Yakuza 5

PS3

EDGE - - GAMES -

he Yakuza se­ries is known in the west as a sort of hy­brid of GTA and Streets Of Rage – an open­world gang­ster ca­per in which you knock the stuff­ing out of ne’er-do-wells on the mean streets of var­i­ous cities in con­tem­po­rary Ja­pan. So why are we in a TV dress­ing room, fret­ting about our hair and makeup, stressed out be­cause we just spilled cof­fee all over a tal­ent show’s pro­ducer af­ter a ri­val tripped us up?

There are plenty of heads in need of knock­ing to­gether in Yakuza 5, of course, but this se­ries has al­ways been de­fined by the things Toshi­hiro Nagoshi and team get you do­ing when you’re not punch­ing peo­ple’s teeth in. Many of the se­ries’ long-run­ning, oh-so-Ja­panese dis­trac­tions re­turn: the host­ess-club flir­ta­tions, the karaoke ses­sions, mahjong par­lours and so on. Yet even now, five num­bered games and a hand­ful of spinoffs later, Yakuza re­tains the ca­pac­ity to sur­prise. You’ll have a fist­fight with a bear, im­pro­vise a standup com­edy rou­tine, and learn life lessons from a cross-dress­ing beau­ti­cian who lives un­der a bridge. You’ll stop off for some ra­men on the way home and find your­self be­hind the counter fill­ing or­ders be­cause the server’s put his back out. And, yes, you’ll spend 15 hours of your life try­ing to be­come a pop star.

The game’s third chap­ter tells the story of Haruka Sawa­mura, a se­ries reg­u­lar who is playable here for the first time. Hav­ing spent the pre­ced­ing games un­der the care of se­ries front­man Kazuma Kiryu, she’s now liv­ing alone in Osaka, work­ing for a lo­cal tal­ent agency on her quest for star­dom. The tone, me­chan­ics and pur­pose of the game change en­tirely: the ran­dom punchups that bar your progress when out on the street in con­trol of one of the four other leads dis­ap­pear, and are re­placed by op­tional rhythm-ac­tion dance bat­tles with fel­low wannabes. A bul­letin board at the agency leads to jobs that boost Haruka’s pro­file and her em­ployer’s, per­haps singing, danc­ing or shak­ing hands. Ev­ery ac­tiv­ity raises your skills, making you bet­ter able to tackle your pri­mary task: win­ning the Princess League tal­ent show, where vic­tory means a ma­jor-la­bel con­tract.

That’s the plan, any­way, though of course things quickly turn sour. Greater forces are at work, drag­ging the five pro­tag­o­nists from their daily lives around Ja­pan to the se­ries’ stomp­ing ground of Ka­muro­cho. Be­fore long, Haruka’s tal­ent agency is in tat­ters, a mur­derer’s trail lead­ing back to her child­hood home. Taiga Sae­jima is lured to the big city from the prison where he’s serv­ing time for as­sault. Shun Akiyama is called home from his bid to ex­pand his eth­i­cal money-lend­ing busi­ness to Osaka. New char­ac­ter Tat­suo Shi­nada, a for­mer base­ball player kicked out of the sport af­ter be­ing framed for match-fix­ing, gets suck­ered in too.

All of them ac­cept their changed roles will­ingly enough, ex­cept for face-ruiner-in-chief Kiryu, whose lat­est at­tempt to es­cape his dark past had him liv­ing un­der an as­sumed name as a taxi driver in Fukuoka. The Fourth Chair­man of Tokyo’s Tojo Clan has spent more of this se­ries try­ing to walk away from a life of violence than he has liv­ing it, but really should know by now that what­ever he does, trou­ble will al­ways track him down. So it proves. An in­nocu­ous open­ing few hours quickly gives way to a web of fam­ily fall­outs, kid­nap­pings, dis­ap­pear­ances, dou­ble- and triple-crosses, and an aw­ful lot of blood-stained pave­ments. Kiryu once again heads back to Tokyo to save the Tojo Clan and the rest of the un­der­world from spi­ralling into chaos, tak­ing a size­able chunk of ur­ban Ja­pan down with it. It’s the same old story, in other words, and the same old game at heart, too. There’s some­thing jar­ring about ran­dom bat­tles in the year 2015, but al­most ev­ery­thing about Yakuza 5 will jar in some way by to­day’s stan­dards. It was far from the most hand­some of games dur­ing the PS3 era, and is hardly flat­tered by the three years of tech­ni­cal progress made since its Ja­panese release. NPCs pop in from about 20 feet away, an ob­vi­ous con­ces­sion to per­for­mance that still can’t pre­vent some se­vere drops in fram­er­ate when the screen gets busy. But Ka­muro­cho has al­ways looked like this; should Sega see fit to bring the se­ries PS4 de­but Yakuza Zero west it will take some time to ad­just to a set­ting shorn of its decade-old, Vase­line-smeared rough edges.

Com­bat is still a clunky old beast too, but it has al­ways had a cer­tain charm. That’s thanks largely to the Heat sys­tem, which un­locks pow­er­ful, of­ten lu­di­crous fin­ish­ing moves when you fill a bar by land­ing at­tacks. Kiryu grabs downed en­e­mies and scrapes their faces back and forth on the tar­mac; Sae­jima grabs their feet and spins them round, hit­ting other foes in the vicin­ity; while Shi­nada draws on his old base­ball skills. And Sawa­mura? Well, she has a dance-off to hand­bag house mu­sic. Violence isn’t al­ways the so­lu­tion, you know.

Sawa­mura’s pop­strel ad­ven­ture is per­haps the clear­est ex­am­ple yet of the true spirit of the Yakuza se­ries. This, like its fore­bears, is a game of real heart – some­thing that is too eas­ily over­looked in the con­text of the thou­sands of bro­ken bod­ies you leave in your wake. Violence is an un­avoid­able means to an end, the only lan­guage th­ese thugs understand; many of them, van­quished and chas­tened, will re­solve on the spot to change their ways. The pro­tag­o­nists will, at jour­ney’s end, do the same. Yakuza 5 is a game about re­pair­ing a world you’ve grown to love, one step at a time, whether by avert­ing a coun­try-wide gang war, im­prov­ing the needy’s ac­cess to fi­nance, or sim­ply help­ing a young woman achieve her child­hood dream by tap­ping con­troller but­tons in time to J-pop. The re­sult is a game of charm­ing pos­i­tive spirit that, three years late and a gen­er­a­tion off the pace, still stands out in a crowded, wan­tonly de­struc­tive field.

You’ll have a fist­fight with a bear, im­pro­vise a standup com­edy rou­tine, and learn life lessons from a beau­ti­cian

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