Previously, I discussed how more games should be localized for a western audience. In this column, I look at the other side of the argument.
Have you ever seen a trailer for some awesome looking Japanese game and thought to yourself ‘wow, that looks awesome, but it will never be released here’? I think we’ve all been there at some point. It’s a shame some of these games don’t get localized because some of them are awesome.
But sometimes the games aren’t that great and it’s fine to console yourself knowing you aren’t missing out on a lot: I think Yakuza 5 is one of those games.
Known as Ryuu ga Gotoku in Japan, the Yakuza series is a story-driven, open-world action-adventure game series that started on the Playstation 2. The story centers around Kazama Kiryuu; an ex-Yakuza who has been trying to clean his hands of the criminal underworld ever since the first game But fate—and sometimes the CIA—always seems to intervene, threatening to drag him in one more time.
Each successive RGG game marks the start of a new story but, like the second or third season of a televised serial-drama, old feuds and character loyalties endure across games; informing and coloring character motivations. At times, RGGfeels like an interactive Japanese drama show where you get to fight tigers. What more could you ask for?
If it sounds like an awesome concept, that’s because it is. So maybe it isn’t surprising when fans cling hopefully to even the slightest chance of the next major RGG game being localized. Though—I suspect—many feel that trying to get RGG5 localized is a lost cause.
I’m here to tell distraught fans what they might not want to, but probably need to hear; Ryuu ga Gotoku 5: Yume Kanaeshi Mono isn’t all that great. So don’t feel too upset if it never gets localized.
Before you work yourself up into a frenzy, if you would kindly put your pitchfork in the designated area then I’ll happily explain why:
[WARNING! SPOILERS TO FOLLOW!]
#1 The story is just plain bad
With 5 protagonists, 5 cities and being around 50 hours in length, Yakuza 5 is easily the largest entry in the entire series. The increase in scale means a larger, more intricate plot is needed to tie everything together.
And this is where the story begins to fall apart. Of the 5 characters, 2 of them have almost no contribution to make to the main story. And one of them feels forced in because he’s cemented himself as a fan favorite.
The Japanese subtitle for this game is ‘Yume Kanaeshi Mono’ which means something like ‘Those who grant/are granted their dreams’. I am guessing the central thread of the story that was supposed to tie all the disparate stories together was the underlying theme of hope and ambition.
Unfortunately, it’s shoddily executed. The characters talk at length about what dreams mean and other periphery topics but it’s superficial. The thematic glue here doesn’t quite get the different stories to stick together; Yakuza 5 meanders on awkwardly with no central plot focus.
All the white noise and down time in the plot is filled in with one conspiracy after another, and it gets a little ridiculous to find out that you were playing into the villain’s hands yet again. The inanity of the story is succinctly summed up by one scene late into the game where many of the key players gather atop the series’ most recognizable landmark; Millennium Tower.
To paraphrase one moment:
Katsuya: “The reason I gathered you all here is so we can all beat each other to death. This is exactly what the architect of this conspiracy wants. If we play along with this plan he will show up, exposing his identity. The survivor is tasked with killing him.”
Me (in real life): Wait, his plan is for you all to kill each other and you are just gonna go along with this? I mean not even pretend to fight each other but actually kill each other? For real? Even though you have no reason to fight each other? How do you even know this guy is going to show up?
Saejima: Seems legit. Let’s get started!
Me (in real life): Wait, does no one else see how asinine this all is? No one? Really?
Kiryuu:…you guys are all fools.
Me (in real life): Thank God at least one of these guys see how sill-
Kiryuu: You’re all forgetting just how starved I’ve been for a fight!
Kiryuu tears off his shirt for battle
Me (in real life):…
The Yakuza games have video summaries of each of the previous entries into the series on disc. You’d be better of watching that if and when Yakuza 6 comes out, rather than wading through the poorly written, poorly executed mediocre plot in Yakuza 5.
#2 The series is on the verge of being rebooted
The final moments of Yakuza 5 speak volumes about where the story and general direction of the franchise is going: backwards.
The first Yakuza game is the only one where Kiryuu was actually a Yakuza. We got to do Yakuza-like things like messing people up with golf clubs for being late with their loan repayments and attending mobster funerals at the Tojo Clan Headquarters.
But since then the series has moved further and further away from being a gritty story about the Japanese underworld. It’s steadily become more colorful; the involvement of the CIA in Yakuza 3, and Kiryuu’s adopted daughter Haruka becoming a pop-idol, come to mind. Even the ante on the machismo-fuelled hyper violence has been upped time and time again.
