The Yakuza series is often misdescribed as being a ‘Japanese Grand Theft Auto’, simply for being a crime story set in an open-world. The truth is though, the similarities between the two franchises ends there.
That isn’t to say that the two franchises aren’t held in high regards with those involved in the development of them. In fact, producer and writer of Yakuza 5, Masayoshi Yokoyama, said that Yakuza 5 is like the San Andreas of the Yakuza series; a massive expansion on what has been before that takes the franchise to new heights.
And you know what, he was spot on. Yakuza 5 is very much the magnum opus of the series; bigger, better and bolder than anything that came before it. It is immediately obvious from the get-go why it is often cited as one of the best in the entire series.
Like its predecessor Yakuza 4, we have multiple protagonists to control through our journey, with five in total this time. Unlike Yakuza 4, we start off with series favourite Kazuma Kiryu.
For reasons that aren’t made immediately apparent, Kiryu is now a taxi driver in one of the game’s new locations, Nagasugai. He has also changed his identity and goes by a different name. Safe to say though that even his new identity cannot hide him from the clutches of the past, as 6th chairman of the Tojo Clan and close friend Daigo Dojima jumps into his taxi one evening. He is there in the city to broker a deal between the Tojo Clan and Nagasugai’s Yamagasa clan.
Unfortunately for Kiryu, this is the last time that anyone sees Daigo, forcing Kiryu to come out of hiding – again! – and defend himself against the Japanese underworld. This time though, it seems that his beloved Tojo Clan are not all they claim to be.
So far, so Yakuza. Kiryu splits his time between roaming the streets of Nagasugai and his role as a taxi driver. Driving is actually introduced in Yakuza 5, through races on the freeways, and a more sedate version of actually being a taxi driver. You must signal at turnings, maintain a safe speed and get passengers to their location on time.
Then things take a tonal shift, for better and for worse. Taiga Saejima returns after being introduced in Yakuza 4, but once again spends the first part of his character arc in prison. After breaking out – again! – he descends upon a snowy mountain town but must first defeat a mountain bear in hand-to-hand combat in one of Yakuza 5’s best boss battles. This then triggers a lengthy section where Saejima decides to take up a spot of hunting, rather than continue down the mountain to another new city in the form of Tsukimino to get the answers he is searching for.
Once again, the character arcs may seem separate, but are all connected and help progress the story along to the natural conclusion. Saejima’s is once again blighted by pacing issues, and indeed it isn’t until the last portion of his section that you finally start to see things fall into place with Kiryu’s arc that helps progress the story along.
The same could be argued of Haruka’s story arc, but considering she has held off from joining the ranks of the yakuza and is only 16 years old, she can be excused for not knowing the comings and goings of the underworld. Yakuza 5 marks the first time Haruka is a playable character and her involvement in the main game plays more like a pop idol simulator, at least for the first part. She will need to dance, rehearse, sing and meet her fans in another tonal shift for Yakuza 5, but one that is a guilty pleasure.
Then of course there is the return of Shun Akiyama, who is looking to extend his Sky Finance business into Sotenbori, and newcomer Tatsuo Shinada, a former pro baseball player. Bit by bit, all these playable characters are brought into the main overarching story.
With each character predominantly spending most of their time in a unique city, the scope of Yakuza 5 isn’t fully realised until at least 30 hours in. You could easily spend hours driving as Kiryu, engaging in dance battles as Haruka or even hunting as Saejima before remembering what your primary objective is here. But because you play through the characters sequentially – unlike in Yakuza 0 where you flip back and forth between dual protagonists – you may find yourself eager to engage in as many distractions as possible, knowing that moving on to the next part of the story will mean that section doesn’t return for a long time. It’s a tricky balance to get right; one that propels Yakuza 5 into the God Tier of Yakuza games, but also one that requires a serious time investment. Much more so than others in this recent Remastered Collection.
As well as all these larger timesinks, many of the smaller ones make a return. Darts, dating, karaoke, pool and the casino are once again present, plus some new ones in the form of air hockey and some new SEGA arcade additions.
Virtua Fighter 2 is again present in its entirety, along with a rhythm game called Taiko No Tatsujin; bash away at oversized bongo drums to some funky tunes. This series has been released occasionally outside of Japan but its inclusion as part of Yakuza 5 makes it another way you can play t.
Even Boxcelios has a spin-off in the arcades, known as Gunrhein. Now you are defending from waves of attacks in a much harder variation.
There is also a huge graphical improvement over Yakuza 3 and 4, thanks to a new engine in use. Whereas previous entries looked dated even with the remastered enhancements, Yakuza 5 Remastered looks only slightly below Yakuza 0 now. Main character models and movements are vastly improved on, and even pedestrians look less wooden. Some minor characters still look below par, particularly with regards to their hairstyles that simply don’t move. That said though, they look far more realistic than Haruka’s ponytail, which acts like it is on its own unique dimensional plane and never quite manages to catch up to her head movements.
Yakuza 5 is also more like Yakuza 4 in that this remaster doesn’t bring in any of the previously missing content, such was the case with Yakuza 3. That’s because there wasn’t any when it originally released. It is still however the only Yakuza game to have never had a physical release in the West.
All your other favourite aspects from the series are present such as the brutal heat actions in combat, character levelling, equipment modifications, virtual tourism and tasty looking food, and the coliseum in a slightly different guise. Instead of visiting a specific location to fight enemies, your coliseum opponents can appear on the streets themselves, where you must defeat them to rise up the ranks of Victory Road.
Chase sequences have also been improved massively. A particular irk in Yakuza 3, these are now so much better simply because they work as intended. Playable characters no longer stop on invisible walls, and the timing required to complete them is a bit more lenient.
Yakuza 5 Remastered on Xbox dwarfs the other two games available in the Yakuza Remastered Collection. It really feels like a culmination of everything that came before it into this one huge, bursting at the seams Yakuza package. It has only been bettered by Yakuza games that came after it, and even playing it now almost eight years since it initially released, you can still feel that everything has been building up to this one monumental title. It still has pacing issues, but what Yakuza game doesn’t? And when you have a title as ambitious in its scope yet is still able to deliver almost effortlessly, you can certainly overlook any issues that it may have.