I was shocked, to say the least, to hear over the weekend that Yakuza 5 will in fact be coming to the U.S. in 2015.
Even with Yakuza: Dead Souls making its way west in 2012, I had kind of figured that the series was finished over here. It has a small and fervent fanbase in the U.S., but localizing the extensive script makes it a tough sell for a niche release, even without American voice actors to pay. What's more, the PlayStation 3 is rapidly nearing its expiration date, with only a handful of mostly Japanese releases to sustain it in its old age. If Sega still wanted to release Yakuza in the U.S., I figured they would go straight to Yakuza Zero—the prequel set in the 1980s being developed for the PlayStation 4.
Yakuza 5 is in fact being released in the U.S., though; and while it's tempting to say that its belated localization is all but irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, there's still plenty of reason to find the news heartening. The biggest reason, of course, is that Yakuza is evidently not as dead in the west as it first appeared. For all of their missteps in trying to sell an extremely Japanese series to western audiences, Sega happily appears willing to soldier on and keep releasing them outside of Japan.
The other biggest reason is that Yakuza 5 is probably the best entry in the series to date. Termed "Yakuza's San Andreas" in an interview with 1UP.com, it spans five locations featuring a host of new activities, and includes a rebuilt engine. If Yakuza: Dead Souls left a bad taste in your mouth, then Yakuza 5 should restore some of your faith in the series.
The story picks up a few years after the conclusion of Yakuza 4 with most of the main characters having been spread to various points around Japan. Series stalwart Kazuma Kiryu is a taxi driver, Taega Saijima is languishing in jail, and young orphan Haruka Sawamura is now a teen on the road to becoming an idol. As has become typical of the series, Yakuza 5 follows all of their stories, weaving them into the greater tapestry of its overall crime drama. In the meantime, there are hostess clubs to visit, arcade games to play, and now, streets to race (Kiryu's arc includes a racing minigame).
Of course, anyone expecting an actual GTA-style game set in Japan will be disappointed. As I've mentioned before, Sega's biggest mistake in marketing the Yakuza series was to invite direct comparisons to Rockstar's juggernaut. Yakuza is less a sandbox adventure than a JRPG with lots of shops and minigames to enjoy. Part of the reason its so popular in Japan is that its a well-produced visual novel of sorts with lots of well-known voice actors, making the gameplay secondary to the drama of the storytelling. There's still lots to do in Kamurocho and elsewhere, but the activities are more rigid than what you might find in a traditional sandbox game. Its closest comp might actually be L.A. Noire—another open-world game in which the sandbox elements were secondary to the storytelling.
Personally, I prefer strong open-world exploration to pure storytelling; but high production values and memorable characters like lovable psychopath Goro Majima have managed to keep my attention over the years. I also like that it makes absolutely no bones about being a Japanese game set in Japanese society. That may not do much to endear it to westerners who aren't familiar with the ins and outs of the culture, but it does make it feel unique, and I can't help getting a little homesick for my own time in Japan whenever I stride into one of Yakuza's myriad game centers or convenience stores.
Looking bigger picture, it's worth noting that Sega made the Yakuza 5 announcement with Sony, and that it was chosen in part because it topped Sony's #Buildingthelist campaign—an initiative that encourages fans to highlight the third-party games they want to see released on PlayStation platforms.
"We've received so many requests from our fans to bring Yakuza 5 to the U.S. and Europe," Sega senior digital brand manager Mai Kawaguchi wrote on the PlayStation Blog. "Yakuza 5 also made the top of the list of Sony’s #BuidingTheList campaign led by Gio Corsi at Sony Computer Entertainment and we were moved by all the support given to Yakuza 5 by the PlayStation community."
With the support of a vocal continent of fans, as well as a push from Sony, Yakuza 5 is finally seeing the light of day in the west. Whether that portends a future release of Yakuza Zero in the U.S. is unclear, but continued exposure for the series will certainly aid its prospects in that regard. Of course, it'll help even even more if Sega does the right thing and gives it a proper marketing push—if only via social media and other non-traditional outlets—rather than simply throwing it into the marketplace to languish and die.
Regardless of what happens, it's heartening to know that we'll soon be receiving what is by all accounts the best Yakuza game in recent memory. For now, that is enough.