5 Characters, 5 Cities, and a shitton of minigames across each one and a side-story, Yakuza 5 is easily the most ambitious Yakuza title that trumps even 0 and the kiwami titles in the amount of content you are free to explore.
Yakuza 5 is the last chronologically released mainline Yakuza game before the advent of Yakuza 0 and the Kiwami’s and part of me really wants to do a recap on the series so far and how my statement about starting with Yakuza 0 might color my opinions on the series as a whole. We’ll see, but first we still have one big ass game to get through.
Yakuza 5 was warned to me that it was a complete shitshow that would trump 4’s strange ending and I kept that warning to heart as I entered the game and found that many things change between games in this series but just as many things don’t. For one, Kiryuu is now away from his orphanage on a self-imposed exile as to distance his reputation away from Haruka from her newfound aspirations to become an idol, backed up by a reputable producer, Mirei Park, who arranged the deal for Kiryuu to move away. Kiryuu has since relocated to Nagasugai, Fukuoka and works as a taxi-driver living the simple life under a new name, Suzuki Taichi. Circumstances in the Yakuza world are shifting as the peace between the Tojo Clan and the Omi Alliance is deteriorating as the 7th Chairman of the Omi Alliance is dying and the race for the seat of power will upset the balance of power. Fearing this, the Tojo Clan has been sending its high-ranking officers all across Japan to secure alliances with smaller families to strengthen their numbers for the coming storm. One such outing has Daigo running into Kiryuu after a meeting with Nagasugai’s yakuza head and the events begin to spiral into an absolutely mad goose chase of backstabs and deception that does at some points make Yakuza 4 seem light but we’ll get there. I don’t think recapping the entire story is really necessary but I will try and cover the reasons as to why the characters involved get thrown into the mix. As mentioned before, Kiryuu is dragged back into the yakuza business when Daigo disappears, is quickly replaced by another acting-chairman, and said acting chairman is killed by someone Kiryuu thought he could trust, which only scratches the surface of the conspiracy going down. Kiryuu decides to head back to Tokyo to figure out what the hell is going on and then learns that Majima has been killed.
Saejima Taiga, while having been “proved” innocent of his 18 counts of murder is hauled back to jail to serve a sentence before returning to lead his family. However, duress in prison regarding a trouble-making gangster affecting Saejima’s chances at being released early is further exacerbated when Saejima hears about Majima’s death and a letter declaring his expulsion from the clan. Seeking answers, Saejima breaks out of prison again, but now has a partner who survived their escape, Baba Shigeki. Saejima and Baba survive in a hunting village for a while before they enter Tsukimino, Hokkaido. Baba shares word that his old family was approached by the Tojo Clan with Majima representing and they surmise that the yakuza family here must have done Majima in. Long story short, the two kidnap the patriarch but learn that Majima was not killed by him but before any other answers can come out, the patriarch is shot and Saejima chases the shooter, only to find it to be Baba. Saejima beats Baba, who has been feeling guilty of tricking him, but asks to be let go before they both are dealt with. Saejima hitches a ride to Tokyo by the same police detective who urged Kiryuu to return.
Okay wow, even this summary is getting long and we only covered half of the nonsense going on. Haruka finally becomes a playable character but instead of beating people up, she simply outdances and outperforms them in dance battles. Aiming to become a top idol and win the televised Princess League program to win a big marketing opportunity to perform at Tokyo Dome as her debut as an idol. Park however commits suicide which prompts Akiyama, the one who financed Park to investigate the death and also encourage Haruka to not be fazed and win the Princess League to have the debut concert in Tokyo. Akiyama in the meantime tries to hunt down the killers and eventually comes into contact with the Omi Alliance by means of a rival production agency to the one Haruka is under. The muscle of the alliance goons kidnaps Haruka and tries to convince Akiyama to call off the concert, to which he ignores and brings Haruka to Tokyo after she settles the Princess League.
Lastly, we have our new character. Apparently the voice actor for Tanimura underwent some false scandal charges and burned a lot of bridges for the people who didn’t have faith in him and so his character was replaced with Shinada Tatsuo, a disgraced former baseball pro who landed a miracle homerun to win the game but circumstances led to being kicked out of the team and now makes the living writing reviews for adult clubs around the city of Kineicho. He is pulled into this mess by getting involved with a mysterious masked man who reveals the threads of conspiracy regarding Shinada’s fateful game, the yakuza, and Kineicho itself. Shinada’s portion is even more conspiratorial than the others but I found him a lot easier to relate with than Tanimura, who was just a gambling addicted cop who had a lot of connections because of his Little Asia contacts. I will say that Tanimura was a lot more fun to play than Shinada because the latter’s heat actions aren’t as flexible.
