Everyone's favorite Yakuza game is their first. The same can be said for Shin Megami Tensei games. For Final Fantasies. For pretty much any game in a long-running series. I had an abnormal start with the Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio's series compared to most people I know. I started with Yakuza 5, rather than 2017's word of mouth hit Yakuza 0. And it's my favorite.
There's a lot to love about Yakuza 5's extremely fragmented story. Usual protagonist Kazuma Kiryu's now-reclusive lifestyle as a taxi driver. Shun Akiyama being his lovable bad self. Taiga Saejima's intense devotion to the Tojo Clan and his loved ones. How disgraced baseball player Tatsuo Shinada fights with bats. Sure, it's hectic with five playable characters, but what I love most about Yakuza 5 is how it puts us in the shoes of a character we've (theoretically) watched grow up since the early days of Yakuza: Haruka Sawamura.
Playing as a teenage Haruka is a surprising delight. Pacing wise, it's plopped right into the midst of Yakuza 5, so it's a welcome break from the usual fist brawls in miscellaneous Japan neighborhoods. We learn quickly, thanks to Kiryu seeing her on television, that she's successfully making her dream of becoming a pop idol come true. Back in Osaka, Haruka's hustling to maintain her career. Rather than brawling in the streets, she has rhythm-oriented dance battles. Sometimes, Yakuza 5 veers into full rhythm game territory for her performances, in a very Project Diva-like way. (Not so ironically, also a Sega series.) There's even a hand shaking minigame, where you have to ensure creepy fans don't shake Haruka's hand for too long and make her uncomfortable.
It's a refreshing change of pace for Yakuza, even as someone who, back then, had only played Yakuza 5 up to that point. It's charming, a bit sad, funny—all the things we've come to love about the Yakuza series—all while not shying away from the more seedy territory of idol culture either. (Such as the hand shake minigame, or even a substory where you have to spot the paparazzi lurking around.) Kiryu, we learn, made a huge sacrifice just to give Haruka this opportunity after she was scouted—he abandoned the orphanage he ran just to help keep her past pristine, as the idea of an idol with an ex-yakuza father figure could tank her career if word got out.
Yakuza 5, of course, like all the Yakuza games, has an engaging plot on its own, but the strongest is the one that lies with Haruka and Kiryu's relationship. By Yakuza 5's end, it all comes together in a satisfying and emotional way, for reasons I will not spoil.
Yakuza 5 released back in December 2015 for PlayStation 3, exclusively. Today, Yakuza 5 is available on PlayStation 4 as a full remaster. The remaster includes a completely overhauled localization from the current Sega team (which started at Yakuza 0), new 60fps and 1080p capable gameplay and resolution, English karaoke lyrics, and more. You can buy it individually digitally on the PlayStation Store, or in a digital or physical bundle under the Yakuza Remastered Collection which includes Yakuza 3 and Yakuza 4 as well.
I don't remember what exactly it was that drew me to Yakuza 5. Maybe it was some niche corner of Twitter that was raving about it because it came to the U.S. about three years later than its original release. Maybe I saw it on PlayStation Store and thought, "hmm, sounds interesting!" I frankly can't recall what it was, but I'm so glad I did. Even at the tail end of the PlayStation 3's lifespan, the arguably mostly filler story of Yakuza 5 is what made me a huge fan of the series. Like how people fell in love with Goro Majima in Yakuza 0, I fell in love with Haruka's journey to be an idol at the expense of a relationship with her only living guardian. It's an arc I think any modern Yakuza fan will be excited to side-step into too.