It isn’t easy, to be a Yakuza fan. Despite the series currently topping out at 11 titles with Yakuza 6 coming soon, the series is considered niche and sees infrequent releases in the Western market. Only the mainline entries have been localised, with Yakuza 5 being the most recent, a whole three years after the initial Japanese release. It is a shame, as few games have mastered the incongruity between sombre storytelling and madcap gameplay with such style.
A sprawling criminal saga set against the backdrop of the Tokyo underworld, the initial Yakuza was the recipient of a fairly lavish localisation effort by Sega, with numerous Hollywood notables providing voices, including the likes of Michael Madsen and Mark Hamill. Clearly the title was intended as another tentpole franchise for the company, and given the continued release of titles in the 11 years following it can be argued they were correct in that belief.
However, Yakuza never caught on with the mainstream Western audience, it finding itself unfavourably compared to Grand Theft Auto despite bearing little to no resemblance (a more apt comparison would be to another Sega title, Shenmue). Later titles would only ship with subtitles as opposed to full English dubbing, and secondary titles seemed to drop out of consideration for the process.
This is a great shame, as the series creates characters and environments quite unlike any other series. Central to the series is Kazuma Kiryu, otherwise known as the Dragon of Dojima, a legendary figure in criminal circles trying to escape that life only to find himself continuously pulled back in. Playable in every mainline instalment, and 44 years old by the time of Yakuza 5, Kiryu has been embroiled in countless plots affecting the criminal underworld of Japan and it is in his growth as a character that the games flex their storytelling muscles.
Weary after a lifetime of fighting, the latest instalment finds Kiryu attempting to lead a quiet life in Fukuoka, making a reasonable living as a taxi driver and sending the money he makes to Sunshine Orphanage in Okinawa, a place he had to leave due to his reputation after the events of Yakuza 4 as his reputation put the children’s lives at risk. Unsurprisingly, his identity becomes compromised and he once more finds himself involved in a criminal power struggle that covers the breadth of Japan.
To return to that unfavourable comparison from earlier, unlike Grand Theft Auto the series has a continuity between games that deepens with every instalment. Much like Kiryu as a central figure, the region of Tokyo referred to as Kamurocho (modelled on the actual district of Kabukicho) is a recurring location that sees growth and development with each entry. Yakuza 5 increases the location count to five, and also contains five playable characters, including the first female playable character, Kiryu’s adopted daughter Haruka Sawamura.
What this all means is that the narrative is impenetrable to a newcomer. Each title builds off its predecessor: Do you wish to know more of Kazuma and Haruka’s relationship? That was a central motif in the first title. What is Sunshine Orphanage? A key location from the third title. A consistent through-line can be drawn from the first Yakuza straight through the fifth, with entire arcs and events being referred to with the expectation that the player is already deeply familiar with them.
That might be unfortunate, as once the cutscenes end all bets are off. At its centre, the series is a modern successor to another Sega franchise of years gone by, Streets of Rage. Players roam the streets of Japan getting into fights with freaks, punks and lowlifes, aside from Haruka, who in a wonderfully bizarre twist on the series formula gets into dance battles with other teenage girls. The game excels at presenting the player with an accessible fighting system comprised of light and heavy strikes, usable weapons littering the streets, a basic grapple function and a multitude of special interactions layered on top.
Referred to as Heat Moves, these are devastating attacks, now numbering more than 100 different variations, that involve all manner of outlandish offense, ranging from what is expected from a street fight to moves more at home in WWE. Unlike modern fighting games and character action titles (a la Devil May Cry), combat in Yakuza retains the accessibility of early beat-em-up titles, with a level of embellishment and flair that makes up for its admittedly limited level of depth.
Yet there is more than simply fighting. Over the years Yakuza has become home to an astonishingly varied amount of minigames; what began as simple bar games (pool/darts etc), a remarkably fleshed-out casino and other reasonable pastimes such as fishing and golf has ballooned and incorporated some frankly ludicrous activities. Want to breed and race chickens? You sure can. Hunting in the snowy mountains? Go right ahead. There is an absurdity to the series that provides a needed contrast with its at times heavy narrative.
None of them centre the humour of Yakuza quite like Kiryu’s taxi driver minigame, however. The expectation might be a spiritual successor to Sega’s own Crazy Taxi, but instead players are penalised for not following the rules of the road, which sounds antithetical to a fun videogame experience yet is remarkably compelling. At which point you get into races on the motorway, drifting around corners while themes from Sega racing classics like Outrun and Daytona play in the background. It is delightful in its madness. Even an Underground Colosseum can be found and participated in. An increasingly offbeat array of sidequests litter the streets as well, where the citizens of Kamurocho and other locales request the services of Kiryu and his associates (services that ordinarily involve fighting in some form).
Arguably, this is the intrinsic flaw of Yakuza 5. The sheer amount of storytelling the player must parse through to experience the fun of its combat and wide array of increasingly bizarre distractions may just be insurmountable. If you aren’t a series faithful, it may be too late to be converted.