So it is interesting that the stage for the last fight in Yakuza 5 is the empty, snow covered Tojo Clan Headquarters building; you visit it for the first time in the game only at the very end of the story. After all the overwrought plot twists that preceded the fight, there is something humbling about finishing the game in a location that is so symbolic of the series roots.
It is also interesting that at the end of Yakuza 5, Kiryuu comes face to face with a villain that has a simple, easy to understand motive; he’s just a greedy guy with an inferiority complex.
The fight itself is a far cry from the crazy QTE-driven action the series has come to be about; it’s just two dudes punching each other up the old-fashioned way.
Just moments before the games’ close the pop-idol side-plot with Haruka comes to an indefinite close; she leaves show business to return to just being Haruka.
It’s like the writers realized they needed to wipe the slate clean for the next game because all the plot threads and character relationships had become too much.
You don’t need to feel bad about passing Yakuza 5 up because if my interpretation is correct, the most important contribution it makes to the series canon is resetting it.
#3 The game is a technical dinosaur
You can’t help but play the game (after its mammoth 8GB install) and feel that it’s a technical dinosaur. The NPCs crash the frame rate, indoor and outdoor areas are still separated by load times, and the transition between fights and exploration is awkward.
Fight transitions typically go down like this: You walk into an enemy during exploration mode, the game will freeze for a second, a skit will play where the NPC approaches you looking angry, the game will freeze again whilst the fight loads, the NPC will take that opportunity to awkwardly switch to their default expression (normally a really awkward smile), you wait for the HDD and disc to finish chugging the necessary data out and then, finally, when the game is ready to progress, the NPC (having finished their aggro-break) returns to their fighting expression and the fight starts.
The huge number of NPCs (when they aren’t materializing in front of you) drag the framerate down, and to make matters worse they make navigation slow and awkward; it is hard to feel immersed in the world when you have to resort to knocking NPCs over like dominos to be able to move along the narrow pathways.
Navigation is made worse still by the huge number of arbitrarily placed invisible walls which limit where you can cross streets.
#4 It’s old-fashioned
It’s not just from the technical perspective that the seams of the game are really apparent. Different game mechanics (chasing someone down, fighting, driving) feel like they all exist in their own self-contained boxes and each part feels like it was made separately from everything else.
There are times during the story where events unfold unnaturally so that they inevitably culminate in either a fight or a chase sequence because…well, that’s all the developers have as far as gameplay goes.
Whereas many games these days allow for smooth switching between running, gunning, fisty-cuffs, driving and so on, Yakuza has a different rule set for each style and feels awkwardly outdated for it.
The game feels like it was assembled piece-meal with little regard for how all the pieces would fit together in the end.
If I had to describe Yakuza 5 to someone it would be tell them that it plays the way people who don’t play videogames think videogames play: it’s awkwardly gamey with different ‘game’ elements (XP, button prompts, UI elements) that have all been put together haphazardly.
#5 Awkward, obtuse design
At times it feels like the side-content and main-content in Yakuza 5 are at war with each other. For example you get a desperate call for help, the music changes to something high tempo, your heart rate rises and you rush to aid the caller…only to have your route cut off by an obnoxious unavoidable new mechanic tutorial. The tutorial in question also happens to be comical, and totally at odds with the serious situation it just interrupted; making it not only pace-killing, but mood-killing as well.
But it gets worse. NPCs often spend ages unnaturally explaining the mechanics of an upcoming section to you. Upon entering the gameplay segment the game spits out the same advice again but in the form of a formal text tutorial.
In one section I was tasked with delivering ramen on behalf of an old-man that had slipped on some ice; this was an unsolicited mini-game that I could not avoid. After receiving an unhelpful double-layered explanation I proceeded to fail at the mini-game (which was over far, far more quickly than the tutorials/explanations) and the side-quest ended with no option to retry. The whole thing came of as clumsy and over-engineered but very representative of how Yakuza 5 is designed.
The level of explanation is so great (and cumbersomely presented) that the developers even included the option to toggle the level of text-hints. And even at the lowest level you are bombarded with them.
This really begins to bog the experience down when you get to take control of Haruka mid-game as all her mechanics and gameplay systems are new which necessitates tutorial after tutorial after tutorial.
Yakuza 5 has a bad story that is likely to become the canonical elephant in the room from now on. The design of the series has started to feel old-fashioned. And on top of that way it is put together simply isn’t very good; failing to build good pacing or set convincing mood. And let’s not forget all the technical issues which Yakuza 5 has introduced to the series.
Yakuza 5 may never be localized. But I can honestly say that it really isn’t that much of a loss.
Verdict: Don’t localize it!