Need a really long read about one of Sega's largest franchises in video gaming history? Look no further.
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When I first saw the Yakuza game series, it was back in around 2013. I was introduced to the title Yakuza 4, in which a really angry Japanese man, alongside some friends and companions he meets along the way, fight their way through a crime drama the likes I've never seen in my life. Drugs, gangs, criminal underworld, and piles of hard cash.
And yet, I wasn't all that into it. And I'll admit, I slept through some parts when my friend was playing it for me. There was a literal man with a chainsaw flailing about on the screen, and somehow I was too tired and slept through the entire boss fight.
Eventually we somehow overcame my napping behavior and beat the game, but it felt like fourty hours flew by somehow. That's right, fourty hours. That's about the average length of a Yakuza game. I don't know if I should be complaining, because I think that's a fantastic amount of content one can squeeze from a singular video game title. Most games don't even last six hours.
After we played Yakuza 4, we sort of forgot about it for a couple of years. It wasn't until much later in life, around 2018, that we saw an entry on Steam for a game called Yakuza 0, which bills itself as the prequel to the entire series. It's been a couple years, so why not? It also features our favorite character in the game Goro Majima as a playable character.
What I didn't expect was for how incredible Yakuza 0 was, and almost from the get-go, I was instantly hooked. The world-building and real world historical event tie-ins got me so hooked it was incredible. It was completely unlike Yakuza 4, but I had gotten so much joy from it, it was really not like anything I've ever played before.
Ever since then, I've been a dedicated Yakuza fan. Long before the games hit Steam, I had to borrow a PlayStation 4 to play much more inferior versions of Yakuzas 3, 4, 5, 6, and even their spin-off game Judgment.
In 2020, during the pandemic, Yakuza: Like A Dragon released, and it was a breath of fresh air into the series that it was so universally praised for how much fun it was. The game shifted away from a real-time beat-em-up fighter game to that of a turn-based RPG like the classic Japanese game series Dragon Quest it references a lot in Like A Dragon. Our main character is a down-on-his-luck protagonist who wants to save the world, which is a stark contrast from our previous main character Kiryu Kazuma.
This leap into the next generation of Yakuza is what set the tone, and Sega started working on the next iteration, but not before the original director left the company. And now, we are merely days away from the release of the next Kiryu Kazuma game, Like A Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name.
When I talk about Yakuza with friends, they don't really get it. It's a strange series. It's a beat-em-up game where you are punching common street riffraff left and right like there's no tomorrow, earning experience and yen to learn new techniques and buy way too many health drinks from pharmacies. There's no clear-cut answer about which game a newcomer should pick up and try out; the game series has been running since 2005 across several generations of hardware.
Fortunately, now is the best time to get into Yakuza, as we have two games coming up in the next three months.
In honor of one of my favorite game series of all time, I offer you an in-depth look at all games, and my recommendations for which ones you should absolutely check out, and conversely, which ones you probably don't need to.
I don't think there's a stronger place to wet your feet in the world of Yakuza other than it's prequel game, Yakuza 0. In this game, we take a deep-dive at our two characters Kiryu and Goro, long before the events of the Yakuza games ever kick off, and how they become deeply integrated with their main Yakuza family, the Tojo Clan.
Now, I certainly don't have nostalgia goggles for this game, but I would say this was the second-best version of the Yakuza game engine they have presented us with. Leading up to this game, we saw at least ten different Yakuza games across it's life. It functioned well, does it's job, looks absolutely gorgeous in almost any camera position. While background character assets aren't pretty, you sort of get used to the low visual quality of NPCs.
Since this is my first mention for what you should play, I will say the list of activites in Yakuza is quite large. This is just a basic list of what you can do in Yakuza, and it grows and shrinks with each iteration of the game.
These are all side activities you can do inside Yakuza, and there's still so much more to the game's main story like doing various side-quests for people in trouble.
Because this game has you playing as both Kiryu and Goro, you get to learn both their origin stories and get nearly twice as much content because of it. This game is likely to last you 40 hours because of how lost you will get in Japan, and it's great.
Overall, I would absolutely recommend Yakuza 0 as a starting piece into the Yakuza world.
My next strong recommendation for Yakuza is the game that follows it immediately, Yakuza Kiwami. This is a rebrand of the original Yakuza 1 game, which released on a PlayStation 2 nearly 18 years ago. Sega and the studio behind Yakuza, Ryu Ga Gotoku, decided to remake the game for modern platforms like Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC by using the game engine for Yakuza 0. And you know what? It worked out great for them.
Yakuza Kiwami is the story of Kiryu after the events of Yakuza 0, and giving us crucial context for the biggest part of Kiryu's life in the Yakuza. The story pieces here define Kiryu for the rest of the game series, and I really don't think you can get Yakuza without at least playing this game.
