If anyone out there still believes the Yakuza series exists as Japan's own version Grand Theft Auto, part five's initial half-hour should disabuse them of this notion almost immediately.
While GTA typically casts its various protagonists from a pool of violent sociopaths, Yakuza's Kiryu Kazuma is a paragon of masculine virtue. The first thing you'll do in Yakuza 5, for instance, involves buying an appropriate gift as a show of apology to a rival cab company. Kazuma, having left the world of organized crime—please see the past four games—now makes a living as a professional driver, and ditched his turn in the taxi line in order to pick up an old friend. Having broken protocol, he supplicates himself—all for the greater good. It's this introductory mission that casts Kazuma as our Lawful Good hero... so long as these types can occasionally beat the living hell out of people.
This introduction sets the stage for Yakuza 5, which mostly involves helping random strangers in the surrounding city. Yes, there's an overarching story about ghosts from the past, and the deeply complex politics of organized crime hierarchies, but, as my past dalliances with the Yakuza series have proven, the best attractions can be found in the numerous side quests dotted throughout the world map. It's the same reason I find Fallout so appealing, even if it approaches its quest structure in a more organic way. With Yakuza, things are a lot more regimented, and talking to a person in need usually shunts Kazuma off into an independent mini-game that drops him off exactly where he left off when it's wrapped up. And, as is the case with the previous games, the main appeal is seeing what new, strange situation he'll be trapped in next.
At their best, Yakuza 5's mini-games will have you thinking, "I can't believe they took things this far." One of this in particular involves a trip to a ramen shop, where the chef suddenly starts feeling ill, leaving Kazuma to take over in his place. What follows is a mini-game that has Kazuma taking orders from various patrons regarding the noodle firmness in their respective bowls of ramen, which involves paying attention to various rising meters and stopping them at the right moment. Granted, it's not the most complex activity in the world, but the fact that Yakuza wraps gameplay and a proper UI around noodle-dipping makes all the difference.
And then we have the taxi missions, a vital part of Kazuma's chapter, seeing as it's his job and everything. As you'd expect, Kazuma drives his passengers from point A to point B, but since you're beholden to actual traffic laws, it's more Sensible Taxi than Crazy Taxi. But a good chunk of these taxi missions don't actually involve driving: These variants place the camera inside the cab, where Kazuma is tasked with solving a sort of dialogue puzzle to soothe his weary passengers. Here, he plays a makeshift psychiatrist whose role requires some smart decisions from a player. One woman had a bad attitude the moment she stepped into my cab, so I simply let her vent, and she gave me a huge tip at the end of the ride for absorbing her rage. Another passenger grew depressed over how much his daughter despises him, so we had a heart-to-heart on the proper role of a father. And a few of these missions extend outside of the taxi itself; as circumstances dictate, some of these quests terminate in a race, or even a street fight.
Though both games play very different, how I've been approaching Yakuza 5 can't help but make me think of Majora's Mask, another game with objectives that involve improving the lives of everyone around you. It's strange to see a game go for sincerity over cynicism, but Yakuza 5 has it in spades—Kazuma's practically an overgrown Boy Scout. Consider the fact that collecting garbage around town raises his "Citizenship Level," and you'll see what I mean. Of course, the fact that these quests yield experience points, items, and other bonuses certainly makes them worth doing, but I doubt I would have worked my way through all 31 taxi missions last night (and in one sitting) if it weren't for their feelgood qualities.
Out of all the open-world games we've seen since the summer ended, Yakuza 5 stands out for being cut from an entirely different cloth—for better or worse. Its disjointedness definitely isn't for everyone, but Sega's work on this series has always struck me as a fine assemblage of time-tested Japanese game design ideas; the mini-games you're often thrust into feel like they're straight out of Sega's arcade division in the '90s. If you've been on the fence about Yakuza these past ten years, consider jumping headfirst into part five. As is the case with the series, it essentially inherited everything that came before, meaning the dense city streets are absolutely packed with things to see and do—even if, like me, you'll never completely figure out pachinko.
Admittedly, Yakuza may feel a little stuck in the past in some respects—the semi-random enemy encounters feel ripped straight from an old-school RPG—but it's refreshing to see a developer play by its own open-world rules rather than look to UbiSoft or Bethesda for inspiration. While I'm not sure I'll be able to finish it in time for a relevant review, be sure to check USgamer for more about one of 2015's most hidden gems. If you still have a PS3 occupying your entertainment center, Yakuza 5 is the best possible reason to keep it there for at least another month.