Violent solutions in a world of hope - Yakuza 5, Part 1

This is the first in a series taking an in-depth look at the massive Yakuza 5. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. You can help support our long-form writing here Nothing is more powerful than the pursuit of a dream. Even if you fail to reach the destination, you will pass on your determination so another may get one step closer to realizing their own. Dreams do not die until they are no longer remembered by the living.

Yakuza 5 spends every moment of its presentation making sure you understand this theme. It’s there when you’re transporting a young, disillusioned businessman in your taxi as it is when you’re hitting home runs in a batting center for a free meal. Over the course of 120 hours, you’ll be making dozens—if not hundreds—of dreams come to fruition.

Contrasting this theme of empowering dreams is what it takes to accomplish your own. 

Variety is the spice of life and Yakuza 5 takes this to heart more than any other game I’ve played. The hurdles you must pass over on the journey of a dream constantly shift from genre-standard tropes to unexpected but ultimately satisfying detours. On the standard side, you’re going to be committing an almost unheard of amount of near-murder as you battle countless mooks everywhere you go. Once this trend has become second-nature for the player, you’ll assume the role of a teenage pop idol who solves her problems with dance battles and handshakes.

Battling itself is crafted in a way to stave off tedium whether you engage or not; the four characters you’ll control who use violence as a solution have vastly different martial arts styles you’ll need to master. These range from a fast-moving character who relies on combos involving all their limbs, to a character who excels in grappling and swinging weapons around. Each character can be leveled up through completing quests and battles around town, opening up new ways to exact violence and keep the enemy hitting nothing but air.

Yet violence alone won’t make your character whole, nor does the game expect you to grind battles for experience. Non-quest battles will stop providing experience once you’re sufficiently powered to wipe the floor; battles related to side or main quests may barely nudge the experience bar depending on the extent of a character’s evolution. Players can also avoid battles right from the start by simply walking around hostiles rather than running and drawing their attention. You’ll also be given several items throughout the game that will make all hostile encounters disappear—a great way to keep pace when trying to clean up as many quests as possible.

But variable violence is still violence, and you’ll be crushing a lot of dreams in your trip around Japan. The story is split into 5 main parts. Each part—and several story quests—will culminate in a beatdown, whether in a one-on-one duel or surrounded by mooks. The ultra-violent nature of these battles ensure almost nobody you defeat is going home without a major disability. Moves you’ll utilize with the violent characters include wrapping an enemy’s back around a light pole, grinding their face on the pavement like a cheese grater, and combining gravity with your own strength to bring a knee crashing through the top of an enemy’s skull. Somehow, most enemies will be in a perfectly able-bodied state after the victory music plays, as though you did nothing more than deliver a few hard slaps.

To be perfectly honest, this game isn’t for anyone who is unsettled by graphic violence. Blood flies around constantly, accompanied by the sound of snapping bones resulting from vivid visuals of necks being twisted or backs being folded. After 120 hours, I still found myself grimacing when unleashing a sizable portion of my moves. That’s not to say the violent solution is unexpected for an open-world action game, just to be prepared for violence approaching the levels of Mortal Kombat fatalities only with less gore. You won’t see exposed bones, broken limbs, or even graphic wounds (save for about two seconds during Part 2)—only the violence from which you’d expect such to occur. (This can be somewhat offset by knowing you’re not witnessing it alone; all but a handful of battles will be surrounded by crowds of regular civilians from the sidewalks cheering you on with impenetrable enthusiasm.)

More of your time will be dedicated to non-violent fun.

If you can tolerate the violent aspects of the game, an unimaginably realistic world is waiting to be explored. A quick estimation would say that for every hour spent with the game, maybe five of those minutes will be dedicated to violence and only one of those will involve hardcore violence.

Probably the longest section dominated by violence is the first half of Part 2. You’ll assume the role of an imprisoned yakuza named Saejima who submits to torture rather than risk his chance of parole. A series of events result in Saejima taking shelter in a hunting village and learning how to be a proper hunter. Where your interactions with humans can be almost grotesque at times, hunting is less violent than even that of the Assassins Creed games. There’s no animal cruelty involved as the only animal you physically engage with is a single, legendary bear the size of two men. Fisticuffs with the bear lacks the severity of human battles and has a surprising ending keeping with the environmental message imparted upon you by the hunting village. Of course, while you’re told hunting should only be for survival, nothing stops you from padding your wallet by spending hours hunting and selling the spoils. What’s interesting is how this very option being open to the player actually relates to the history of the village’s suffering.

Hunting can be kept to a minimum, though; once you’re done with the introductory quests, you could finish the chapter and move on to the city section in about an hour or so. Pacing and exposure to violence is primarily in the hands of the player.

Beyond this single section, you’ll be free to explore the various cities of Yakuza 5 with all their trappings. Convenience stores are contain dozens of manga to browse page-by-page and magazine covers to examine; pachinko and slot machine parlors are complemented by casinos hidden away in abandoned buildings or underground sewers; one restaurant chain will have similar designs in each city and be dwarfed by a dozen completely unique local establishments; get drunk and challenge bar patrons to a darts game or try your hand at pool, with both having several different rulesets available; spend your paycheck at a hostess club, then meet up with your favorite hostess for a date of karaoke and shopping for hand lotion.

