This is the third and final part of our essay on Yakuza 5. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Help support our long-form content by visiting here. Making dreams come true is worth suffering the flaws.
So, yes, there are several cases of severe mishandling when it comes to the writing in Yakuza 5. They can’t reasonably be ignored, and they stick out like a sore thumb.
But the reason they stick out so much is due to how fantastic the writing holds up the majority of the time. It’s not that the bad should be forgiven, but instead contrasted with the whole and noted as glaring flaws writers can learn from to improve their future works.
Because Yakuza 5 is an overall inspiring story. Dreams are, far and above, the central driving force behind nearly every encounter you have. And where Yakuza 5 excels is in truly representing the spectrum of human experience.
When I think of other games where dreams play a huge role, the theme starts to fall apart at the moment we realize whose dreams we’re talking about. Fire Emblem: Fates, for example, had a central theme involving several people describing hardships in pursuit of a dream. Yet, the vast majority of characters involved were born into royalty with all the privileges inherent.
The fully realized world of Yakuza 5 features characters being tortured in prison while striving for a dream, homeless men in the pursuit of a dream or having made their dream come true and supporting others', the impoverished who cherish holding onto their dream, single-parent children with small dreams yet huge impact, and white collar workers wondering if they even know where their dream lies.
In other words, we’re introduced to so many people that there’s a high chance you may very well find yourself in this world.
We’re never asked, however, to abandon our human-side in these pursuits. Even as the game can follow some serious-faced people seriousing seriously at one another, characters are presented with enough humanity to have hilarious encounters, touching reactions, and even comical dialogue interspersing philosophical discussions over a plate of tripe.
What Yakuza 5 tries to drive home is understanding how failing to fulfill a dream for yourself does not mean the dream has died. Neither should individuals be expected to accomplish dreams by themselves. Where we start with quests as small as helping an old man fulfill his dreams as a street racer, we grow into an entire community becoming a powerful mythology to protect itself from the parasitic relationship of yakuza—a mythology abandoned so one person can complete their dream.
People feel like people and are written as such.
I’m not setting aside the flaws; the flaws are apparent, and analysis of the media we consume —from a writer intending to make sure you’re fully informed and prepared should you make a choice to consume that media—entails a responsibility to make sure proper focus is applied to said media’s flaws.
What's necessary is taking the work as a whole, weighing the flaws against the enjoyable elements to decide whether witnessing their execution would detract from the overall experience enough to serve as an impassable obstacle. And with this metric in mind, I can confidently say I found the experience to be one of the best I've had in recent years when it comes to gaming.
Characters feel fully realized—a feat so rarely accomplished in gaming. This point can not be underlined enough. What kept me coming back to the game, drove me to finish every quest I could, was wanting to meet more of these memorable and well-written people. Because these people felt like people, like friends or acquaintances. I absolutely had to be part of their story more than any other game I’ve played in recent years.
How this gets accomplished is by a wonderful lack of side quests that contain only a single step. In a sizable portion of games, side quests are nothing more than meeting a forgettable character who tells you to perform a task. These tasks rarely involve more than running somewhere, killing the same mooks you’ve killed by the thousands already, then returning for a reward as forgettable as the person giving it to you.
With Yakuza 5, the majority of side quests contain at least two parts, with plenty having more than four. The quality aspect of the quantity vs. quality balance shines brilliantly with this setup. Characters giving you side quests are required to pique your interest should the game hope to entice you to access any side content. Thus, characters are written with entire personalities that come through regardless of how short or long the side quest lasts.
But it's not just the side content where characters shine.
A common method in which games establish characters is through a heavy amount of exposition. Yakuza 5 doesn't exactly differ, considering the five characters you'll be controlling are generally accompanied by a ten minute cutscene when they're first introduced. Neither cutscenes nor exposition are bad by default; one of the most respected series in gaming history, Metal Gear Solid, could have the cutscenes from any individual entry turned into a movie franchise with more screen time than all eight Harry Potter movies. But cutscenes can feel like brakes have been applied to your momentum when they drag on with nothing of interest.
