Saturday, February 13, 2016

Yakuza 5 review

The Yakuza series is one that I've been interested in for quite some time now.  The first game in the series piqued my interest due to its apparent similarities with my beloved Shenmue, yet when I played the game myself I found the combat rather clunky and lost interest a few hours in.  Something brought me back though and over time I have acquired copies of all the other entries that have been released in the west.  I spent a fair bit of time with Yakuza 3 and really enjoyed it, but I set it aside for some vague time in the future when I would dedicate myself towards completing it properly.  That day never came, but in the meantime the hype over Yakuza 5 and the disappointment from long term fans that it showed no sign of being localised hadn't escaped my notice. 

When Sony finally did announce that the game would be released digitally on the PlayStation Network, I decided it was worth supporting and used some of my birthday money towards it.  Whenever I buy a new game I always have to try it out a little bit, even if I don't intend to play it all the way through there and then.  This is usually only the first few hours of the game, but I had so much fun playing Yakuza 5 that I ended up spending about 12 hours on it!  Still, after that first day and a bit of playtime, I did set it aside so I could concentrate on finishing Tales of Xillia.  Roughly one month later I came back to it though, and have now completed the game having spent about 75 hours on it in total.  Suffice it to say that I really enjoyed myself, and now firmly intend to go back and play the first four games, plus Dead Souls.  If you are curious about the Yakuza franchise and have never taken the plunge, let me attempt to explain why you should strongly consider giving it a go.

Plot and Character: 9 out of 10
Having watched some of the videos that go over the plot of previous games, it is apparent that these games can get rather convoluted and hard to follow.  That wasn't really the case with Yakuza 5 though, despite it being deep into a well established series.  The main protagonist of the games, Kazuma Kiryu, has moved from Tokyo to Fukuoka, changed his identity, and is just trying to make a living as a humble taxi driver.   That all begins to fall apart when the chairman of his former yakuza family cuts in line and gets into his taxi one day, in order to warn Kiryu that there is a war on the horizon between the Tojo Clan and the Omi Alliance.  From this point on his is gradually drawn back into the yakuza life yet again, and the plot deepens from there.  He is only one of five playable characters though, and after about 15 - 20 hours of playtime depending on how thorough you are with the side activities, the game shifts onto Taiga Saejima, who fights differently and has plenty of his own problems.

While there is enough mystery in the plot to keep you interested throughout the games long play time, it never becomes too hard to follow.  Also, by shifting things up every 20 hours or so, the game remains fresh.  Saejima's part of the story was my least favourite but I kept going in the knowledge that I would eventually get to play as three more characters after him.   His main side activity was hunting, which was a nice change of pace from all the fighting, but the opening hours of his chapter really dragged for me.  By far my favourite was Haruka.  She has been in the series since the very first game, where she started out as a little girl that Kiryu had to take care of.  Now she's about 15, and has been noticed by the head of a talent agency for pop idols.  She is in the very early stages of an idol career as week take control of her, preparing for the finals of a TV show called Princess League.  Her chapter was a lot of fun, and the rhythm based concerts and dance battles were a very nice change of pace.  This game really has three key strengths: the characters, the variety of gameplay, and the sense of fun.

