The Joyous Yet Fatiguing Experience Of Playing All The Yakuza Games

Last week Sega released the ninth entry (not including remakes and spin-offs) in their long-running Yakuza series, Like A Dragon: Infinite Wealth to critical acclaim. It’s a game that continues the story of the series’ new protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga, and brings back the series’ beloved original protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu. When watching some of the video reviews online that showcased the game’s narrative and gameplay, I couldn’t help but get excited. Though that excitement was quickly deflated when I realized that it’s going to have to be some time before I actually got around to seeing the antics of Ichiban unfold on the beaches of Hawaii. Because as of writing, I’m currently making my way through Kiryu’s “final” story in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life.

This didn’t have to be the case. I could have been like the many others who forwent playing the original mainline Yakuza series altogether and jumped right into Ichiban’s story with Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Or the others who did so after only playing through Kiryu’s very first story in the 2015 prequel, Yakuza 0, then deciding to not venture further and instead jump straight into the recent titles. A part of me feels envious of such folk, and wished that I had made the latter decision as well seeing as how Yakuza 0 still stands as the pinnacle of the series for me. Though every time I play through some absurd side-quest as an older Kiryu holding a baby Haruto in the quiet yet beautiful countryside of Onomichi, I am quickly reminded of how much I truly love these games and the stories I’ve experienced as Kiryu. A story that I was introduced to, like many others, via Yakuza 0 in 2017. One that I didn’t expect to dive this deeply into seeing as how any franchise that has as many games as this one is instantly intimidating and one I’m quick to stave away from.

Yet, every year there comes a moment for me. A moment wherein I’m mindlessly perusing the myriad of digital gamestore fronts, from Nintendo’s eShop to Xbox’ Game Pass library, with the purpose of scratching some gaming “itch.” Then it happens. I scroll onto the lively box-art of one of the Yakuza games, hold for a moment, and then, to quote CJ from San Andreas, mumble to myself, “ah sh*t, here we go again.” Off I go and step foot, once again, onto the bustling streets of Kamurocho. Now seven games into this franchise, having crushed the faces of countless street thugs, seeing dramatic close-ups of many a grizzled Yakuza member, and watching Kiryu tear off his suit with suspicious ease to reveal his iconic dragon tattoo more times than I can count, I’ll admit that my time with this franchise has been a memorable one. That being said, for as glad as I am to have stuck through these seven games, some entries were undoubtedly a test of my endurance. Tests that made me question whether or not I would be able to make it through to their end-credits. But, alas, I persevered and am now close to closing the final chapters of Kiryu’s story (that is, until he returns). So, allow me to take you through my experience of playing through these games, outlining some of my favourites, and those that tested my sanity.

The Stellar Start

Yakuza 0
Possibly the greatest dual protagonists in gaming.

Not much more needs to be said about Yakuza 0. Even after playing six more titles in the series, this game still remains the best. Not because I have some skewed bias due to it being my first, but because developers Ryu Ga Gotaku Studio took all that they had learned from the series up to this point and refined the mechanics that worked, while discarding those that didn’t. All the while sprinkling in some fresh ideas, particularly when it came to the combat. Additionally, not having to worry about concluding Kiryu’s story and instead having fun with establishing how his character came to be allowed them to tell a more robust story that felt more alive and energetic. Much of that energy is due to seeing Kamurocho under a new light, that being the vibrancy of 1980s Japan, and being able to play as one of the series’ most iconic characters: Goro Majima. Though the multiple protagonist mechanic wasn’t new to the series, the way in which the stories of both these men coalesced throughout the 50+ hours, with both of them ending their personal arcs in two very different places, was incredibly well done.

All of that, combined with the aforementioned freshness in combat that felt the most refined out of any of the other titles, a bustling 80s-themed Kamurocho that’s filled to the brim with memorable side-quests, and a slew of hilarious mini-games that each have surprisingly in-depth narratives (Pocket-Circuit being a notable stand out), all wrapped within a compelling main story, made for a game that stands apart from the pack.

The Solid Remakes

With the popularity of the series steadily growing globally, particularly after Yakuza 0, Sega decided to bring the original game from the PlayStation 2 to modern hardware with a proper remake. Yakuza Kiwami initially takes place seven years after the events of 0, though after the initial chapter we jump ahead ten years later to the year 2005. The game introduces players to key characters like Makoto Date and Akira Nishikiyama, and has arguably one of the most memorable final bosses in the series from a narrative perspective. Aside from that final boss, however, there isn’t much to write home about for this first remake. Coming from 0 it feels like Kamurocho had lost much of its lustre, and the game itself stripped of much of the content and “meat” that I’d just experienced. Parts of the city are closed off, and others devoid of the personality that 0 had brought them. This goes for the side content as well. Though there are some decent stories to be found, and seeing some old friends was a great shot of nostalgia, there was a definite lack of consistency in the content on offer in ‘05 Kamurocho.

Yakuza Kiwami
Just a couple of buds who definitely won’t become rivals. Nope, definitely not.

