Y’know, I’m a bit allergic to travelling. The world is a scary place – it’s full of people and people are pretty awful. If 2016 is anything to go by, you’d be better served staying in your homely nuclear bunker surrounded by chocolate and ice-cream and video games. I like to live life like a true house cat, wrapped up in bed sheets and a warm drink. It sucks out there. People are scary. Luckily though video games are nicer than people.
Video games have always operated as a fantasy window into another realm. That’s why much of gaming’s economy deals with larger than life encounters, with flights of fantasy and impossible sci-fi dreams. It explains why mainstream games have an almost psychopathic focus on killing. Killing, shooting, fighting, death and murder and chaos. All of this on a backdrop of impossible fantasy. Thats what video games are, because they operate as an escape from our terrible, crushing reality.
So, the Yakuza series is a strange oddity, then, because it doesn’t turn you into a great warrior or an indestructable soldier. It doesn’t whisk you off to a strange, warped fantasy realm, or a steel and glass sci-fi landscape. Instead it plonks you right in the middle of boring old Japan. Tokyo. Osaka. Places like that. Japan, in the Yakuza series, is its own seperate character, and one rendered with the kind of intimate, special detail that only a local with a great love of their surroundings could write about. In Yakuza, you aren’t a hero. You are, for the most part, just some guy in fictional parts of run-of-the-mill, bog standard Japan.
Except it’s not boring, or generic, or run of the mill. At all. Actually, Yakuza 5 is absolutely bonkers, just like real Japan. In between the smouldering gangsterisms, the rooms of Yakuza guys smoking cigarettes and staring each other down dramatically, you get a loving recreation of japanese culture, craziness and all, modelling not just the correct local cultural practices but also all of the mad culture shock you might experience when visiting Japan yourself. Yakuza’s depiction of Japan is at once totally loveable but also intimately real. These are worlds made by people that love their culture. That’s a nice thing to see, especially in 2017 where cynicism is all to easy to hold on to. Sometimes it’s nice to take a break from punching serious looking tattooed gangsters and just pose in a local photo booth and pull funny faces.
The Yakuza series has been treated like dirt over here in the west, with us lot getting a raw deal in terms of distribution and localization. This has lead to the Yakuza series becoming something of a hidden cult gem amongst Japanese game obsessives. But it needn’t be. Yakuza, for all of it’s heaps of crazy, is eminatly approachable and really playable. A sort of refocussed, more inimately designed Grand Theft Auto on a much smaller scale. It manages to get away with a smaller open world because it vividly details what is there to nearly obsessive levels, right down to accurately modelling local quisine and food to the cultural differences between people from certain regions of japan and local off kilter oddballs that populate the streets of any country, not just Japan. By pulling back the focus a little, Sega are able to accutely detail smaller worlds with a greater literacy in an almost documentary sense. A wider range of activities, fun and world building paint a cultural picture while at the same time avoid the open world trap of being “a mile wide but an inch deep.” Because of this Yakuza 5 is able to possess a lot more depth than your standard GTA clone.
And even though it seems to model much of the beats and patterns on Grand Theft Auto by having you run around a world completing missions for people, it bucks the open world trend by (shock, horror) having an actual complicated, interwoven narrative that is as entertaining as it is well written. Sandwiched somewhere between The Godfather and some kind of kitchen sink melodrama, Yakuza 5 operates in a unique position of representing typical japanese hyperbole and melodrama while at the same time being quite mature and serious. Yakuza 5 stretches an epic, over arching narrative that twists and winds in and out of itself, following 5 very different and unique characters through smokey underground bars and flashy neon streets. Big story moments are rendered to great effect in fully voice acted and motion captured cut scenes that wouldn’t look to out of place in some foreign gangster flicks. And thanks to its variety of protagonists, it’s easy for the game to go in some weird, out of left field directions that you don’t really see coming.
Like all great open world games, the main story is really only a small pixel of detail – the real attraction comes from the sheer range of distractions, minigames, sub-stories and little clandestine moments of fun that make up the minute to minute play of Yakuza‘s worlds. Walking the streets you can be assailed by local thugs and hoodlums, turning the game into a kind of open world Tekken for a few minutes. Or you can solve local quests, which can involve anything from teaching a clown some new tricks, to helping a scout girl sell some matchsticks. Or you could just focus on levelling up some of your stats or wooing a lady companion in the local hostess bars (look those up for something uniquely japanese.) Not only that but the main flow of narrative isn’t afraid of taking wildly sharp left turns into completley bonkers country. With the players point of view jumping between five different characters throughout the game, you’ll never find yourself bored for too long. Some characters find themselves embroiled deep in Yakuza style backstabbery, while others can be shacked up in a small, mountain town hunting a legendary killer bear, something that legitimately lasts for 7 real life hours. You could possibly bump into a strange person in peril, and then be dragged into their eccentric life in the most bizarre ways. There’s even a whole segment of the game from the point of view of a japanese pop idol girl, where you legitimately have to play dancing rhythm games for something like 10 hours, which is easily the worst part of the game but god bless the developers for having the raw, 10-tonne balls to pull that off. The game can be so wonderfully, beautifully daft that I can’t help but love every second of it. I love how this, smouldering gangster drama sometimes veers well off the beaten path and into pop idol rhythm game territory. I love that sometimes, inbetween getting continually assaulted by gangsters, you can step into a bar for a quick round of karaoke or pool. I love that the quests focus on character and world building as opposed to generic ‘go here and do a thing’ style filler content. It breathes real personality into a game that could so easily be just another open world game.
It’s not always brilliant, though. In terms of its fighting it delivers crunchy, bone breaking fun that never feels terribly easy or punishingly hard, but it never really flows like the Batman games and other genre staples like Uncharted have far surpassed the animation quality of what we see in Yakuza 5 – it seems painfully stilted. It also suffers the same fate of the old Metal Gear Solid games, too, in that they are immeasurably dialogue heavy, with a focus on playing out cut scenes for you way past their welcome, meaning that you are left gagging for gameplay afterwards, only to be stopped in your track to read plot points and dialogue. And not all encounters are voice acted, meaning in general you’ll spend a lot of time reading dialogue regardless of weather it was subtitled or not. The upside to this is the game likes to slow cook the story in order to crescendo later on, and you get an intimate portrayal of all the characters and extras. If only it could have done this in the background without force feeding it to you, though.
Happily I am glad to say these are just nitpicks. Overall, there is a real wealth of variety to be had in Yakuza 5, and its truly daring game design too. Without being constrained by genre tropes, Sega have created an wonderfully unique experience, that, for western audiences, operate as much of a Japanese tourism simulator as it does a brooding gangster epic spanning several characters and several years. With the release of Yakuza 0 today on Playstation 4, lets hope that the series starts to pick up traction here in the west. With any luck, this niche, cult classic of a series won’t be so terribly hidden for much too long. In the west, we’re at least 2 games behind the current japanese releases of Yakuza games, which for my money, is a huge shame. Luckily, it seems the imminant release of Yakuza 0 is getting a bit of a marketing push from Sony this time around, so here’s hoping it sells enough in the west to warrent more timely releases in line with Japan.