Now would be a good game to transition into the gameplay as most of the fundamentals haven’t changed. The first noticeable change is that everyone has a Climax Heat Gauge now and it is separated from the traditional Heat Gauge as its own meter that can be accessed when its full leading to some annoying points where you want to finish a mook off with a basic Heat move but get a Climax Heat Move you were saving for someone else. Kiryu by far as the most powerful moveset where he can spend his entire Heat Gauge to become untouchable while Akiyama has a neat aerial kick combo string, Saejima has throw combos, and Shinada has a tackle+throw gimmick. I generally felt that the Climax Heat Gauge should be on a different button. Outside of the pure combat stuff, you also have smoother fight transitions from the overworld and a new mechanic involving eating. A celebrity cameo restaurateur acts as character in-game and teaches you a mechanic that lets you have two health bars, gain more heat per hit, and do more damage if you eat certain foods at restaurants, giving you way more incentive to heal properly with food than Staminans.
By far the biggest additions to gameplay are the Side Jobs that each player character has. Kiryu starts off just ferrying people around the city as a taxi driver but then gets involved with highway racing. Saejima can hunt in the mountains, Haruka has her idol work, and Shinada has batting cage trials. This is also including all the usual side missions, side games, gambling, arcade games, collectibles, and your usual set of revelation heat moves around the map. Yakuza 5 is easily the biggest Yakuza game and it has the content to back the statement up.
Overall, while the side content is appreciated, I still prioritized the story as much as possible but did take the time to learn a ton of the Skill Trainers with Kiryu, Saejima, and Akiyama before treading forward to the ending and the story in short really is an enormous mess. Mind you, the mess itself at least presents itself on a literal stage that is a lot less silly than putting all of Akiyama’s money up on the roof of Millenium Tower and waiting for the interested parties to show up. What makes Yakuza 5’s plot silly is the string of betrayals that start from Kiryu’s beginning saga all the way into Shinada’s entire ordeal of having the entire town hide things from him. Thankfully there is one straight boss that’s behind all this that does make it easy to say exactly who the bad guy is this time around. Unlike the boss fight Tanimura had at the end of 4 where you physically beat him up though, you don’t fight the mastermind in Yakuza 5 but you do get to fight the person who he wanted to do the entire plot’s worth of shenanigans for so that counts for something. The identity of that particular person is the final big surprise and I wasn’t too impressed with who it ended up being. During Yakuza 4’s finale, I thought Akiyama, Kiryu, and Tanimura’s fights were fitting while Saejima’s fight was rather lackluster. Come Yakuza 5, a familiar set-up at the roof of Millenium Tower happens again, except no piles of money but the equally silly notion that the parties involved NEED to fight in order for the true mastermind to reveal himself. Kiryu fights Watase who he met earlier, Saejima fights Katsuya, and then Kiryu fights Saejima before the big bad shows up. Fittingly, Kiryu gets the final boss fight against the aforementioned secret person, Saejima gets to fight Majima, and things are looking pretty decent because as ridiculous as this gets, it was pretty cool.
What isn’t cool is who Akiyama and Shinada get to fight. Akiyama fights the ugly thug who worked for Katsuya who you fought like twice already and Shinada gets to fight Baba, who you beat up with two different characters before. Those two were bummers but Akiyama did get a pretty decent fight in 4 while Saejima got squat. Shinada’s fight at the very least pitted him up against another newcomer to the plot and his tale already ended a chapter before.
Beyond the insanity of what I described above, Yakuza 5 still has some really fun and cool scenes involving Kiryu facing off as many Tojo clan members they could muster, Saejima’s prison break 2 electric boogaloo, Akiyama got a bit less to do, but Shinada definitely pulled out some really cool sports shounen cliches that I don’t get tired of so all in all, I think Yakuza 5 just barely manages to beat out Yakuza 4 in overall enjoyment and cool factor. Tanimura was really fun to play as but Shinada nailed home the story beats, as fucking ridiculous as they were, more effectively than Tanimura’s did. I guess sports shounen plots appeal to me more than police procedurals. Yakuza 5 also had the benefit of having some memorable villains with Katsuya and Watase who were pretty charismatic and I felt that their prominence in the story, at least with the former, helped dull the silliness of who the final boss ended up being. Yakuza 4 in the meantime didn’t really have memorable villains. It’s the usual Yakuza nonsense but bigger, bolder, and with the most amount of shit to do.