• Developer/Publisher: SEGA
  • Platform: PlayStation 3 ($39.99)
  • Review code provided by the publisher.

Part of me thought that, even if Yakuza 5 was fantastic, I just wouldn’t have been able to love it. After all, this is a three year old PlayStation 3 game hastily released as a digital-only title for the West after much begging from fans of the series. Technically, it’s a lovely PS3 title that however looks dated and aged when compared to what we now see on PS4 and other modern systems. Jaggies and shimmering are all-too-common on my large TV, the frame rate hitches every now and then, not to mention sometimes when the game loads a new animation everything just sort of freezes for a few seconds… Small things like this make Yakuza 5 almost feel rushed, despite the long amount of time it took to release in the West – everything else in the game, however, makes Yakuza feel like the sprawling, fascinating title it is.

Yakuza 5, much like other titles in the series, is goofy, cheesy, and sometimes completely ridiculous. It’s a game where fighting a bear, or about one hundred armed Yakuza henchmen, is a completely reasonable thing to do. It’s a game where by day you can be a taxi driver that takes down a street racing gang, while by night you'll have secretive talks with a crime syndicate you once thought you’d left behind.

Honestly, newcomers to the series might find Yakuza 5 to be a bitter pill to swallow. Everything about the game, from the outside in, looks so deadly serious and impenetrable. There’s only Japanese dialogue, there are many references to Japanese culture that even small-time Japanophiles may miss and there’s a huge extended cast of characters from previous titles in the series that new players will be completely baffled by. Despite all of this, it’s a surprisingly welcoming experience.

The basic storyline is you play as Kiryu Kazuma (at least to begin with), fourth chairman of the Tojo clan, now retired living out life driving his taxi. One day he’s suddenly wrangled back into the game, half disdainfully, half intent on fixing the gang. What we find along the way is intense crime drama and hilariously goofy action combat. There’s something beautifully satisfying about seeing Kiryu stare down hundreds of armed Yakuza, before continuing to deliver the “Essence of the Dropkick” to their faces, pick up a man lying on the floor and swing him around in circles before launching him at his friends. Goofy is truly an understatement, but the entire process left me with a massive smile on my face.

Combat is considered the bread and butter of the series, but early on it’s actually fairly flat and boring. It’s not until later, when you’ve leveled up and learned the “essence” of more moves that things open up into the varied and smile-inducing insanity that you’re here for.

What’s amazing about Yakuza is the pitch-perfect pacing. There’s so much for Kiryu and other characters to do and see – at one point I decided to investigate a small disturbance in the street and witnessed a man having his head repeatedly slammed by a car door. Kiryu felt inspired, immediately took pictures of the incident and learnt how to slam heads into car doors himself. What it was, was absolutely ridiculous. It made me laugh and laugh and it was a fantastic memory to take away from the game. At other points I was street racing, or tapping away to a fully-fledged karaoke mini game where the songs go on for much longer than you’ll expect. It’s a game that postures as serious on the outside, whilst being a fanciful, camp and hugely enjoyable blast on the inside.

Even while I say it has moments of extreme goofiness, it also has somber, emotional moments where Kiryu comes to terms with the sort of man he is on the inside – a Yakuza, born and bred, with the fighting instinct of an animal. As much and as hard as he tries to separate himself from the grimy Japanese underworld it keeps pulling him back in, giving him another reason to do “one last thing”. One last fight, one last confrontation, one last death…

Truth be told, while the game shows its age everywhere all of that can easily be ignored because of how amazingly charming this game is. I usually leave the word “charming” for cutesy platformers and games with nice art styles, but here I direct it squarely at the personality that Yakuza 5 is brimming with. It attempts serious moments, it attempts over-the-top action, it attempts street racing and all of it somehow works. Maybe not amazingly, but it feels coherent and calculated throughout.

Yakuza 5 is, honestly, a reason to pull your PS3 back out of the cupboard. Plug it in and download this game when you get some spare time over the Christmas period, because this is one crime drama you don’t want to be left out of.

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