Wednesday, January 13, 2016

New Review: Though badly in need of an overhaul, Yakuza 5 again delivers the fun in the series' largest installment to date




In spite of it all, time really does fly.

It was a strange moment when, partway through Yakuza 5, I just so happened to look back and find myself hit with the realization that it had been almost five years since I’d played and reviewed Yakuza 4. In some ways it hardly feels like it; Yakuza 5 is immediately quite familiar, and easing myself back into this world didn’t prove to be too challenging.

In other ways, the degree to which life inevitably changes as it moves along with the flow of time somewhat blew my mind as I played through Yakuza 5. In fact this bit of soul-searching may have proven to be one of the more impactful facets of playing the game, and one very much unintended by the company that released it: a company which provides Japan with a new Yakuza installment every year.

But I digress. It has been three years (!) since Yakuza 5 made its Japanese debut, while a full five years (!!) have passed since its predecessor landed on Western shores. In that span of time we’ve seen many changes in the gaming industry, both in the games themselves and out, but Yakuza 5 is, simply put, Yakuza 5. It refines the formula introduced in its predecessor, with the adventure being broken into chapters each devoted to a different playable character with their own storyline. Where Yakuza 5 differs the most from Yakuza 4 is that it adds new cities into the mix, with the adventure spanning 5 characters in 5 different cities, easily making this the biggest Yakuza to date.

For those unfamiliar with this franchise, the Yakuza games take the form of story-driven beat-em-ups with a heavy “open world” aspect. A GTA-style radar exists in the bottom-left corner, indicating your destination along with the many sidequests available to you over the course of your adventure. The series takes its storylines incredibly seriously, with very well-produced cutscenes, some spanning close to thirty minutes, occurring throughout.

The gameplay in between grants you the ability to explore these richly atmospheric cities, where you can buy food and items from shops, visit and run Hostess Clubs, enjoy the use of batting cages, arcades, and other such mini-games, sing karaoke, drive a taxi, find items, and much, much more.

As you venture through the cities you’ll frequently be challenged by thugs to street fights, which give you the opportunity to beat the crap out of countless people, netting you money and Experience Points to level up your characters. It’s a concept that at first seems incredibly bizarre, something that these games are certainly aware of and treat with a definite sense of humor. Amazingly, at this point in the series’ existence it doesn’t even occur to me to question the system, or to wonder why the police never seem to show up despite the fact that a person was just physically beaten with a motorcycle (yes a motorcycle) in the middle of the street in broad daylight with a crowd of onlookers cheering their approval.

The combat system, while in as much need of an overhaul as the rest of this game, is as fun as it sounds, and that’s saying a lot given how much time you’ll spend with it in Yakuza 5, and how much time we’ve spent with it in the many games prior. Though each character has their variations in combat style along with their strengths and weaknesses, battles usually feature little beyond mashing some combination of the Square and Triangle buttons, with the occasional throw move or weapon thrown in for good measure. It feels dated and not nearly as fluid as it could be, especially when compared to more modern combat-driven games like Bayonetta; Yakuza made its debut in 2005 and the combat system has changed little since, something becoming more evident with every new entry.

I can’t deny though the fun that playing Yakuza 5 brings, something I’ve probably pointed out in each of my previous reviews for these games. The combat system offers moments of jaw-dropping and hilariously over the top brutality, and despite its dated feel it still manages to be addictively fun to fight thugs and expand your character’s stats and abilities. The pattern of wandering through cities that feel almost real, partaking in entertaining sidequests and beating up countless enemies along the way, while the story and its incredibly likable characters brings you to the edge of your seat, is what really keeps me coming back for more, and it’s an area where Yakuza 5 again delivers. It delivers in such a major way that, as with each Yakuza game before it, some of the series’ larger flaws are, if not necessarily forgiven, at least able to be partially swept under the rug. Partially.

As fun and involving as each game can be, my issue with the Yakuza series continues to be that, while it tries, it still doesn’t even know how to come close to matching the truly immersive feel offered by games like GTA or (especially) the Shenmue series. The world’s certainly atmospheric, but the amount of restrictions placed on almost all exploration, including driving cars, riding bikes, entering shops, and even taking certain roads, constantly forms a barrier between the true immersion that I know the series is attempting to deliver. As lifelike as these cities feel and as cool as it is to wander through them, the limits the game imposes on your exploration breaks me out of it at every turn. Many of the inviting buildings you pass by remain completely off limits to you, the game allowing you to enter very few of the locations you see. Force fields exist to prevent you from accessing various roads, and even dictate where you’re allowed to cross the street in certain cities. This is something more evident in Yakuza 5’s new cities, which don’t offer even a fraction of the explorable area or interactivity as the two returning cities (Tokyo and Osaka, known here as Kamurocho and Sotenbori, respectively) from Yakuza’s 1 and 2. Even in those, however, it’s the general rule that a major portion of the areas you see in the Yakuza series remain un-explorable, and it’s a fact that continues to form a barrier between the player and the games' world.

