Yakuza 5: Good Game With a Few Pacing Problems [Hands-on Preview]

[Mild Spoiler warning: I won't talk about too many details in specific, but I will mention some, vaguely. I'll talk about cities you visit. I'll also give vague descriptions of certain cutscenes, though not say exactly when or why they take place.]

At about 11 hours into Yakuza 5, I'm into the second (well, I guess technically third, because… nah, fuck it. Not important, never mind) area and finding that this game is a lot more story-heavy than previous entries.

Right from the start, you're sitting through something like half an hour of cutscenes and story stuff. I didn't start timing it right away, but it felt like 6 days, so I'm ballparking it at 20 minutes. I don't know. Fuck though, it was long.

That's not to say the story is bad — quite the opposite, it's an intriguing tale told through the eyes of interesting characters. Plus, come on how many games are set in a realistic, modern Japan? But when we're talking about video game progression, these kinds of things tend to bring up complaints, or if nothing else, a little bit of player anxiety.

Those long-ass story sequences are sometimes disguised by having segments when the player must manually advance unvoiced dialogue, then switching back to CG cinemas and alternating back and forth. They can do what they want, but I'm a genius and there's not fooling me. The whole thing as a stretch is indeed a gameplay-free story sequence. One of them, I played while friends had the UFC show on in the background, and I was ready to pause the game when a more interesting fight came on. But damn, one story sequence kept rolling for an entire 3-round fight. That's five minutes per round with a minute in between, so it was at least 17 minutes with no exploration, combat, or control of any kind. This didn't just happen once or twice, it was quite often. Just during my writing of this preview (done while playing off and on), I took a break to eat a bowl of shippoku udon, and didn't have to actually control a character the whole time. I was taking my time with that shit, too.

On the one hand, I was eating udon (awesome) and technically playing Yakuza 5 (awesome), but on the other, not everyone's gonna have shippoku udon at the ready when they're gaming.

Here's the thing about the udon bowl: right after I was done, I gained control, but only to — I'm not kidding — walk across an empty field, save, then get another super long story sequence. I was able to clip my nails and rub Tinactin Jock Itch all over my itchy ballsack without having to pause the game. So this is great, because I can clip nails and clean balls and do other stuff that we gamers never do, but man, these are long stretches with minimal control or agency. If I could safely bring my PS3 and TV into the shower with me, I'd try that too, but you don't stay a genius by making the same mistake a fourth time.

Sure, you could say, "Hey yo H-bomb, why don't you just skip the scenes?" Mostly because the story and characters are important to what you're doing and why, duh. It's a story-driven game, for the most part, so the story is important. But in a video game, interaction with that story is equally important, and for all of Yakuza 5's strength of character, the amount of interaction is lacking.

Worse, a lot of the gameplay segments are so extremely on-rails that it's really not quite what I, as a Yakuza fan, was expecting. You might technically be walking the character around, but so many things are closed off, unavailable, or blocked by invisible walls, that you actually have little or no choice but to walk where the story wants you to walk. It's most evident in Hokkaido, where I've been dragged through cutscenes galore interrupted by non-voiced speeches out the wahzoo, and then being It's a Wonderful Life'd around town by my spirit buddy, unable to interact with most things and having to deal with black-on-blue as the color palette.

Not official screen shots, above and below. These are pictures from my TV. The segments like this aren't long, and on top of that, look like…well they look like this. So you can see how they kind of don't scratch the gameplay itch when they're in the middle of 30-minute story chunks.

So this color scheme is kind of an odd choice? I, I woulda thought it was right on!

So even when you seem to get some control, you're actually picking your poison a lot of the time. This flies in the face of the general free roaming gameplay Yakuza fans have been accustomed to, and that I've been enjoying on my PS4 by way of the (newer) Yakuza: Ishin.

This leads into a different design problem: it goes both ways. When exploring, it can sometimes feel like every motherfucker in town wants to throw down. There are only so many rounds of Virtua Fighter 2 and Taiko Drum Master I can make myself play in order to break these up.

Oh yeah, that brings me to Club Sega. As usual, plenty of minigames are available for when you do get a break from the story. Included are skill cranes, puricura (meaning "print club" and referring to those kooky photo booths), and other distractions. The junctures when they become available are a bit fewer than some might like, but they exist.

For story purposes, players must start Yakuza 5 in controlling Kazuma Kiryu in Fukuoka. Just as Yakuza captured Tokyo as perfectly as any game could, the team has done it again with Fukuoka. My own anecdotal research shows a great job by Sega's team, as they match my own visit to the city, and Yakuza 5's Fukuoka got high praise from my friend who lives there. Authentic as it might be, I feel this is one of the game's weaker areas. After about the 4-hour mark, I had firmly concluded that Fukuoka wasn't for me; though again, that's yet another similarity to real Fukuoka. Fuckin' meta.

Man, it sounds like I'm complaining a lot, but the game has been fun. The combat is mostly the same stuff Yakuza fans have come to expect. There are new moves and new specials as well as a bevy of returning favorites. You've got your basic two and three-hit combos, then learn more moves and add to strings as you level up. New levels come with points you can spend on stats and abilities and all that good stuff.

If you're low on supplies and have a minute, you can shop at familiar places such as convenience stores, Don Quixote, and so on. As usual, all locations are extremely detailed. If you've ever been to Japan, you'll be impressed at how accurate Yakuza 5 can be. Early Yakuza games built a reputation on being awesomely similar to the environments they were reproducing, and they've only gotten better at this.

I'm really interested in Haruka's segment of Yakuza 5, as she's a budding pop star, fighting people in dance battles and stuff. I haven't gotten there. I played the first PSP Yakuza game (dig my Black Panther: Yakuza New Chapter review), so since Haruka is in Osaka, I'm also hoping for a cameo by Black Panther's protagonist. I'm also curious to see Tatsuo in Nagoya, living the life of a (hopefully drunken) former baseball player. I just hope that, in exploring this interesting stories and seeing how they form a larger plot, that I can actually play the game at some point.

Gah, there I go back on that, again. It's not that Yakuza 5 is bad, it's just that it's not what I was expecting. I'm highly enjoying my time, but after the other Yakuza games, I expected more wide-open, non-linear gameplay than what has so far been offered. Eleven or 12 hours isn't nearly the whole game, but it's also not a short time to ask of people while a game just gets warmed up. I'm willing to keep going and be forgiving here, but this poor pacing might turn some people off.

Yakuza 5 was released in late 2012 in Japan, and will arrive in North America and Europe as a digital-only release at some point in 2015.