These days, the Yakuza series is a lot more well known in the west than it was even five years ago. With next to no marketing, a questionable English dub featuring Luke Skywalker, and inconsistent releases across the previous decade, the series never really saw any success in this part of the world. In fact, it seems internally the prevailing opinion was that the series was simply ‘too Japanese’. This led to cut content in the third instalment that westerners simply ‘wouldn’t get’, and a disinclination from publisher SEGA to invest in pushing the series elsewhere. Thankfully, minds were changed, and every main line Yakuza game is now available on PS4. It has never been easier to get stuck into this legendary series…
What Even Is This?
The Yakuza series is, ostensibly, a sprawling crime drama brawler set in the heart of Tokyo’s seedy underbelly.
The Yakuza series is, in actuality, a Claw Machine simulator set in a handful of SEGA branded arcades.
Why Do I Care?
Because it’s RAD as HECK. While nominally a beat em up, the essence of Yakuza is not pummelling your way through hordes of dudes. Okay, it is a bit. But mostly it’s about stopping off at your favourite ramen place before indulging in a spot of karaoke. It’s going bowling, playing darts, or building a tiny RC car and competing for the title.
But it’s definitely a little bit about pummelling dude-hordes. Sometimes they’re yakuza, sometimes they’re triads, and quite often they’re Korean mafia. Sometimes they’re sexual deviants sporting nothing but nappies and pacifiers. That’s the other thing – this series is balls to the walls weird. The balls ARE the walls, and they’re closing in on you apace. Prepare a neck brace, folks, because tonal whiplash is your new best friend. Yakuza effortlessly, seamlessly segues from serious crime melodrama to outlandish, cartoonish ridiculousness on a whim. A beloved secondary character just died in your arms? Don’t worry, up next is a stealth mission involving purchasing adult magazines for a minor. If that’s not floating your boat, give it a minute, and you’ll be in a one on one fist fight with AN ACTUAL TIGER. Need a break from the tiger-punching or political intrigue? Swing by Club SEGA and play a rock-paper-scissors based card game featuring scantily clad women dressed as various insects. Collect them all!
It shouldn’t work. This kind of dissonance should, at the very least, undermine the very genuine drama and pathos. But it doesn’t. Again, what sounds like a weakness is actually a strength, and cultivates an atmosphere and tone unlike anything else out there. You can never know what’s coming next, and that never stops being exciting.
For the most part, you play as Kiryu Kazuma. A stoic, brick wall of a man – right up until the point that he isn’t. See, Kiryu is as dissonant and as everything else in these games. He’s a terrifying tower of pure muscle. He’s a gentle, spiritual father-figure. He’s a wacky, karaoke loving goofball. The man contains multitudes, man. The series spans decades of his life, tracking his journey from street thug, to underworld legend, and beyond.
Sounds Pretty Sweet. It Also Sounds Like You’re In Love With This Guy
Yes it is, and yes I am. But not as much as I’m in love with the setting. Every game in the series largely takes place in the fictional district of Kamurocho – a Tokyo red light district heavily inspired by the real-life Kabukicho. But that’s not just the same setting, that’s the same map. The same everything. Sure, things change over the 30-year period the series spans, but by and large Kamurocho is Kamurocho from game to game. While this might sound like a weakness, it’s actually the series’ biggest strength. While not particularly large and sprawling, it is detailed and dense. Three games in, and I knew those streets better than those of my real-life hometown. I don’t even open the map screen anymore. There’s something going down on Shinfuku Street? Not a problem. The bloke I’m tracking down was last seen outside Club Stardust? Easy.
This level of familiarity is quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a video game before, particularly the moment I stepped foot in Yakuza Kiwami’s 2005 Kamurocho, after becoming so familiar with the town circa 1988 (Yakuza 0). Sojourns to the series other locales are exciting diversions, but Kamurocho feels like home. I feel as though I live there, and that is key, because that is ultimately what Yakuza is about – life. When they’re not dramatically tearing their shirts off and curb stomping each other, the men of Yakuza are blazing their own paths between two worlds, both steeped in tradition and threatened with encroaching modernity. As they butt up against rules of civilian life and the rivalries of the underworld, they’re desperately searching for a place to belong and live the best life they can.