The basic and limiting inventory system, making use of a small grid for item storage and forcing you to send the rest to item boxes, also remains stubbornly stuck in the past, as does the need to pause the game to scroll through the main menu to access recovery items, even in the midst of combat. Yakuza 5 continues to require you to access save points to save your progress, something which isn’t a big issue for the most part, though make sure to set aside plenty of time for the final battles, as you’ll at that point be forced to go for hours without the opportunity to save.

It’s strange that none of these design choices actually manage to make the game more challenging. Whether it’s because I’ve mastered the formula or whether it’s because the game’s too easy is difficult to say, but Yakuza 5 for me was by far the easiest installment I’ve played. Few of the enemies you face until the game’s final chapter put up much of a fight, and with money and HP recovery items proving ridiculously easy to come by, there rarely seems to be much of a reason to lose a battle.

As alluded to previously, Yakuza 5 continues to make use of part 4’s multi-character format. It sees some improvements, partially due to the overarching story being much stronger, and as a result it doesn’t feel as much like “starting over” when you jump to a new character as it did previously. Even with a stronger central plot, however, it falls victim in the same way the other PS3 iterations have of getting in its own way with filler content. This includes an entirely pointless mountain segment where you’re required to spend a good deal of time learning how to hunt, even though the game never once requires you to know this skill after learning it.  Playable character Haruka’s gameplay, which centers on a bland “rhythm game” format, is so dull that I once actually fell asleep while playing it. Yakuza 5 also re-uses, almost beat for beat, the “prison break” sequence of events from the 4th installment, and it’s no less annoying this time around. This series has always featured a degree of filler content, but with the PS3 games it has become almost dangerously in love with its gimmicks, and the sense of urgency present in the first two Yakuza titles is similarly only available in bits and pieces in part 5, as it was in parts 3 and 4.

Still, a stronger and more focused narrative keeps Yakuza 5 on track, despite falling victim to some pretty major clich├ęs. The sniper from the building across the street always manages to shoot his victim at the exact point before he’s about to reveal key information, as if the shooter were able to hear the conversation. Masks are used a bit too frequently as plot devices, and each time the game betrays its secret almost immediately before its reveal with a poorly-chosen camera angle. Still, these nitpicks aside, the Yakuza series knows how to hook you into a plot and how to keep you guessing, and Yakuza 5 is certainly no exception.

Visually this is a tough one to judge, as it’s a three year old game and this series was never exactly known for pushing its hardware. Comparing it to parts 3 and 4 does show some subtle but noticeable graphical improvements, and the fact that almost all main events are now voice acted is a huge step in the right direction for these games. On the other side of the coin, Yakuza 5 has one of the series’ weaker soundtracks; what’s there is great, but songs repeat incredibly frequently, and the game lacks the standout tracks that made Yakuza 4 such a memorable audible experience.
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Verdict: Yakuza 5 may have taken far too long to get here, but I’m very glad that it did. Though it doesn’t do too much to deviate from the established formula, an improved central storyline from the previous two entries and new locations to explore help to shake things up. That main events are almost all presented with (finally) full voice acting also helps Yakuza 5 stand above its PS3 brothers, even if it still no longer allows itself to carry the same urgency of parts 1 and 2 on the PS2. Though I keep waiting for the series to evolve, especially with regard to letting you fully explore its open world and to bring its combat system up to date, and though I wish it would leave behind some of the gimmicky filler, it’s impossible to deny that what’s here continues to be a blast to play. Those new to the series might have a hard time jumping in at this point, but fans will most definitely be stoked by what’s offered here.

Presentation: By far the biggest improvement is that nearly all the main storyline cutscenes are voiced, making a huge difference. The plot and pacing still doesn’t compare to those in the first two Yakuza titles, and features some true corniness, but stands above those in its PS3 counterparts. Cutscenes look amazing, load times are further shortened. One glaring type-o during the game’s ending is really the only mark on an otherwise superb translation.

Graphics: Art direction and use of color are excellent. As a three year old game Yakuza 5 shows its age, though it features subtle graphical improvements over parts 3 and 4.

Gameplay: This is Yakuza through and through. Core experience feels dated and in major need of an overhaul, but remains enjoyable to play. Addition of new cities is nice, even with it being clear that not as much work went into them as compared to the returning cities of Kamurocho and Sotenbori. Cut down on the filler and give us more to explore and we might one day have greatness.

Audio: One of the series’ weaker soundtracks, but the Japanese voice acting remains top notch. Great ambient environmental sound design.

Replay Value:
Probably the longest Yakuza game to date, plenty of post-game content as well. This one will keep you busy for a while.

Overall: 7.5/10

(Yakuza 5 is available as a digital download on PSN.)

(My reviews operate on a .5 scale.)