Since it's derived from Yakuza 0, many things are pretty much exactly as you would remember them; all the classic minigames are there, except for running a real estate empire or managing hostess clubs. The game is a little shorter, but it makes up for that with charm. You will have Goro being a bother to you all game to keep you too occupied to think about much else. Very highly recommended.
Now, I will stop you here and say this: I think this is my absolute favorite iteration of Yakuza. I have a lot of praise for Yakuza 0, but I think Yakuza Kiwami 2 is a stronger game, and the combat here proved to be way more entertaining for me.
Much like how Yakuza Kiwami was built off the game engine of Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami 2 is based off the same engine used for later-in-the-story title Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. It is here that the original Yakuza 2, which was also on some old hardware, was re-built from the ground up in a completely overhauled engine.
The visuals are ramped up, while still retaining that classic Yakuza feel. The combat is different from that of previous entries, but uses a more physically-based combat system to make your interactions with the world around you feel more "real". You can now toss enemies around and watch them collide with one another or into surroundings, which never gets boring for me.
This game bears some significance in the story later in life, as it gives us a deeper look at a very important character named Daigo Dojima, who becomes the foundation for the Tojo Clan throughout the rest of the games. It also demonstrates the seemingly eternal struggle between the Tojo Clan and it's rival the Omi Alliance. For story elements alone, I would say this game is 100% worth checking out, and definitely not because of how Kiryu man-handles enemies like toys.
Yakuza 3 is not my favorite. After the events of Yakuza Kiwami 2, Kiryu finds himself in Okinawa, a very tropical part of Japan, running an orphanage full of kids who can't seem to catch a break. With Haruka, his adopted daughter, it's up to them to keep the orphanage going and prevent it from being demolished by ambitious real estate developers.
Yakuza 3 was first on the PlayStation 3, then remastered for modern platforms, but not in the same sense that Yakuza Kiwami or Kiwami 2 were remade. It was a simple visual port, and the visuals are bad.
So while the visuals don't really do the game justice, the game itself isn't really anything spectacular, either. Compared to the remade Kiwami games or Yakuza 0, it's a little too basic. The story isn't anything to write home about; just more government conspiracy and a guy who for some reason looks exactly like Kiryu's adopted father shows up gunning people down left and right.
If anything, this is a game about Kiryu trying to find a lifestyle that resonates with him. You meet new people in this, like Rikiya, who you might hate at first, but honestly I think he's a fantastic hot-headed character that matches Kiryu so well. Kiryu wants to find peace, but somehow keeps getting roped into things he wants nothing to do with, but his sense of justice keeps getting the better of him.
I would really only recommend Yakuza 3 if you are someone who wants to get a complete view of the Yakuza timeline. I think this game is okay in it's best moments, and downright boring in it's worst.
Yakuza 4, the game that put me to sleep once, I would say I'm about 60/40 on. This is the first mainline game to introduce not one, not two, but four playable characters each with their own movesets and story.
In Yakuza 4, there is something in the air, and it's related to the Tojo Clan. In this game we find betrayal, corruption, and standing up for what is right. We play as our lovely Kiryu, and are introduced to new characters Taiga Saejima and Akiyama, and a cop who is looking into cop corruption at the highest level. Pretty standard stuff, I'd say.
Much like Yakuza 3, this was also a PlayStation 3 title, and the graphics have not aged the best all things considered. It was not remastered like the Kiwami games, and plays very closely to that of Yakuza 3, if not a bit better because of the new character lineup.
Frankly, this game has some bad-ass moments, but those really only came towards the end of the game, and not so much during the middle. I think this one holds a special place since it was my true first foray into the series, but having played it recently, I think I prefer the other titles still.
On the long journey I had playing all the Yakuza titles back-to-back, this one was also a painful one for me, as it wasn't really enjoyable in most parts. Yakuza 5 probably could have been better, but it felt too stale and too slow, and the intensity never really kicks in.
This title has us playing as our classic favorites: Kiryu, Taiga, Akiyama, a new character who is a baseball-loving tabloid journalist, and you even get to play as Haruka for the first time ever. The plot smells like a Yakuza game, except for this title, we see a real first - Goro Majima goes missing, and nobody knows where he is. Is he the one who can help us figure out who is behind the secret take-over of the Tojo Clan?
This game is absolutely stuffed with new minigame content, much like the pictured taxi driving game that we get with Kiryu, who has now settled down in a more remote part of Japan with a new girlfriend and career as a taxi driver. Haruka, who no longer lives with Kiryu, is on the path to stardom to become Japan's number one pop idol sensation. Her "combat" is her doing performative street dance battles against other dancers, and Akiyama is the one sort of helping her out.
Taiga starts out in jail, and for some reason leads us into a bear-hunting minigame. Honestly this one baffled me so much, and I couldn't tolerate playing it, because it felt like such a weird minigame to stuff in.
