The Yakuza series from SEGA has always had a track record for being over-the-top with its stylish and flashy presentation. The suits & ties, slicked back hair, bright lights, and ridiculous moments all come packaged with stories of honor, revenge, and betrayal. Yakuza 5 continues this series trend and brings out the polished visuals to their absolute best exclusively on the PlayStation 3. Despite not being on a new generation console, Yakuza 5 definitely has the looks to garner attention from anyone who values aesthetics over gameplay.
The Yakuza games have always had a lot of attention to detail in making places I explore feel like thriving environments, complete with tons of NPCs walking the streets and time wasting activities to get immersed in. No two people you find are the same, as most NPCs have their own unique face and wardrobe while roaming around. Even enemies have this same level of diversity, distinguishing the different gangs of Japan and visually identifying each grunt and leader you encounter on the streets.
The in-game advertisements and small details I would find on billboards and stores are pulled straight from real-life Japanese culture, giving an authentic feeling of being in modern day Japan. This all translates very well into the great looking cutscenes that have striking similarities to a Japanese television drama.
Unfortunately, this also spotlights for me a lot of Yakuza 5’s faults, specifically with the gameplay feeling almost archaic. Most of the attention is emphasized on looks rather than exploring what new things that can be done via the gameplay. Fighting enemies got very repetitive for me quickly, despite having an arsenal of crazy martial arts moves and cinematic moments in combat. Some enemies would randomly use unstoppable moves to constantly damage and knock me back in unfair ways.
The special moves I could execute on enemies looked great the first few times I saw them, but their charm became stale and exhausted within my first few battles. Roaming the streets of Tokyo can also be frustrating when the game isn’t clear where you need to visit and forces you to rely on a poorly designed map.
Other design choices for the inventory management and mini-games you find in the city can be mediocre and bring down the overall experience. Using items and equipping clothing to boost stats felt unnecessary most of the time, with the exception of some health items for battles that become unfairly tough. The mini-games I found in arcades and other places of the city were fun for a little while, but yielded little reward (some experience and money) when I played them.
Some of these games, such as the emulated Virtua Fighter 2 Arcade and Billiards games, have online support that you can play with others through Yakuza 5’s special content menu. This is almost nonexistent however as hardly anyone is using these features online, making all of these online enabled mini-games a total waste. Part of the problem may stem from there being no option to access the online portions of these mini-games while playing in the main game.
Most people however play the Yakuza series for its overtly ridiculous story. Characters from previous Yakuza titles do return in this new story that once again explores the meaning behind being a yakuza and the flashy parts of the criminal underworld. Lots of references to previous titles, including past side character appearances, may leave some people confused at their significance if they didn’t play any Yakuza games before. However, the biggest detriment I found in the story of Yakuza 5 is how the game constantly goes off track from the larger story being told.
After spending lots of time with one character and learning the story, the game would suddenly shift gears to another character’s perspective and pull me out of everything from before. Lots of time is spent establishing the city of Tokyo and its criminal society, until the game quickly changes settings to a Japanese prison or remote village far away, disregarding everything that happened earlier. Eventually things do converge and relate back together later on, but it felt like way too much time is spent elsewhere on filler that is unimportant to the main story.
Yakuza 5 has all the looks of a highly polished title, but still has plenty of shortcomings within its gameplay. The city of Tokyo looks fantastic and is full of extra details that help bring it to life. Spending time in the brightly lit city made me want to grab a two-piece suit and slick my hair back with a tough look on my face. The combat is flashy and over-the-top, but can also turn into a monotonous button-mashing bout against waves of enemies and overplayed cinematic camera work. While not being without its faults, Yakuza 5 still definitely has a lot of style going for it.
This review was based on a digital copy of Yakuza 5 for the PlayStation 3 provided by SEGA.