last hopelessly naive hardened thug of a protagonist four hours ago. Following up one arc's climax of "you thought I was a dunce, but actually, I shot that guy!" with a doppleganger reveal of "you thought I was your friend, but actually, I shot that guy!" dilutes the fun, campy nature of the plot. Taken in aggregate, the heart of the narrative loses itself in its sheer number of players. Like Yakuza 4, the aggressive protagonist expansion comes with an equally aggressive antagonist expansion. As a result, bad guys act as archetypal gangster stand-ins, pretty much interchangeable with one another. Moment to moment, the spectacle and melodrama is on point. If you want to see some burly guys who can only express the passions of their heart through the knuckles of their fists, that's still available in spades. If you want all that to tie into a greater whole, the way the comparatively small-scale mystery of the first game did, then you're out of luck.

The messy scope bogs the gameplay too. Techniques vary a bit between characters, grappler Saejima chucks around motorcycles, acrobatic Akiyama air-juggles enemies with Chun-Li kicks, but it's hard to enjoy the superficial differences beneath the kruft of unlocking an evasive dodge for your third character running. More interesting than plodding down skill trees for health upgrades is performing odd jobs for each character's respective sensei to learn new techniques, but unlocking new branches on your combo trees is more for novelty than practicality. The basic flowchart of mashing square and triangle in random patterns, and applying HEAT attacks whenever your super meter's full to brain an enemy with an iron pipe or chuck them into a nearby river, will see you through most battles, especially if you've got a grip of health-restoring energy drinks on your side. It's not exactly Dynasty Warriors-simple, but the these games carved out their combat niche ten years ago and haven't bothered to keep up with the leaps and bounds made by character-action games like Bayonetta. Which is fine: character-action games like Bayonetta don't let you scarf down roadside takoyaki or indulge in pixel-perfect Taiko no Tatsujin in your off time.

The biggest shift is Haruka's rise to idol stardom. Part princess maker, part rhythm game, it feels more like a standard group of Yakuza mini-activities strung together into a campaign than a genuinely new gameplay system. It's a change of pace, at least, but going on marketing tours to improve your agency's rep and engaging in impromptu Osakan dance battles are cuter conceptually than they are in practice. After several obligatory hours spent tapping buttons in time with generic J-Pop ditties, and enduring Haruka's limitless well of guile-free "ganbare!" spirit in an industry that would clearly eat her gullible ass alive, you start wish they'd just let her step up to the plate and enter the life of betrayal and violence her foster father has been trying to ditch for the past decade. Women in Yakuza only ever play second fiddle, but slotting Haruka into the role of cutesy idol instead of letting her play with the big boys sadly confirms what we already knew: this series has few spaces for women outside of the hostess club. Looking into the gorgeously detailed, but completely inanimate, faces of teenage idols, their smiles frozen, rictus, plasticine, as they bop through pop melodies, the cool Osakan lady cop from Yakuza 2 becomes an even more distant image in the rearview mirror. The best you get here is a mean-spirited talent agent voiced to a melancholic tee by Romi Park. Not that things like idols and hostess clubs shouldn't have a part in these games, but it'd be nice to have some variety.

With combat that's serviceable more often than it's spectacular, the game's best trick is throwing you into a gigantic melee. Yakuza always been great at setting up its climactic, end-game battle scenes, pairing hammy dialogue and doleful piano chords as each respective pair of nemeses strip off their pastel dress shirts and reveal their full-back tattoos before engaging in one-on-one fights where might exclusively makes right. Yakuza 5 expands this scope, creating combat spectacles previous games could only ever hint at with their cutscenes of gigantic, rival clans facing off on either side of the street, radiating tension through their off-brand Armani or Adidas. But once the story sequence ended, the game would fade back in on a brief fight against a paltry five or six opponents, a disappointing capstone to the scripted story's promise. Now, you're stuck right in the middle of the action, facing off against scores of scowling chinpira scrubs with fingernail-sized health bars and a deficit of combat prowess. In these moments, where the melee churns around you and any single press of any single attack button seems to explode three guys at once, you really do start to feel like some unkillable beast. You buy into the flavor, believing the myth of Kiryu Kazuma, the Dragon of Dojima, might actually be true.