The dated visuals since this was a PlayStation 3 title make it hard to enjoy, but that might be because I was playing this right after playing Yakuza 3 and Yakuza 4 in a marathon. The story wasn't anything spectacular, but I do love games that feature Taiga Saejima and Akiyama, so I can't mark it down too much. Again, only consider if you want to get the full scope, the story here isn't anything you'll be missing out on.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, a game that details Kiryu's journey to re-connect with a lost Haruka. Haruka's pop idol career ends, and nobody knows where she is. But a new twist - she has a child! Kiryu must take Haruka's child Haruto and try to find where she went in the region of Hiroshima.
This game is the first Dragon engine game, so the combat mirrors that of Yakuza Kiwami 2. If you're playing in chronological order, and really liked Kiwami 2 like me, then you'll feel right at home with this game.
Yakuza 6 sports the same rag-tag running about Japan and trying every minigame, except this time we now have baby Haruto to take care of. I don't think it's the worst, but it's certainly a different approach to a Yakuza title. I think it stresses the importance of seeing Kiryu with a baby, which is something we've never seen before in a game, and probably foreshadows Kiryu and what his future has in store for him.
We'll see the same appearance of all of our favorite characters; Goro, Akiyama, Taiga all make their way into the story at some point, but we'll meet some new friends along the way too, all to discover one of Japan's biggest secrets and change Kiryu's life forever.
Side-note; if you have ambitions of playing the Yakuza series past this point, I would say you should check out this game. I think the story aspects here are almost too important to skimp out on. Even if you never played a Yakuza game until this point, I think Yakuza 6 is the big refresher you need to really fill you in.
The break-out title of 2020, Yakuza: Like A Dragon is a radical shift for the Yakuza series, which is looking to make it's name under the brand "Like A Dragon" instead. Instead of mashing the buttons on our controllers, we're making tactical decisions about how to strike someone in the face with a mystical baseball bat.
It's hard to put in words what Like A Dragon does, because it's just so much all at once. Our new character, Ichiban Kasuga, the guy who wants to save the world, must face off with his past and save Japan, with some help from his friends he meets along the way.
Like A Dragon's turn-based class-based RPG mechanics will make you feel like you're playing not a Yakuza game, until the humor hits hard. Jokes and gags keep the combat alive and will get a laugh or two out of you every so often. It's sillier, it's light-hearted, it's no more fighting street thugs 24/7, you fight the logical equivalent of Pokemon. Just when you think the game runs out of comedy bullets, it gives you more.
This is an easy recommend, as I think it's a game that's much more approachable for casual players not looking to learn an entire fighting game's worth of combos to enjoy the game. There's so many fun and unique things in this game that it is truly worth playing.
I said spin-off title earlier, so I'll shove it in here. Judgment is a new series from Ryu Ga Gotoku, incorporating the Dragon engine and telling us the story of Yagami, a private detective working in Tokyo. It's a bit of a different story, and doesn't involve the Tojo Clan as much, but the combat is delightfully different than what we're used to.
Yagami is a detective, so much of the sidequest work we do is all private detective related. Figuring out mysteries, tracking people, taking pictures and of course fighting the bad guys. It's a good spin on the Yakuza formula with a different character who has a very unique fighting style of two different styles of Chinese Kung Fu, switching between the fast and gorgeous Crane style, to the more raw power of his Tiger style.
The combat never really gets too boring, and personally, as someone who likes Kiwami 2's combat system, I found this pretty easy to slide into. There's additional minigames, including Drone racing, where you pilot a drone around Japan in races, which was more fun than expected. I had a good time with Judgment, and I want to revisit this later in the Steam version for that delicious 60 frames per second glory (which I did not have, when playing the PS4 version).
Now, if you made it this far, then I can only hope you leave with an interest in Yakuza. Assuming you read past the first paragraph or two, I'm assuming you had some, and I can only hope this post extended it. If so, thanks for reading!
That is not the end of the story, and there is more to talk about. These games are either:
With Like A Dragon Gaiden around the corner, I will touch up on some of the last few bits I left out of the bigger Yakuza picture here. So please hang in there and let's finish up the rest of the journey.
Lost Judgment is the direct sequel to Judgment, so if you enjoyed that, I'm certain Lost Judgment will be even more of what you liked. However, I haven't played this! Lost Judgment was released onto Steam only last year, and I just have not gotten around to it yet!
Lost Judgment's description reads as Yagami takes on a case involving suicide and high school bullying as it's overarching theme, which is quite a different take for a Yakuza game. It might be a theme that Yakuza has not explored, so it will be interesting to see where the story goes.
The minigames I am seeing look totally ridiculous, so I do want to check this out once I have free time available for it.
Like A Dragon: Ishin! came out earlier this year, and I'm not sure what the general reception of it is. To game reviewers, it sounds fine, but to some personal friends of mine, they were less loving of it.