The games look great too. Like many modern games, the cutscenes have a cinematic flair, but its cinematography is evocative of a distinctly Japanese cinema rather than the intentionally invisible ‘style’ of contemporary Hollywood emulated by AAA titles like The Last of Us. Series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi is an avid cinephile, and his love of cinema shines through every aspect of the series, but particularly in the presentation of the cutscenes. The excellent writing (and tremendous localisation effort) would be enough, but it being ‘shot’ with such care, attention to detail and style is the icing on this wacky crime cake. Though I can’t speak definitively of specific influences, I would put money on both Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series and pretty much the entire ninkyo eiga sub-genre being very significant to the creation of the series. Kiryu is the yakuza with a heart of gold, and that’s some textbook ninkyo eiga stuff.
Okay Nerd, Where Do I Start?
Unquestionably with Yakuza 0. A prequel, set in 1988, it’s the perfect entry point into the life of Kiryu Kazuma. Plus, half of 0 is spent playing as Kiryu’s future rival – the fan-favourite Goro Majima. While the significance of this is lost on newcomers, it bears fruit in a different way by providing more depth to the legendary Mad Dog of Shimano, enhancing your enjoyment and investment in his character going forward. You will be seeing him again. While Yakuza 0 lacks the aforementioned cutscenes, opting for nonetheless stylishly presented stills (presumably for budgetary reasons), it more than makes up for it by being one of the best games in the series. In fact, it seems the unexpected success of 0 in the west prompted Sega to rethink its strategy. Since then, we’ve received the ‘Kiwami’ remakes of Yakuza and Yakuza 2, an HD remaster compilation of 3, 4 and 5, and Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, albeit two years later.
Listen, This Is A Lot Of Games And I-
WAIT! THERE’S MORE! In addition to the main Yakuza titles, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios have also blessed us with the Noir-ish detective spin-off Judgement, and Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise, both of which play almost identically to the core Yakuza titles, which is no bad thing. Judgement even takes place in our beloved Kamurocho. I don’t know anything about serialised anime outside of Paranoia Agent, Dragon Ball and Cowboy Bebop and I do not plan to change that, so your mileage may vary if you’re familiar with the source material, but the game is a solid entry in the RGG canon and you can hit people until their heads EXPLODE.
After 7 main line games and numerous spin-off titles (don’t worry Ishin fans, I’m getting there) Kiryu Kazuma’s 30-year saga has drawn to a close with Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. But Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon is on the horizon, bringing with it not just a new protagonist and a new location, but a radical shift in gameplay. Unlike every game prior, Yakuza 7 is a turn based JRPG. Yeah, you heard. A party of four, character classes, and even summons of a fashion. No, really. Like Final Fantasy. Or, more appropriately, like Dragon Quest. See, new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga is a big fan of the series, and models his post-yakuza life on the heroes of the legendary Square-Enix series. Really.
Uh-huh. This Article Gives Me More Information About Yakuza Than I Care To Have…
Okay, real talk? I’m not extolling the virtues of these games out of the goodness of my heart. I have a stake in this. See, if more of you throw your money at the series, the odds of me getting a western release of the Japan only Kenzan! and Ishin! games (told you) rise, if only a little. These two historical spin-offs are-
Oh, For The Love Of-
-set in the Edo and Bakumatsu periods respectively, andsee Kiryu Kazuma ‘cast’ as two legendary Japanese swordsmen. While they’re still Yakuza games at their core, they…uh…okay look, they’re Yakuza games. Pretty much all of these games play the same. But you’re a samurai! I don’t think I should have to work that hard to sell this concept, honestly. It’s Yakuza, but with swords! This is the closest I’ll get to re-enacting my Yojimbo fantasies. We all have those, right? Of course we do. Vote with your wallets, people! Tell your friends! Politely contact SEGA in your masses and demand it! Do it for me!
Additionally, there are a few PSP games, a free-to-play collectible card game, and a non-canon spin-off about a zombie outbreak where-
Fair. That’s fair.
Yakuza 0 is available on PS4, Xbox One and PC.
Yakuza Kiwami 1 and 2 are available on PS4 and PC, with an Xbox One scheduled for 2020.
Yakuza 3, 4 & 5 are available on PS4 as a collection, or individually (digital only) via the PlayStation store.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is available on PS4.
Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon is scheduled for a worldwide release some time in 2020.