Gaming systems have a great history of having one final swan song before they get unplugged from your television and fade away in a dust-covered box. Titles like Super Mario Bros. 3, Persona 4, and Ghost Trick weren’t just the final great game for their respective consoles, they were games that signified the end of an era. Finally, Sony’s PlayStation 3 has received the proper send-off that it deserves. That farewell comes in the form of Sega’s Yakuza 5, a game that manages to be one of the most impressive experiences of the year despite being on dated hardware.
Taking place after the events of Yakuza 4, series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu has left the orphanage he supported, and is trying to start a new life as a taxi driver. Things couldn’t stay quiet for long, however, and Kiryu is reluctantly dragged back into the melodramatic underworld of the Yakuza. Despite a very slow start, the story in Yakuza 5 is one of the game’s strongest assets. There is an interesting mystery to solve, and the plot only reveals one piece of the puzzle before jumping to another playable character, and setting.
While the game struggles to find a consistent tone (the cutscenes can go from humorous to serious in a mere instant), it somehow works. Unlike a game like Wolfenstein: The New Order where the serious plot was hurt by the out-of-place comedic elements, Yakuza 5 is always super over the top. Whether it’s a fight scene that has you taking on a gigantic bear, or a gag sequence about tripe, the game is always fully committed to making it seem as crazy as possible. Despite the histrionics, the overall story is told very well, and you’ll be hooked after the first arc.
For most of the game, players will be controlling a powerful fighter (such as Kiryu). This means you’ll be undertaking story missions that have you fighting enemy Yakuza and anyone else who gets in your way. While there isn’t a ton of variety in these story-specific scenes beyond talking to some people and beating up enemies, you’ll be constantly switching between characters, which keeps things feeling fresh.
Each playable character has their own combat style to master and they all handle considerably different from each other. Some will have special attacks that you can charge, while others have a more combo-based system. None of the characters, aside from one which we’ll get to later, ever change the game drastically, but there is always enough of a difference to force you to change how you play slightly. The combat isn’t the game’s strongest suit, although it feels completely fine, so the variety is definitely a welcome addition.
What sets the Yakuza series apart from other open-world games is the level of detail put into every small area. Each town is filled with different eateries, deep side-quests, and throwaway mechanics that had to take a considerable amount of time to flesh out. For example, early on players can choose to participate in a series of street racing quests. The racing, while not going to be confused for Forza, is surprisingly fun and has an entire storyline built around it. What’s even more impressive is that this isn’t just one exception that is fully fleshed-out; every single mini-game has a staggering amount of depth.
Yakuza 5 is filled with different mini-games that could seriously be their own downloadable title. From the in-depth billiards simulation that features multiple modes, to the Karaoke mini-games, there is always a potential time-waster to be found while roaming Japan. You can avoid the majority of these if you want, but you’ll be missing what makes the game so special. No other title goes to this ridiculous level of detail. Want to read 20 chapters of different manga while in a convenience store? You can do that in Yakuza 5.
Another example of how Yakuza 5 is unlike any other game on the market is that midway through players take control of a teenage idol. This completely changes how the game is played, at least temporarily, with fighting replaced with dance battles. Yes, you read that right, dance battles! The most impressive aspect is that it doesn’t even seem out of place. Instead, players are left thinking, “Of course, Yakuza 5 would do something like this!”
While you never know what to truly expect from Yakuza 5‘s story, you never feel like anything can’t happen. After all, there are double-crosses, fake deaths, and giant explosions to be had, and that is just in the first few hours of the game. Despite not having the freedom to drive around some huge, sprawling world, Yakuza 5 actually manages to feel more free than the majority of open-world games. It’s an impressive feat, and Sega has made an experience that feels truly unique.
Despite being largely left amazed by the amount of content in Yakuza 5, I do have some gripes with the game. For one, nobody is going to find all the mini-games enjoyable, and occasionally these optional distractions find their way into the main campaign. That said, they typically only take up the spotlight for a few minutes until they slide back into the scenery. So, yeah, you might have to suffer through some games of billiards you have no desire of playing, but afterwards you’ll never have to touch it again.
There are also some graphical areas where the game starts to show that it’s on aging hardware. While it largely looks gorgeous, especially in cutscenes, Yakuza 5 does have some pop-in issues that can be distracting. The most notable area where this occurred was in a snowy forest where you could see the mountain being drawn in as you moved forward. It never impacted my enjoyment, but it did make me happy that Yakuza 5 is the series’ last PS3-only installment.
If one thing truly stands out about Yakuza 5, it’s the amount of heart that went into the project. There are no throwaway mini-games, as every single one has enough depth that they could conceivably be their own budget-priced game. Sega has produced one of the deepest PlayStation 3 titles ever, and this is one heck of a swan song for the system to go out on. If you’re new to the series, or a long-time fan, you won’t be disappointed by Yakuza 5.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 exclusive, with which we were provided.
While it has its flaws, Yakuza 5 displays enough heart to overcome all of them. The over-the-top story will keep you wanting to know more while the gameplay is constantly changing so you're never bored. Yakuza 5 is a delight for both newcomers and veterans to the series.