Take that! A foot to the armpit.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Yakuza 5 does look very good for the most part and the engine has obviously had an upgrade since Yakuza 3.  The key cut scenes of the game have had the most attention, with the character models looking extremely detailed and realistic.  Outside of these the rest of the game running in realtime is slightly less detailed and there are one or two rather ugly textures to be found, but overall this is an impressive looking PS3 game.  When things get really hectic there are signs of slowdown, but nothing that's too detrimental to the overall game play.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
The Yakuza series hasn't had Enlgish voices since the first game, and from what I heard when I tried to get into it all those years ago, that's no great loss, as it was truly terrible in places.  My untrained ear can't really tell if the Japanese actors are good at their jobs or not, but it all seems perfectly fine and having them speak their native tongue just makes the game feel more authentic.  There are some quite brutul sounding crunches in combat, and the move where Kiryu grates somebodies face on the pavement always makes me wince due to the unpleasant sandpaper noise that accompanies it.  There is some great music in the game as well, from the tunes that play while your in combat, the suitably cheesy ballads that you can belt out at the karaoke parlours, and the pop or dance tunes that Haruka performs to.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
The Yakuza games are chiefly brawlers - kind of like a modern day equivalent of something like Streets of Rage.  There is a lot more to them than this though as I will attempt to explain.  When you first take control of a new character, their move set and abilities are fairly limited.  By beating random thugs that will come at you in the street or by taking down people in the story, you will earn experience points and level up.  Each time this happens you will be given three pips to spend on a variety of things, from extending your life bar, to learning a completely new move.   By the time you're getting towards the end of that characters chapter, he will be incredibly powerful and able to beat the shit out of most enemies, bar the bosses.  I was playing the game on the default Normal difficulty and never really had too much trouble in any particular fight.  You are given healing items from completing side quests and from random drops so even if I did get close to being defeated I could just down a Staminan Spark or something and be right back in the fight.  Those who are good at action games may want to go straight to Hard mode.

In addition to regular moves, each character also has their own array of heat moves.  You earn heat by successfully beating on your opponents, or by blocking incoming attacks.  Once the bar is filled you can then trigger some really painful looking attacks like the face grating one I mentioned earlier.  You can also pick up a large variety of background objects and use them as weapons as well, all of which have their own heat move associated with them.  So you could pick up a bicycle, beat somebody around the head a few times with it, throw it at them and them stomp on top of them for good measure.

If the combat was all the game had going for it then I would start to tire of it eventually, and this is pretty much what happened back when I tried to play the first game. The great thing about this series though - the later games at least - is the vast variety of things to do.  Aside from the taxi driving, hunting, pop idol business and other main side modes that each character has, there are also many more side activities.  You can go to a hostess club and attempt woo a pretty girl, you can go bowling, play darts, air hockey and billiards.  Virtua Fighter 2, Taiko no Tatsujin and UFO Catcher machines can be found in Club SEGA that are based in most of the cities, and there are a whole host of gambling games like poker, pachislots and more in there.  Plenty of things to break up the fighting.  All of the mini games are at least competently implemented as well, which is important. 

Just grin and bear it!

Innovation & Cleverness: 7 out of 10
While Yakuza 5 is building on the previous titles in the series, it does bring a lot of its own new stuff to the table as well.  The decision to allow you to play as Haruka and make musical performance the focus of her chapter instead of combat was a masterstroke.  Really a lot of the reason that I played all the way to the end is because I couldn't wait to see what new thing the game would throw at me next.  The story is good enough to back up the game play though, resulting in a highly polished experience.

Value and Replayabilty: 9 out of 10
As I mentioned in the intro, it took me 75 hours to get to the end of Yakuza 5 and while I did complete most of the sidestories for each character, I came nowhere near to doing everything that is possible to do in the game.  My overall completion rate was about 25%, so if you were truly determined to get 100% it would take a long long time indeed.  When you get to the end of the story for the first time you unlock two extra modes - one where you can play through the story again but with all of your levels and abilities intact from last time, and one where you can visit any city with any character and complete anything that you skipped while playing through the story.  So even when you're done playing the the game once, there's plenty to come back to.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Yakuza superfans will probably hate me for not giving this game at least a nine out of ten, but the combat can get somewhat repetitive and so I'm marking it down slightly for that.  This is based on my own enjoyment of the game after all.   I did have a lot of fun playing through the story though, a few dull moments aside, and all of the optional content was a ton of fun.  I definitely will be going back and playing through all of the previous games now, and any future titles such as Yakuza 0 and Yakuza 6 that will hopefully be brought over eventually.  If you have never tried this series before then jump on board, you're missing out on quite a lot!

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