First Impressions: Yakuza 5

Yakuza_5.jpg

Yakuza 5 by SEGA on PS3

 

It may be years late, but I have finally had the opportunity to sample the deliciousness that is Yakuza 5. I’ve loved this series since playing the original back on PS2, and while the long waits between their Japanese releases and the American ones (at least, when we actually get them at all) have frequently frustrated me, it has never been so much that I don’t leap on them the second they’re available.

Except this time. The fifth main installment of the series dropped back in December… I’m just now getting to play it. Why’s that? Well, my PlayStation 3, launch day trooper that it was, died the day before the game released. Since then, I haven’t had the funds to replace or repair it. But Yakuza 5 recently went on PlayStation Plus as the free game of August, and my roommate was ever-so-kind as to allow me to borrow her PS3… So things have worked out at last.

Now, since I am playing on a borrowed system, am juggling multiple jobs, in the middle of a moderate-to-severe depressive episode and am forcing myself to work on this site and write while also doing fundraising, I am not able to sit down with it for 20 hour stretches as I have with previous installments. Thusfar, I’ve sunk about 6 hours in, and much of that has been wandering around the initial area and investigating the side missions. So, as noted, this is just first impressions, not a proper review.

So what’s the verdict so far? “More of the same,” mostly. Either you enjoy the Yakuza series or you don’t. If you’ve liked past entries (at least the main numbered ones; Dead Souls is a different sort of beast), there are not yet any significant changes to the formula that are going to turn you away. We have a new and already needlessly complex storyline, and a few new minigame options, but at heart it’s another excuse to wander around “Japan: The Simulation” saving puppies and beating the hell out of bad 70s thugs in increasingly brutal ways. For me, that is not a problem and so far the game is a solid 8/10, which may well creep up to 9 once I get to play some of the other characters and see how the story develops.

Of course, some of you out there are probably saying “But I don’t know what Yakuza is about, so that doesn’t help.” Okay. It’s a semi-open world action RPG, where you take the role of an ex-gangster who keeps getting drug back into the life and has to use incredibly violent means to defend himself, protect the honor and integrity of his former clan, save his friends and give his adopted daughter a chance at life. The majority of the game is spent wandering imitation streets of famous Japanese districts, exploring eateries, hostess clubs, video game parlors, casinos and soaking up “authentic” Japanese atmosphere, and somehow, despite having dozens of minigames ranging from playing Pachinko to batting cages to claw-machine games, none of it feels half-assed or unnessary; it’s all interesting and all of it has some effect on the gameplay elements that drive the story forward, that being protagonist Kazuma Kiryu’s pummelling the crap out of whoever dares threaten him and his friends this time. The combat (which is incredibly frequent, even for something that is, at heart, an old school RPG with random encounters) feels great, responsive, has literally hundreds of moves and animations, and while frequently punishingly difficult never feels unfair… And seeing what some of the Heat Moves do to folks is always suitably simultaneously enjoyable, repulsive and wince inducing. (My favorite remains a move from Yakuza 3; if equipped with a pair of pliers and possessed of a full Heat gague, grabbing a stunned enemy and hitting the button led to some impromptu dental surgery. Yes, it’s insane. Yes, it’s gruesome. But it was also disturbingly satisfying.)

All of that applies to 5 as much as previous entries, but this time we get some new stuff; there are street races and taxi driver missions, that feel like spiritual sequels to the Crazy Taxi series (even playing music from that game, on occasion). Of course, most of the taxi missions encourage the opposite of Crazy Taxi‘s attitude, wanting you to use turn signals, stay on the road and obey stop signs and traffic lights, but they’re still entertaining and have some nice touches (like making small talk with your fare) that show SEGA took the same care with this as they have everything else in the series. One other nice new touch is that you can generally see the “random” encounters in advance, with icons above the correct NPCs, and the option to sneak past them if you like, which seems like it will be nice as I get farther in (one of my complaints with previous entries is that I was pretty much capped out, stat-wise, towards the end of the game, and the random encounters were just annoying load screens getting in the way of me finishing the story; the chance to evade them a little easier is a welcome change.)

It’s my understanding that a little later on we’ll be getting to play as Haruka, Kiryu’s adopted daughter, and help her in her quest to become a hostess or idol… I’m a little worried about this, but so far the series hasn’t let me down and I even enjoyed the “Hostess Maker” sequences in Yakuza 4, so I have hope it’s not going to “ruin” the game; even if it feels out of place, Kiryu’s gameplay is so far satisfying, and I’m sure the other characters will have similar mechanics and story elements, so I can tolerate 1/5th of the game being “off” if need be. But I’m hopeful. (The fact that apparently Harkua has Heat Moves of her own is intriguing… And she hasn’t exactly been a passive little flower in past entries gives me even greater hope.)

Much like Yakuza 2‘s release in America coincided with the final days of the PS2, and was a stunning and amazingly detailed send-off for that system, Yakuza 5 seems prepped to be the PS3’s swan song (even if it was a bit late to the party), showing off what determination, dedication and a willingness to push technology can do even in the face of superior tech… And I for one am glad for it.

Now, if we can just get Ultimate, 0, 6, or the spin-offs and collections for PS4 to come out over here… C’mon, SEGA. Let me love you! Please!

Also, as I noted above… It’s free for PS Plus users right now. So, if you’ve still got a working PS3, what are you waiting for? Jump on that. Like, now.

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