Ishin! is a remake of an older PS3 Japan-exclusive title detailing the story from the Japanese revolution period in which Kiryu portrays the historical figure Sakamoto Ryoma. Samurais with guns, what could be bad about this?
The main thing to note is the use of classic Yakuza characters to portray other historical figures, so you will see the likes of Goro, Taiga, Daigo, Ryuji and so many more. Plus you'll also get all the other frills of Yakuza like minigames and side quests, except set in 1860s Japan.
I didn't get a chance to check this out personally, and I do want to experience this game for myself as a fan of all Yakuza games. I also really like Japanese history! But I'm not sure if that's a side-effect of me playing all these Japanese games...
Like A Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name is the longest title for a Yakuza game I think, so I'll call it Yakuza 6.5 to keep it simple. Why am I calling it Yakuza 6.5, exactly?
Based on the events of Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, Kiryu is forced to go into hiding under a new identity, erasing Kiryu and embracing Joryu (yes, such a different name). This game takes place right after Yakuza 6, but seemingly before the events of Yakuza: Like A Dragon, henceforth I dub thee Yakuza 6.5, since it sits somwhere inbetween.
When this was announced, alongside Like A Dragon: Infinite Wealth, I didn't quite get what was going on. Ryu Ga Gotoku announces two games? With seemingly different lead characters? But then Infinite Wealth also has Kiryu as a playable character? What the heck is going on?!
The period between Yakuza 6.5 and Infinite Wealth is really only about 3 months, which is wild to think that Yakuza releases usually take a few years, but I think this is great news for all Yakuza fans that we just get more of what we really want - Kiryu.
The story is set that Joryu is set to protect a girl from a group of unknown bad guys, and Joryu just does what Joryu does best - beat people up. He's got new toys, and looks more and more like a character out of a Marvel movie with this new toy he has that can web-sling things far away to slam into piles of enemies, or even tie people up.
Very excited, and I'm sure I'll be having a blast in a week or so.
It only took me a few days to conquer, but this game is a mixed bag and does so many things in pulls in so many directions.
Ultimately, this was one of the wackiest stories yet for Kiryu, and while I don't think it's ultimately a requirement for understanding the real story, it was decent enough to warrant playing. The gameplay is that of the Yakuza Kiwami 2/Yakuza 6: The Song of Life engine, so if you enjoyed those, you will like the gameplay here. It also strongly resembles that of Judgment.
It's hard to tell how much more time I will spend with thegame, as some aspects of it are pretty shallow. Story-length wise, there are only five chapters total, which isn't very much when compared to Yakuza's typical 10-15 chapter-long games.
Gameplay-wise, it also feels a little pale. You're given two styles of fighting, and battles fall between a "pick one or the other" fighting mindset. You pick one to deal with waves of enemies, and another to deal with harder-to-beat foes. There's not much strategy per fight either; just duck and weave and don't get hit.
I missed some of the movesets that appeared in 2/6, and while I think I'm having a good time with it still, it's a bit too shallow. There are minigames like golfing, darts, the coliseum for pure combat, but nothing really sticks out much to me. There are side-quests aplenty that will keep you very busy, however, since it uses a sidequest system like that of Yakuza: Like A Dragon.
I like it, but I don't think it will hold a candle compared to...
Like A Dragon: Infinite Wealth is the game many people are looking at to start 2024 off strong. Especially now with the preview of Dondoko Island, a new cozy island simulation game wedged inside a Yakuza game. Now you don't have to worry about crime or drama when you can go build a town on a remote island and make friends.
I am frankly not sure where the story is going to go with this game, so I'm excited to see what happens. Like A Dragon closed out on such a high note, I am uncertain what fate has in store for Ichiban and his friends.
The location seems to be Hawaii (after Ichiban wakes up naked on the beach), and I'm sure we'll head back to Japan at some point, but all the minigames on top of minigames this game has, it's so over the top that I cannot wait any longer for it to come out. For me, the turn-based combat might be taking a back seat to the sheer number of minigames I've seen.
This looks to feature both Ichiban and Kiryu together, so let's see what adventure awaits us when this comes out in January 2024.
This is the first time I'm writing something related to video games like this, so I hope you enjoyed reading. If this is something you found value in and want something else like this, let me know and I'll consider doing it again.
I am largely a big Yakuza fan and can't wait for the next two games to come out (and to revisit the other two I didn't touch). I wanted to cover a newcomer's guide to Yakuza to help people decide what to play and what they can skip over if they want to get caught up. Yakuza is a lot of fun, and has a little something for everyone.
If you enjoyed, thanks for reading and let me know what you think. I'll sign off by leaving this YouTube video here for your pleasure.
Ryu Ga Gotoku please, I beg of you, make a game that's entirely a compilation of all karaoke songs throughout the series.