Yakuza 5, a game that just received a perfect score from Famitsu magazine, is big. Really big. You might think the previous titles in the mobster-underworld sandbox series were pretty large, but Sega's really serious this time around. There's a completely new game engine, a much longer development cycle, and you can even go to the arcade and play the full Virtua Fighter 2 inside the game.
"To be honest, until about half a year ago, I was very anxious that we'd have no way of getting this out with the volume we had planned and the sort of quality we wanted," producer Masayoshi Yokoyama told Famitsu. "It seemed like some crazy, unreal thing to do."
The four previous Yakuza mainline games were conceived and produced by Toshihiro Nagoshi, a guy who first made a name for himself in Sega with the original Super Monkey Ball. He's taken on a more supervising role in Yakuza 5, though, handing over the producing and scriptwriting reins to longtime studio member Yokoyama.
"It's not been pressure," the new producer commented, "so much as this realization that 'Wow, a producer has to keep his eye on so many different things!' I've had to do things like run the official site and release info to media and so on in the past, and I'd be worried about what gamers thought about us, but never so deeply as I felt obliged to here. With this game, we have a huge story, of course. We have the side dramas; the five different cities; all the tie-ins with local city stuff; there's just so much data and so much we wanted to do. I'm hoping that all comes through to the end user, but the process has certainly given me some more gray hairs!"
Like Grand Theft Auto (which Yakuza, fairly or non, gets compared with the most), Yokoyama's game combines an overall main story with loads upon loads of side stories and other diversions. Unlike past Yakuzas, though, the team struggled to make the experience nonetheless more streamlined than before. "I think the game's evolved into this thing that really feels great," Yokoyama said. "When I did my final playthrough of the game, I clocked in at around 72 hours, but because of that feel, it didn't seem at all long to me. We aimed to cut down load times no matter what in this title, which ups the tempo throughout the whole thing. In the same time period as before, you just play a ton more game. After that, it was all in how we tweaked the connecting portals, the doors and so on. It was almost like stringing plot aspects together in a novel; it was something we were very conscious of."
With all of the goofy ways to get sidetracked in the Yakuza games (the previous title had everything from pachinko and karaoke to an entire sequence where you try to make a girl into the number-one earner at a cabaret club), one wonders about the sort of people behind all this mayhem. "With karaoke, for example, that's in there because we have people who just really like it," Yokoyama replied. "The main guy behind that is someone who had this list of 4000 songs he carried around and treated that as his repertoire; he was really nuts about it. You could almost say he got a job so he could find more friends to go on karaoke with. On the other hand, though, the guy who wrote the cabaret sections of the game usually doesn't go to those kinds of places at all -- and yet, somehow he managed to get a cabaret girl as his girlfriend once; I don't know."
Yakuza 5 is out next week, and while it has no US release date yet, a 2013 release seems likely. What's Yokoyama hoping the response will be? "What I'm hoping is that sitting down for this interview gets at least one more game sold," he joked. "But putting aside things like sales for a moment, I really just want people to believe the sheer polish that is behind this game. I absolutely believe you will get your money's worth in entertainment; I believe you'll think it was a good trade-off. If you're looking for something to play around the end of the year, give this a try. There's no doubt this is the biggest Yakuza yet, so I think you'll be playing this title far beyond New Year's Day."