Embark on a wild ride across Japan in Yakuza 5

Articles: Gaming
Mar 13, 2021 Written by:ROG Article

I took care to accelerate slowly from the curb so as not to disturb my passenger. Once in the flow of traffic, I saw that I needed to pass two intersections before taking a left turn at the third light, so I flicked my turn signal and merged into the inside lane. The second light was changing, so I gradually slowed down and stopped inside the white line. Even after starting the turn, I had to be cautious of the pedestrians with the right of way in the crosswalk. A few moments later, I delivered my rider to his destination. My reward: 2000 experience, plus a few extra yen for impeccable driving.

Believe it or not, you can spend a significant amount of time as a taxi driver in Yakuza 5 Remastered, a series by SEGA that is only nominally about Japanese organized crime. A majority of this game is spent as a beat-em up fighter experience, although the game liberally mixes in side missions and unexpected activities. This title was recently remastered for PC after being originally released on the PlayStation 3 in 2012, and I've been having an absolute blast with it ever since. It has all the combat and dramatic dialogue that one would expect based on the title, but blends that gameplay with faithfully recreated settings and atmosphere and the series’ signature over-the-top ridiculousness.

Main character Kiryu and supporting cast, walking through a city at night.Image source: Gamesplanet

From the outset, I could tell that this was a lovingly crafted product. I was pleasantly surprised to see native support for my 21:9 ultrawide monitor in the options menu. The many cutscenes are presented in 16:9, but the designers took the time to add special artwork to the black letterboxes. The developers clearly sweated to make this a fully featured PC port, but they make no bones about their position on the controller versus keyboard and mouse debate. I had to chuckle when a loading screen informed me that “Real Yakuza use a gamepad.” I have to admit, though, that rediscovering my controller made the combat and mini-games feel much truer to the original PlayStation experience.

This is a multiple character game, but in the first chapter you play as Kazuma Kiryu, a former yakuza boss who is doing his best to leave that lifestyle behind. For reasons that I'd rather not spoil, he is forced against his will into situations that put him back in touch with his criminal past. While moving through the story, you fight street thugs, go out to eat and drink with friends, and generally experience life in Japan as an honest working man.

View of an empty street, with signs in Japanese and bicycles parked orderly in the middle of the walkway.

Image source: Gamesplanet

I was lucky enough to live in Japan and work as an English teacher for three years, so Yakuza’s attention to detail on the atmosphere and hyper-realistic recreations of real locations really stood out. Hakata is a major location in the first phase of the game, and its famous mentaiko, or spicy cod roe, plays a major role in the storyline, just as I'd expect from my experience visiting the region. In real life, I bought some of this regional delicacy as a gift for my coworkers after a trip to Fukuoka, and they were absolutely thrilled to receive something so local and so renowned. The reaction was much the same when I bought and gifted some to an NPC to apologize for my previous behavior.

Time and again, I found myself absorbed in the many ways that Yakuza reproduces authentic Japanese culture. The Japanese people treasure their relationship with food and the social experience of enjoying it together, and Yakuza reflects this. When my character is damaged from battle, I can use a healing item or pop into a convenience store for a quick bite of instant noodles or a small sandwich. But if I take the time to enter a restaurant, take a seat and order something from the menu, my health is restored to full and I get a not insignificant amount of experience. This drives home the point that eating should be meaningful and not just a task that gets me back in the fight.

Speaking of fighting, this game has no shortage of that. Over a couple of weekends, I've been involved in 209 street fights with punks, nightclub hosts, rival yakuza and gang members. So many members of Japan’s criminal underbelly have fallen at my hand that I sometimes feel more like a member of law enforcement.

Character fighting hooligans, and beating one in the face with a long pole.

Image source: Gamesplanet

The game has a good balance of difficulty with enemy types and numbers, but allows me plenty of opportunities to turn up the heat and really bring the pain. One notable encounter was when I was assaulted by a crowd of ten enemies. They knocked me to the ground repeatedly, and I couldn't make any progress. Leaving realism behind, I found that I could pick up a nearby park bench and swung the eight-foot-long object like an oversized baseball bat, demolishing all the enemies in my path. When I pay attention to my surroundings, I find interesting ways to spice up combat and make quick work of a pile of enemies.

Yakuza lets me use all manner of objects as I fight my way across the criminal underworld, and most of the special abilities involve some sort of unexpected weapon. Power moves incorporate hammers, buckets, trash cans, tobacco signs, advertising signs, flagpoles, water bottles, bowling balls, and more. If I can interact with an object, I can almost always make use of it in a unique finishing move. A personal favorite of mine is the motorcycle. Should my character be able to lift and manipulate an 800lb motorcycle like a baseball bat? Heck no, but it makes for a brutal and satisfying finisher when dropped on a street punk.

Character celebrating a successful night of bowling with a strike and a fist pump.Image source: Gamesplanet

When I need a break from being a one-man army in the streets, I have endless distractions to enjoy in the city. I’ve played darts and billiards with multiple rulesets, gone to karaoke and a hostess club, run a ramen stand, engaged in street races, hunted for venison and rabbit, and taken promotional photographs for the local tourism bureau. In the 30 hours I spent with the game, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the amount of value and content packed into this title rivals much more famous adventure games like the Red Dead Redemption and The Witcher.

Yakuza 5 made me miss living in Japan all over again. It captures the essence of the country in a very honest and powerful way. I would highly encourage anyone curious about the idiosyncrasies and beauty of Japanese culture to take this game for a spin. I’m sure that you’ll make some memories along the way. Just be ready to embrace a bit of seediness and absurdism. 

By Lane Prescott