This massive "Yakuza" world is quirky, engrossing — and oh so beautifully complicated

If you thought previous "Yakuza" games were massive, you haven't seen anything yet. "Yakuza 5" is one of the most realized, detailed and expansive worlds in the "Yakuza" franchise (with the possible exception of "Yakuza 0," but it could be argued that entry doesn't count here because it came out later, but I digress). With five playable characters spread across five locations throughout Japan — are you seeing a numerical theme here? — "Yakuza 5" goes bigger, harder and wackier than its predecessors, which is saying something for a series that revels in being larger than life.

Continuing in my quest to catch up in the Sega franchise so I actually know what's going on in the April release of "Yakuza 6: The Song of Life," I returned to the PlayStation Now streaming service to partake in more than 50 hours of taxi street racing, pop idol princess training, baseball training and bear hunting before even touching the main plot, which involves its own complicated narrative of loyalty, family and sacrifice. In effect, its themes rival those of any drama you'll see on television, and it has the melodramatic score to go with it.

Much like "Yakuza 4," this entry expands the numbers of stories you'll play through by increasing the amount of characters you'll play as. Series protagonist Kiryu Kazama has a major role to play here, much as he does in every main "Yakuza" game, but his story isn't the only one that matters here. "Yakuza 5's" plot structure is complicated, make no mistake — five characters spread across a workweek-long game that drips Japanese culture from its every pore — but it manages to string together its plot threads in a way that both celebrates its crime-drama roots without leaving you behind. (OK, there are a few head-scratching moments, but it's a "Yakuza" game and you should expect as much.)

This time around it's 2012, and Kazama takes center stage first. He's gone incognito in Fukuoka, taking on a new name and driving a taxi to make ends meet. Why he's exiled from the red-light district and general central hub of Kamurocho or the orphanage he runs, Sunshine, is unclear at first, but what isn't murky is that the yakuza world is in turmoil yet again. And, of course, Kazama will be drawn back into a life he's spent years trying to outrun whether he likes it or not.

But if you don't want to deal with that depressing fact, you'll have plenty to entertain yourself with in this first arc: mostly, taxi driving around the city. From picking up fares from royalty to racing against a local gang — yes, in your taxi, which you can level up to perform even better Heat moves on the highway — you can find something quirky and exciting to spend your time on.

Once you have your fill of Fukuoka, though, you're going to have to get back to the plot, as daunting a task as that may seem. Many, many battles and hours of dialogue-laden cut scenes later, you'll begin to progress to new areas led by different playable characters. Taiga Saejima and Shun Akiyama, protagonists from "Yakuza 4," return in their own sections (Saejima in Sapporo, Akiyama in Sotenbori). You also get to play as Haruka Sawamura, the 16-year-old ward of Kazama, and a new character, ex-baseball player Tatsuo Shinada.

Each character adds to the plot, but most also come with a major substory/mini-game you can delve into to learn more about the area you're in and the character you're playing, much like Kazama's taxi-driving adventures. Saejima can literally fight wildlife on a snowy, desolate mountain, while Shinada can return to the world of baseball.

However, it's young Haruka's side quest — to become a pop idol princess, of course — that shines the brightest. There's no fighting with fists or feet here; when you're challenged, you take to the dance floor and show off your best moves. (She also hosts meet-and-greet and does TV shows to promote herself.) It's reminiscent of the game's popular karaoke mini-game (lots of timed button presses), but more involved. I mean, you are trying to win the hearts of J-pop lovers everywhere, so you best bring your A-game (which longtime Haruka voice actress Rie Kugimiya certainly does). She even has rival battles and industry conflict weighing down on her as she strives to be No. 1.

On a more serious note, it's nice to see a main character actually age and mature in this series. We first met her as a small girl, gun in hand, in the first "Yakuza," and years later she's trying to make it on her own in the cutthroat world of entertainment — and yet she's still the selfless young girl Kazama took in back in 2005.

One of the highlights of finally discovering the "Yakuza" series has been exploring the fictional yet beautifully realized cities in which the games take place. "Yakuza 5" ups its graphical game with a new engine, and it looks great even by today's standards. Returning to Kamurocho to check out all the new restaurants, Club Segas, entertainment spots and more is always a fun time, and "Yakuza 5" has even more locations with new locals to explore. You'll never have a dull moment just checking out the cityscape.

Technically, the game runs a bit smoother than "Yakuza 4," but it still has plenty of load times and some frame-rate hiccups, particularly when you're fighting. Which, by the way, is mostly the same in "Yakuza 5" as it was in its predecessor. Each character except for Haruka will fight plenty of enemies in intense, crunchy beatdowns in ways familiar and maybe a bit stale to longtime "Yakuza" fans. (There are only so many ways you smash a guy's face into a light post or throw him off a bridge.)

(And just FYI: Sega recently announced it was porting remastered versions of "Yakuza 3," "Yakuza 4" and "Yakuza 5" to the PS4 starting in August with "Yakuza 3." The games, which will run at 1080p and 60 frames per second, have been confirmed only for Japan so far, but a Western release shouldn't be far behind.)

In the end, "Yakuza 5" takes a lesson from its immediate predecessor — that bigger is better — and runs wild with it. It adds more characters, new locations, new substories/mini-games and a plot that stretches back decades, and Sega somehow makes all that work. Whether you're a fan of crime dramas with more than a splash of noir, world exploration or just enjoyable beat-'em-ups, you'll find something to enjoy here. And just remember: If the UFO Catcher won't give you the prize you want, there's always karaoke to make you feel better.

You can contact Dominic, especially with game suggestions, at dominicbaez@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @Silver_Screenin. You can check out his blog at silverscreeningreview.com.