The story follows on from the end of the fourth game and fans can expect the usual mix of Yakuza politics, double crossing and offbeat humour the series is known for. Kiryu is now leading something of a quiet life, working as a taxi driver. Saejima is serving his prison sentence (see Ryu ga Gotoku 4) and Akiyama is in Osaka on business. New character Tatsuo Shinada is a former professional baseball player, disgraced by a lifetime ban due to gambling. Perhaps the most controversial character however, is Haruka, who has been in the games from the start. Now a fourteen year old, she is embarking on a quest to become an Idol and provides a very different take on the established series formula.
Those that have followed the Ryu ga Gotoku games will know that number four shifted the focus away from solely focusing on main character Kazuma Kiryu and included three other playable characters, each with their own unique fighting styles and feel. This fifth game ups the ante even more, giving a total of five playable characters, each with their own city and locations to explore.
For the male characters, the basic combat follows the same formula that it always has. Triangle and Square are the kick and punch attacks, Circle is used to grapple and throw, and X allows the player to dodge. The Heat Gauge (a meter that fills when enemies are defeated) is what really allows the fighting to come alive though. Once filled a certain amount, it will glow, indicating that more powerful attacks can be accessed. Grappling an enemy, approaching one who is on the ground and even being near a foe who is precariously placed near a solid object like a wall, and pressing Triangle when prompted will see a special, cinematic attack pulled off. Although the staples like smashing a face into a wall remain, there are lots of new ones, including a particularly wince-inducing scene that sees Kiryu drag an unfortunate foe's face along the ground. Not just a good way of dishing out more damage than standard attacks, their cinematic nature help to expand the fighting system. Defeating enemies earns experience which in turn levels up the characters. As the level increases, more powerful and complicated combos become available, adding more choice in how to dispatch foes. Some slowdown is evident during fights, mainly when initially loading in character models and surroundings, which is disappointing, but on the whole, technical issues are kept to a minimum.
New this time around though is the ability to "cash-in" on what has been built up in the Heat Gauge by pressing R2. What happens as a result varies from character to character, but it provides a nice option of temporary invincibility and enhanced attack power in time of need. For example, it will allow Kiryu to move faster and perform quick, damaging combos to enemies. Furthermore, as the body count rises, a new meter taking the form of an ever filling red circle builds. Once maxed out, an ultra attack of sorts (think the screen filling specials in the likes of Street Fighter IV) can be performed with a press of the Triangle button, which requires a brief QTE to be successfully input. If pulled off correctly, it can see a tough boss's life bar deplete dramatically. Just be sure to use it on a tricky, more powerful foe, and not a grunt.
Enemies are placed throughout each map as before, although this time encountering one sees a marked decrease in the load times before the battle takes place. As well as hearing them shout out, taunting the main characters, speech bubbles will appear, letting you know their general direction and it goes some way to making these sequences feel all the more natural and immersive. It's just one benefit of the team using a new engine, which moves on from the previous one that had been with the series since the third game. The cities themselves are the usual busy, bustling locales as before, although somehow seem to be even busier in terms of NPC's. The improved engine also allows a lot more of the in-engine event scenes to be fully voiced than in previous games. Whereas the pre-rendered cinematic cut scenes in the series are known for their high quality, both in terms of visuals and voice acting, the mostly silent in-engine work was disappointing in comparison. Whilst it's not quite a fully voiced game, most non-side quest scenes are given the chance to show off the stellar work of the voice cast. The story scenes also feel a lot longer than in previous Yakuza games, giving more time to flesh out and detail the ins and outs of the story Ė something that those that do not understand Japanese will definitely rue missing out on.
As mentioned earlier, Haruka is on a quest to make it as an Idol and, rather than going down the usual route of having her as an NPC, Sega have this time decided to make her a playable character (albeit one that is a lot different to the others). Brawler meets rhythm action game during her fights, as she faces off against an opponent in a dance-off. As a song plays, one section of the D-pad overlayed on screen will have face buttons scrolling across it towards a marker. The correct direction and buttons need to be pressed in order to successfully register each note. When exploring the city with Haruka, the usual random battles are gone and replaced by the option to talk to, then face off against opponents around the map. Additionally, a lot of this section is optional, with only a few key story related events needing to be played. It's nice that the option to skip most of it is there, but those that venture into the in-depth life of an Idol will find lots to do, as well as an intuitive schedule system.
Basing herself in a dance studio, instead of having to explore the city in order to take on side quests, story sequences and so on, more or less everything Haruka does is performed from a schedule written on a whiteboard. Approaching this gives a list of events. Those progressing the story, side quests (including the familiar fishing and darts), and more specific Idol-based ones. For example, in order to level up and expand her popularity, it is possible to participate in a meet-and-greet event with fans. As they approach, the Square button being held down dictates the length of the handshake given. Whilst this is taking place, the fan will ask a question, which appears in coloured text and needs to be matched to the same colour by pressing one of the directional buttons. Furthermore, shaking hands for too long will see another NPC become dismayed at his lack of attention, causing the overall satisfaction meter to drop. Thankfully, using one of three chances to smile (by pressing L1) will allow the conversation to continue a little longer. It's just one example of the surprising amount of depth and thought that has gone into this part of the game. What's more, the structure is easy to follow and events can be accessed quickly, making it even more user friendly than a stand-alone game like Idolmaster.
"Bigger, badder, more badass" is the quote that was used to hype Gears of War 2 and it is one that applies to Yakuza 5. With the series churning out games at a high rate recently, the issue of series fatigue and it falling into the yearly update trap with little to no marked improvements each time, was a concern. Those fears are swept away a couple of hours into the game however, as the sheer scale and amount of content puts its predecessors to shame. "Japan's Grand Theft Auto" was a lazy comparison used by Western journalists when the first game made it to these shores, but whilst the core structure and gameplay still more closely resembles something like Shenmue, calling Yakuza 5 the series own San Andreas is accurate. The combat is deeper and more satisfying, the beloved side quests like karaoke and hostess clubs remain, each character plays very differently from the last (especially Haruka), the story is gripping and more detailed than ever, as are the locations that make up the game. Long-term series fans fearing the on-set of repetitiveness and over familiarity can rest easy knowing that this is the best game in the series and makes dreaming about what could possibly be included in a sixth game (potentially on next-gen hardware), all the more satisfying.
- Lengthy game with lots to do.
- Plenty of variety.
- Feels like a real step forward for the series.
- A couple of minor performance issues.
Other Versions: N/A
Version Reviewed: Asian