The Yakuza series often draws comparisons to Grand Theft Auto, and there’s certainly reason there: it’s about toeing the line between respect and crime in a violent world of thugs and schemers. But it never really feels like GTA, and that’s because while GTA strives toward building a living, cohesive world in which you can get lost for hours, Yakuza pulls the other direction, not just creating unreasonable environments and situations but also reveling in them to great effect.
It’s easiest to notice when just running around. Street thugs line up to take you on, shouting the dumbest insults and somehow forcing you to stay and battle if you get too close. They’ll also totally give up if you run out of a specific invisible pen, stuck like a dog with a shock collar rather than continuing to follow you and fight. When you start fighting, you’ll glow blue, break everything and show a bizarre level of aggression that somehow never gets you arrested for anything or even booed from the crowd that surrounds you (in a suspiciously rehearsed formation to block you in) when the fisticuffs start. It’s dumb, but it’s also dumb in a way that lets you know that you aren’t really doing these things, eschewing the cognitive dissonance that can cause you to avoid conflicts in other titles.
People never move from their sitting position with a Shogi board by the river, taxis have nitrous boost, hostess bars seemingly each have only one employee and trash is just a shiny dot on the sidewalk. These are very much things video games do, of course, but they’re placed beside elements that are clearly designed to be simulations. Arcade machines require paying for credits. You’re expected to stop at intersections, activate your turn signal and wait for the light to change. You have to actually go to the pawn shop to sell things, because random convenience store clerks don’t buy stuff out of your pockets.
And it’s all surrounded by an dark, mysterious atmosphere of underworld intrigue. It’s the game equivalent of editing slapstick into The Godfather, pairing these dark (and well-acted) scenes with wild power fantasy and also expecting you to follow traffic laws. It doesn’t settle into a tone, especially across the different characters’ stories, and it would be a liability for the game if it didn’t just lean into it all the time, having a hardened crime boss sing a heartfelt ballad to a picture of his dog or something.
A better comparison for Yakuza in the minds of Western players may be Saints Row, with its lampooning of mechanics and over-the-top fighting. Still, though, the two take different paths to get there, with Saints Row using these tropes as fertile ground for comedy and Yakuza letting the trope itself play out in amusing ways. Regardless, it’s good to know when you head in that Yakuza 5 is best enjoyed with a well-entrenched suspension of disbelief.
Yakuza 5 is available now for PS3 exclusively on PlayStation Network in the West.