You can take Kazuma Kiryu out of Kamurocho, but you sense The Dragon of Dojima will never be allowed to escape the place where he made his name. In Sega’s Yakuza 5 demo – now available on the Japanese PSN Store – he has a new job as a taxi driver, but barely has he slurped down a bowl of ramen at the end of his shift before he faces a pair of gangsters with a recognisable clan badge on their lapels.
Series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi said that Yakuza 5′s “massive volume” was such a huge undertaking it was like “building a new house”, and Fukuoka, where the demo is set, is one of five cities featured in the full game. While its layout may be new, the sights and sounds are relatively familiar: Kazuma now has to watch out for traffic as he wanders the city streets at dusk, but otherwise the place could be a surrogate Kamurocho, with its milling pedestrians, noisy restaurants, hostess bars and a soft neon glow.
There’s a Club Sega, too, of course, albeit this time with a wider variety of distractions. The UFO Catchers return, the crane grabber doing its best not to pick up Bonanza Bros, NiGHTs and Fantasy Zone toys. Meanwhile, a new variety is a frustratingly exacting challenge that eventually rewards your patience with a Hatsune Miku prize. It’s joined by a time-limited Virtua Fighter 2 (which, sadly, hasn’t aged too gracefully) and a fully playable Taiko No Tatsujin, here offering a single song on two difficulty settings, with Kazuma’s deep baritone proving an amusing counterpoint to the game’s traditionally shrill hosts.
Those favouring more adult-themed asides, meanwhile, will be pleased to learn that the hostess-wooing minigame has been expanded, with firstperson conversations offering a number of dialogue options to encourage or dampen the ardour of your chosen companion. Other sidequests are now highlighted on the map – hopefully this isn’t restricted to the demo version – while foodstuffs are now photographed rather than drawn. Small touches, sure, but welcome ones.
You’ll spend plenty of time with your DualShock resting on your lap, of course. Cutscenes are every bit as measured and as artfully shot as before, but Sega is now confident enough to use its in-game engine to render them. Early signs point to that same, oddly seductive blend of brutality and sentimentality, the opening cutscene showing Kazuma bristling at suggestive comments from his colleagues as they leer at his adopted daughter Haruka on TV, in training to be an idol.
Elsewhere, subtle visual improvements can be seen in the physics and animation of pedestrians, who react a little more realistically to being bumped into, though Kazuma’s running animation remains unintentionally comic. Lighting has been improved, and draw-in is less noticeable, though the strange reflections on the water’s surface make you wonder whether an illegal oil disposal subplot awaits in the full game.
One of the most welcome changes sees Sega streamline the transition to combat. Gangs will still challenge Kazuma to a fight, but the game no longer cuts away, giving you a brief moment to prepare before battle commences. The fighting has been refined, too, with an expanded repertoire of the series’ signature brutal Heat actions: one sees Kazuma literally wipe the floor with a rival’s face, a painful watch topped by a moment where a street punk’s coccyx is aggressively introduced to a metal bollard. There’s still a strong element of cartoonish slapstick to many of the moves – not least one involving Kazuma riding a bicycle at high speed towards a terrified young thug – but they’re much more likely to make you wince than in previous games.
Despite his advancing years, Kazuma’s getting even quicker and more responsive, with a crunching counter-reversal Heat action, and a running dropkick that sees him backflip smartly once his heel hits his opponent’s chest. It’s a good job, too, as enemies also seem a little sharper, more readily picking up discarded weapons to use against you, and dodging and blocking predictable combos.
An inevitable brawl against two clan members who won’t take no for an answer concludes a demo that suggests Sega isn’t resting on its laurels with one of its most significant franchises; while some of the same old problems remain Toshihiro Nagoshi seems set to deliver on his promise of giving the series a sginificant overhaul. One can only hope the publisher’s localisation team is equally busy readying the game for a western release. On this evidence, Yakuza 5 is happy to settle into a familiar rhythm, but it’s as irresistibly infectious as ever.