And if Yakuza's concerned with anything, it's flavor. Tellingly, the most one-note areas are the abandoned buildings and society offices you only visit once, scaling their generic concrete stairs in multi-floor brawls like a modern-day Kung-Fu Master level until you reach the top and face off with the bad guy du jour. No, Yakuza spends far less effort on its combat arenas than it does its detailing its goofy, wild, all-together-too-busy city streets and shops. More diorama than sandbox, this is the best sort of open world: one small enough for you to learn, one with enough stuff worth learning. In a game where traversal isn't simplified down to a contextual parkour button or a homie-delivered sports car, it behooves you to figure out which alleys dead end and which are easy shortcuts around the crowded shopping district, bristling with grumpy thugs who bear takoyaki-sized chips on their shoulder, ready to start a random encounter with any passerby in a nice suit. When tromping down any given street can send you blundering into a high-stakes ramen delivery mission, the world is worth poking around in, despite the rough edges of its presentation.

So much of the marketing chatter around Yakuza 5 involves its new graphics engine, a big overhaul since Yakuza 3's debut on PS3. No doubt, it's a nice looking game, especially for a last-gen product from 2012, but the series's charm has always been less about the fidelity of its graphics and more about the fidelity of its world. Yakuza populates its small neighborhoods with densely detailed locations dripping with Shenmue-style intimacy. Nothing is cut and paste. Ritzy restaurants with blindingly bright lights populate the main streets and smoky bars hide in back alleys, their ornate doors flanked by fluorescent yellow crates from the morning's booze delivery (ready to be picked up and bashed into a thug's face, in a pinch). Convenience stores sell a half-dozen boxed lunches with no practical difference but their aesthetics: is today a regular onigiri day, or do you take a walk on the wild side and pick up some umeboshi? Seemingly everything in a Yakuza game is designed to give you the sense, however fleeting, that these places (based on the actual ramen joints and department stores of Tokyo and beyond) and their people (washed-up Talento and military otaku and homeless beauticians waiting to drop knowledge on passing adolescents) are real.

With its messy sidequests, its uncoordinated mechanics, and its long-winded cutscenes retreading the same well-worn ground of fraternal loyalty and scrupulous criminal oblige, Yakuza feels like something from a different time. Or a parallel universe, maybe, a reminder of that early-00s promise of what adventure games could become, before Bethesda and Ubisoft transmuted everything around them into a treadmill of statistical gains and minimap checklists. Yakuza has something many modern video games have lost: artifice, the helping hand that lets you suspend disbelief, even if just for a moment, and pretend like the game's landscape exists for some reason other than to be plundered for upgrades and experience points.

In the face of that, the occasional pacing snafus and the sloppy explosion of mismatched systems seem like a fair price to pay, because they give access to something that wholeheartedly commits to its bit in an era when anything with a budget seems more concerned with kowtowing to fluxing focus group whims than elaborating on any personally held ethos or creative instinct. Where any given blockbuster game will breathlessly shove a machine gun into your hands and tell you the world is your oyster before even the title screen pops off, Yakuza 5 starts with three hours of pub crawls, late-night dining, and trash collecting before the most legendary gangster in the Kanto region, Kiryu Kazuma, admits he's anything other than mild-mannered cabbie Suzuki Taichi. As games become increasingly solicitous, packing every cutscene with AAA-level tension and every interaction with instant-gibb execution moves, for fear of their players becoming bored, Yakuza becomes a more precious novelty, its ethos manifest inside its mess. The flaws and foibles of its presentation aren't hurdles to jump, they're an inextricable part of what makes this game special.

Overall : B+
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : B-
Presentation : B

+ Soulful, impassioned storylines, low-stress, button-mashing combat, and scads of goofy sidequests
The direction and precision that made the first two Yakuza games sing gets lost amid the spectacle of five full-fledged story arcs and playable characters

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