Yakuza 5 and why it needs a western release

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We’ve often heard the Yakuza games described as Japan’s answer to GTA. Such comparisons are generally lazy: the two series share little in common beyond narratives that offer a glimpse at a criminal lifestyle and tonal oscillations between the serious and the silly. So it’s a surprise to find producer Toshihiro Nagoshi inviting the comparison, likening Yakuza 5 to GTA: San Andreas. Having spent over 50 hours with the Japanese-language edition, however, we’d probably agree with his choice of comparison: as with Rockstar’s opus, this is perhaps the apotheosis of the series so far, a game of extraordinary volume and generosity.

There are five cities to explore, for starters, and the fictional suburbs of Fukuoka, Sapporo, Osaka and Nagoya are rendered with a similar attention to authenticity as the series’ familiar corner of Tokyo, Kamurocho. In truth, none of these new cities are as intricate or as dense as the old one, and a few are aggressively gated, with huge invisible barriers preventing you from crossing certain roads in Sapporo, for example. While it’s impossible to escape the staples of Club Sega, M Stores and the Don Quixote jingle wherever you go, each area has signature features, from Sapporo’s towering ice sculptures to Osaka’s wooden piers and takoyaki stands.

Nagoshi described development of the game as “like building a new house”, but it’s one constructed on established foundations. Structurally, this game is identical to Yakuza 4, with four separate narrative threads that entwine in a final chapter, not to mention a similar fight-cutscene-fight flow. A new game engine makes transitions between the two less jarring, though, and moves from exploration to street fighting have been streamlined, too. When accosted by a thug, you have but a few seconds to ready yourself for combat, and then you’re thrown into the fray.

Once battle commences, there are a few notable changes. It’s by no means Bayonetta or Ninja Gaiden, but there’s a greater fluidity to combos, and you’re granted access to better moves earlier on. Subtle tweaks to the movesets make the four characters distinctive: it’s much easier to tell loan shark Shun Akiyama and lead Kazuma Kiryu apart now, the former barely bothering to use his fists. Saejima Taiga, a powerful but sluggish brute in Yakuza 4, is far more fun to play as well.

Each of the game’s stars has an additional Climax Heat move, too, an extra-powerful attack that drains the familiar Heat meter (built up through regular combat) entirely. Washed-up baseball star Tatsuo Shinada charges into opponents, stunning them if their momentum takes them into a wall or solid object; Kazuma can pick up an enemy by his foot, spinning him around to trip nearby goons; and Akiyama launches a series of airborne kicks that would put Ryu and Ken to shame. The standard Heat moves have ratcheted up in brutality, too. Yakuza’s violence has always had a cartoonish edge, but some of the attacks here are vicious enough to make you wince. Even the likeable Akiyama stamps on heads, while noses are regularly crushed against walls and shop fronts.

The most significant break from tradition comes in the third chapter, in which Kazuma’s adopted daughter, Haruka, trains to become an idol in Osaka. The rhythm-action sequences that pitch you against a more experienced duo are very easy, although in that regard it’s much like Yakuza’s fights: it’s all about winning with style. Street brawls are replaced with dance battles, and the upbeat J-Pop numbers you tap along to will quickly burrow into your brain and take up residence.

Beyond that, Nagoshi seems unwilling to upset the status quo, though it’s easy to see why, surrounded as Yakuza is by legions of long-lived game series in which differences between entries are minor. Besides, strong launch-week sales are essential to offset the costs of an expensive voice cast and the evident effort expended on its two-year development. Yakuza’s formula sells, so there’s little pressure to deviate.

However, it’s a formula that only sells in Japan, which explains why Sega, currently focusing its attention on big franchises and mobile partnerships in the face of financial troubles, has been reluctant to announce a western release. With that in mind, an import purchase is all the more tempting, though we’d advise against it unless you’re fluent in Japanese. This is, after all, a series driven by the stories it tells, often through long conversations between two characters.

Much of Yakuza’s appeal comes from the fact that, behind the crunching violence, its moral compass is pointing firmly in the right direction. With every nose broken, a new lesson is taught. Yes, characters might need to take a beating before learning the error of their ways, but almost everyone becomes a better person as a result of your pugilistic interventions. Persistent mission markers and simple objectives make it an easy game to muddle through, sure, but take away Yakuza’s narrative and you lose its heart, and the slightly clunky nature of its not-quite-open sandbox is exposed.

So 50 hours in and we’re still itching to return to Kamurocho, even though we can’t help but wish we were playing this in English. Over here, Yakuza might be a cult hit at best, but this is surely too good a renovation to ignore. Nagoshi’s housewarming is in full swing in Japan, and it’s high time the rest of the world gatecrashed the party.