You could do everything listed above, and you wouldn’t have experienced even half of the fun and engaging side content available. 

Several of these attractions also introduce characters you’ll spend several hours with in hopes of making their dreams come true, and many help provide materials useful for creating new armors and weapons.

Yes, a game set in 2012 and modern yakuza involves some light crafting. While the number of items you can make will be dwarfed when compared to a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition, their acquisition feels more satisfying. Completing a side quest may give you a material which unlocks a couple new weapons or armours. Completing a certain amount of side quests may give you a weapon stronger than any you can craft, or an accessory that makes money much easier to come by. Simply possessing some of these items may unlock even more items to craft, encouraging you to utilize certain weapons more so your skills increase with that weapon-type. Weapons can range from a simple bamboo staff to giant, plastic star gloves or a lighter that’s been modified into a flamethrower. (In an interesting bit of story-and-gameplay integration, one character whose dream involves baseball will refuse to use a bat as a weapon, even setting it down in the middle of battle out of respect.)

Obtaining some materials will involve fishing, with different fish responding to different bait and existing exclusively in either a river or the ocean. Well over two dozen different baits exist, opening up a lot of experimentation. The sheer level of complexity involved with ocean fishing makes every catch feel satisfying regardless of size.

And that complexity isn’t exclusive to just fishing. Arcades contain actual, ported versions of Virtua Fighter and claw machines that operate exactly like their real-world counterparts. Another arcade game involves playing a large drum as though you’re holding both sticks, completely different from the rhythm game mechanics of the karaoke bars. Saejima’s chapter contains a first-person snowball fight with varying maps, and the pop idol’s chapters in Part 3 are almost a never-ending experience of mini-games applied to magazine interviews and gameshows.

The side content is not only fun, it’s full of unique and wonderful characters. 

Late in the game, a side quest opens up featuring a clearly Lady GaGa-inspired celebrity named Daddy Papa. She’s wearing a dress made of seaweed contrasted by stark white skin and sunglasses, accompanied by a japanese man escorting her through the town. You open this quest by saving a young man from being bullied because of his nerd status. Daddy Papa’s escort takes notice of your skills and offers to pay you a cool three million if you’ll chauffeur them around to interesting locales. Eventually, everyone ends up at a restaurant enjoying chicken wings and sake while Daddy Papa opens up about her rise to stardom; she came from the working class, slaving away as a waitress while writing over a thousand songs about the struggle of the weak.

But lately, she’s been suffering from writer’s block. At this time, you’re playing as Shinada, a man deep in debt to people all over town and scrounging by on the minuscule pay from writing at a local adult entertainment magazine. Shinada can relate greatly to the struggle Daddy Papa writes about, but Daddy’s lost her touch given the phenomenal, worldwide success she’s achieved.

Once the quest has come to an end, Daddy Papa has realized she no longer needs to write about the struggle of the weak, but of the strength unique to their experience that allows them to overcome. She’s rushing with ideas for new songs, grateful for everything you’ve done in your short time together. Her assistant pays you the three million he promised, but you watch your money count increase by only ¥4000…because when he promised you three million, it was in Vietnamese dong. Daddy Papa is sad for the misunderstanding and gives you her autograph with the hopes you can sell it for an acceptable profit (it’s worth ¥50,000 at the pawn shop).

Encounters such as Daddy Papa are the rule rather than the exception. Even when a side quest may involve fetching an item for someone—a typically mundane trope in video games—the end result will be a conversation or interaction that doesn’t feel like a waste.

A side quest for Saejima starts with finding a homeless man suffering in the cold and fetching some food to help warm him up. In most games, you’d get a thanks, some cheap experience, and move on. Yakuza 5 differs: the homeless man tells of his journey to gather enough money that he may travel to Tokyo and start a new life. You can proposition covering the cost of his ticket, but he’ll reject the notion outright. After all, he’s been working any job he can find and is close to buying the ticket on his own. He wants to feel pride in himself and there’s nothing wrong with that. He thanks you for the food before you part ways.

The quest isn’t over, however; you’ll find the man again in another spot as he’s being harassed by a local gang trying to take his money. After beating up the gang, the man wishes to thank you by buying you a gift. He runs off and reappears with a package of high-end cigarettes. Saejima tells him he’s never cherished a gift more in his life, and wishes the man luck on his way to Tokyo.

You can complete this two-part quest in less than ten minutes, yet it’s one that stayed fresh in my mind all the way through the climax of the game. When I arrived in Tokyo, I hoped with all might to find him walking around somewhere having achieved his dream. And he may very well be somewhere I just haven’t walked by yet.

What Yakuza 5 does well that so many miss is understanding quantity and quality are equally important. Some games, such as Mass Effect 2, had grand side quests yet the game felt as though it came to a close far too quickly. Others, like Dragon Age: Inquisition, have seemingly hundreds yet two playthroughs have shown few are worth remembering. Yakuza 5 excels because I could spend three days rolling through side quests for a single character without getting bored and yet I remember almost every one regardless of length.

If you enjoyed the first part of this series, please consider helping support more like it. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.