Nevertheless, the game clearly did well enough to warrant a remake of the series’ second title for the PS2, aptly titled: Yakuza Kiwami 2. This game would be made using the Dragon Engine, which was initially showcased via Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. The difference is clear, as the jump in visual quality from the first Kiwami to the second is almost night and day. From facial animations and cloth textures, to particle effects and reflections, everything looked miles better in Kiwami 2. The game felt notably bigger as well, with Kiryu now travelling between Kamurocho and Sotenbori, which was a nice addition. The combat, however, felt as if it took a step back. The different stances and fighting styles I was used to in 0 and Kiwami were now replaced with that of a more traditional beat-‘em-up. The slick animations made every fight look cool and satisfying, but I couldn’t help but feel it all a tad blasé and button-mashy. Blasé is a word that can also be attributed to the game’s story. Though its main antagonist and final fight were serviceable, I can’t say I was particularly riveted by the events that lead to the game’s finale, and the narrative did little to further Kiryu’s personal journey and characterization.

The Slump

It was after Kiwami 2 that I decided to take a break from the series. And boy am I glad that I did. Because if I had gone into Yakuza 3 right after playing a Dragon Engine-made Kiwami 2, I doubt I would have been able to make it through the game. Yakuza’s 3-5 all released on the PlayStation 3 and would later get remastered in 2019 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Emphasis on remaster, because Kiwami remakes these are not, and it shows. Upon booting up Yakuza 3, you’ll instantly get introduced to that early seventh console generation “jank,” with stiff character movements and stiffer facial animations. To say it took me a while to get acclimated to this jarring dip in visual fidelity would be an understatement. But, once the story got going, I could finally look past said “jank” and focus on the narrative being told. And it’s in the narrative that has me go against the grain in saying that Yakuza 3 is one of my favourites in the series.

Yakuza 3
Dad Kiryu is GOAT Kiryu.

Not for its combat, which is stiff and clunky. Or for its exploration, which though a refreshing reprieve being set partly in Okinawa, didn’t have much in terms of of memorable content. But for seeing Kiryu’s relationship with Haruka and the kids at his orphanage. This was the first game that showed me a side to Kiryu that, though I knew existed from snippets in previous games, made me feel truly connected to him as a character. A side that was more vulnerable, selfless, and genuinely afraid to lose the things outside of himself. I wish I could have gotten two more games that explored these character traits, diving into more of his being and challenging the man that he is. Unfortunately, that is not what I got.   

Yakuza’s 4 and 5 are the reasons I titled this section “The Slump.” Though the series’ third installment took a considerable dive in terms of its moment-to-moment gameplay, at least its narrative was able to pick up the slack. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the fourth and fifth titles. From having you play as a smattering of different characters, some of whom feel completely lost within the larger plot which itself now verges on soap-opera levels of cringey plot-twists and abrupt pacing, to a lack of focus that strips away all the heart that the series had built in lieu of a shallow sense of grandeur and mystery. There are glimmers of decent character moments, some of the side-content is on par with prior games, and the combat is varied enough with each character bringing a unique style, but overall these two games—especially the fifth—feel bloated and unfocused, with some chapters having me genuinely question why I’d started this series in the first place (I’m looking at you, hunting chapter with Saejima in the snow-capped mountains of Yakuza 5).

Yakuza 4
I can’t even tell you the dude’s name on the far right.

The “End”

All of this brings me to today, where I am now five hours into Yakuza 6: The Song of Life and about to see the “conclusion” to Kazuma Kiryu’s story. Though it’s far too early to tell, I am thus far enjoying my time with it. With the Dragon Engine back in action, the visuals are back in line with what I’d experienced with Kiwami 2 (so long, “wide Kiryu”). Thankfully, it seems the game has gone back to its roots of putting you solely in the shoes of Kiryu, which is fitting for the story that’s being told. Speaking of which, the story so far has been all about Kiryu and Haruka, and thank the heavens for that. Though there’s a larger plot at play with your usual Yakuza politics, it serves merely as a backdrop to this otherwise character-driven story that keeps its focus grounded and with the character you’ve spent the last six games with. Once again, thank the heavens. The combat doesn’t bring back the different fighting styles from 0 and Kiwami, which is a shame, but it doesn’t feel bad, either. I’ll have to see how things pan out, both narratively and in terms of overall content, but so far the outlook seems positive and I’m looking forward to seeing how everything concludes.

Though this journey has been a long one that’s spanned years, and has definitely had its ups and downs, I can’t say it’s one that I regret. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is a special franchise, and after spending so much time with it its longevity and popularity is easy to understand. There’s something infectious about Kamurocho, its quirky residents who’ve brought out some of the most hilariously absurd moments I’ve experienced within this medium, its addictive mini-games, but most of all the stories it tells; from the funny, to the grim, to the heartfelt, to the spectacular. These stories are at their most riveting when told through Kiryu and those close to him. It’s why the third game resonated with me so much. So here’s hoping Yakuza 6 does justice to this character I love so much, and that Ichiban can carry the torch justly once I make my way over to his stories—though likely only after I’ve taken a break and only once that “itch” inevitably makes its return.

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