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