The cutscenes here are very well-directed, if at times feeling like they pop up too often. They're produced in such a way to rarely deflate your sense of accomplishment as you move at your own pace. Many will contain quick time events—brief, interactive indicators on screen requesting you press a specific button—meaning failure is an option, but the game will allow you to retry from the last cutscene whenever that happens.
What's contained within them is an engaging and captivating story that tries not to rely on clichés unless it's playing them up to a comical level. You get your heartbreaking, touching moments—sometimes preceded by a yakuza war being interrupted by a taxi. Maybe you'll have an absolutely desolate situation as context for friends to mentally participate in the memory of visiting a hostess club.
When the cutscene isn't trying to subvert a trope or take things over the top, it justifies every decision put into its production with absolute brilliance. There were times I was surprised when what I thought was coming never did; what I couldn't have expected was being impressed with the execution of story events that were fully telegraphed. Emotional encounters carry the proper weight because no death or twist is applied to characters you haven't had time getting to know. Twists themselves are crafted so pleasantly you'll find yourself questioning if you can even trust your own character.
Emotions tie into masculinity as well.
This is absolutely a game featuring massively muscled men solving problems with massive muscles. In fact, several of the most emotional moments come during scenes where shirtless men with full back tattoos are engaging in an all-out brawl. Yakuza 5 has found a way to show a full range of emotion with character archetypes you'd usually see cast as exemplars of the most base masculine stereotypes. Yes, these stereotypes sometimes pop up, but they're not pushed to the front and center, never the defining trait of any character.
A recurring element of yakuza culture is the sworn oath of brotherhood. The actual ritual is never performed, but the status of brotherhood plays an important role in multiple steps of the plot.
Because of the importance placed on brotherhood, intimate relationships between men are placed front and center. There’s no fanfare or hyper-focus to make this a big deal as though writers wanted to highlight doing something progressive within the industry. Rather, it just is what it is; intimate men being emotional over brotherhood.
Not all of the main characters take part in this presentation, though. Shinada’s emotional moments come from being a struggling writer living in a shack who’s on a first name basis with most of the town; Akiyama’s arise as he becomes intertwined with and responsible for caring for others; Haruka’s involve a life of optimism in the face of constant strife.
But who would’ve imagined a game called Yakuza—marketed as a beat ‘em up action game—could be an emotional rollercoaster with mostly positive portrayals and a deep-seated message that it’s alright to be a man who expresses love for his closest male confidants? Certainly, there are other games with a high level of violence and masculinity that try to capture the same magic. I’d imagine I’ve played more than a couple of them.
Never have I played a game capturing this dynamic with such finesse. I’ve said before that Yakuza 5 gives the feeling of a soap opera and I mean that in the best possible interpretation. The game absolutely oozes drama while doing everything it can to make sure you’re invested in the participants. Every chapter and every part feels fresh and presents a new piece of a massive conspiracy to unravel. Each piece you think you’ve unraveled could very well become a red herring at the last moment, while pacing means suspects are always changing to give the ultimate impact on the story.
If you can accept its worst flaws, you are obligated to play this game.
I would recommend this game to anyone. Doesn’t matter what genre you’re most comfortable with, because nearly every genre is represented in at least one way throughout Yakuza 5. Doesn’t matter how experienced you are with games, as tutorials are always accessible and you can change the difficulty at any time. Beyond the fantastic drama and exquisite side content, you’ll learn an incredible amount about Japanese culture and the structure of the yakuza. So, in that regard, consider the game both entertaining and educational. And at the end of it all, you might just find yourself inspired to pursue a dream of your own. (But before you cross that bridge, stock up on health items because the final fight doesn't pull any punches; neither should you.)
Live to be the Kiryu, Saejima, Haruka, Akiyama, or Shinada of your own life. You may find that unlikely person wanting to give it their all to help you succeed, or be drawn to another's dreams and ready to sacrifice everything in their pursuit. Don't be afraid to feel comfortable in who you are; don't be afraid to feel love for anyone else.