I am the worst kind of video game hoarder. In the last decade I have collected around 500 games under various accounts, DRM system, yet I constantly felt that I have nothing to play with so I kept buying more and more games to scratch some undefinable itch. That was until I stumbled upon the Yakuza series…
I was not always a fan of Japanese games or media in general. In fact, I was consciously avoiding it and always went with Western games. Mainly because I found the art style, the stories weird. That is no longer the case, finally in my mid thirties I got infected with the weeb phenomenon. And thanks to that, I finally tried and fell in love with the Yakuza series.
Started at the end.
My first game in the series, Like a Dragon is in fact the last instalment of the series to date. I started this journey with no expectations (again, just buying random games to find “the” game) and now, 3 months later I am here with a collection of 8 games. The funny thing is, that probably finishing them will take me months. And since I bought them on a 50% sale, with the exception of Pokémon Legends: Arceus I have not bought a single game. I think in the last years, this is the longest time I have spent without buying new games every 2-3 weeks. So yes, Yakuza saved me money.
Okay, let’s get back to the game. Like a Dragon (or LAD) takes you to Yokohama in the role of Ichiban Kasuga, an orphan who found his family in a yakuza group called the Arakawa Family. Ichiban is not a smart guy, long words confuse him. But what he lacks in wits, he compensates it with utter loyalty to the family and a heart of pure gold. If I’d have to compare it to someone, he is a bit similar to Okuyasu from JoJo’s bizarre adventure part 4. Not very bright, tends to settle situations with a trashing but he has his heart in its place.
In fact, the whole game reminds me a lot of JJBA part 2 with its eccentric characters, outrageous and silly humour, but mixed with storytelling and drama you’ve hardly seen before.
Yakuza does not have many clean cut heroes, but it is full of good people who join Ichiban in his quest for justice. When due to circumstance he falls out of the Arakawa family, a ragtag group of hobos, hostesses, a burnout cop and members of the Asian underworld help him through his mission. From the lowest low, keeping the fighting spirit in each other they eventually take on the powerful enemies that make everyone’s life miserable.
LAD in big part is a visual novel, a drama, sometimes similar to a soap opera. It has more plot twists than every M. Night Shyamalan movie combined and multiplied by 10. But it never gets tiring, in fact it drags you in and makes you want more of the story.
As mentioned, you are surrounded by an group of unlikely heroes from all walks of life, but mainly the bottom feeders of Japanese society. People who cannot rely on their education, police or their elected politicians. But they all know how it is to be down and how sometimes you are left without nothing due to circumstance and by the malice of people of power.
You all meet at your lowest and by pulling each other up, you finally stand a chance against the real leeches of society.
Every character that follows you has a deep, fleshed out backstory that once they trust you enough, they’re willing to share with you. Additionally building your friendship with them will make them fight harder in the turn based combat sequences.
Big in Japan.
Another amazing thing in LAD is the world itself. You mainly play in Isezaki Ijincho, Yokohama. A high fidelity copy of real life Isezakicho, Yokohama. While the maps of the Yakuza games are not big, they are overflowing with detail. I am a sucker for well detailed video game cities and frankly, until now nothing beat the Yakuza games for me in this regard. The city is living an breathing. A plethora of flashy neon signs promote various businesses from ramen shops and SEGA arcades to hostess clubs and massage parlours. Barkers try to stop you on every step to invite you in their establishments, a cacophony of music booms from every shop around you, and thugs group on every corner to rob you of your hard earned Yen.
Oftentimes I just found myself walking around on the streets of Yokohama in first person view, bathing in the neon glory of the city. We are planning to visit Japan with my fiancé for a while now, but due to the lockdowns, I really feel that this is the closes I can get for now. Strolling by the riverbank, walking into fully detailed shops with packed shelves, or visiting restaurants for a meal that actually grant you XP and status buffs as well, besides the usual health boost. Also visiting restaurants with your team increases your bond with them. I really like this tiny mechanic of the game, because it makes you be part of the city. You actually want to go out for dinner with your friends.
The fun never ends.
Throughout the entire series, the various settings of the game are riddled with minigames which are actually fun. Darts, pool, licensed SEGA arcades, crane machines, bowling, baseball, go-kart, you name it. You can also make money with gambling, playing some international classics such as poker or black jack, or some traditional Asian games, such as mah-jong, shogi or koi koi. Some that I never even heard of before.
In many games I felt minigames as a chore. But in Yakuza they are a core mechanic which is most of the times very well executed and actually enjoyable. You never run out of things to play with, there is some kind of parlour on almost every corner. Which again adds to the feeling that you are actually in a real city, not just a setting.
Business as usual.
Another recurring theme in all Yakuza games is the business simulator. If the game was not already packed with hundreds hours worth of content, you can actually build your own business, making billions of Yen in the process.
In every game there are different businesses to run. I have not finished the entire series yet, but by now I ran a confectionary megacorp, a cabaret club with hostesses, a real estate agency and a construction company.
Each of these minigames are there to make money, but also each of them have a story to follow and a reward at the end if you complete them. Most of them are super fun, straight up addictive. I am not the first one to point out, but Yakuza 0’s Cabaret Club Czar game could be a standalone title.
A story of the decades.
While I mainly focused on LAD above, explaining many gameplay mechanics, keep in mind that it is the currently last game in the series but all of the above is true for any previous game.
There are 3 main differences between LAD and its predecessors.
- The previous games’ combat is not turn based, but actual real time fighting with a deep combo system and different fighting styles.
- The older games while still insane in a Yakuza way, usually have a bit darker tone with more insight into the Japanese criminal underworld.
- The previous games’ protagonist is Kiryu Kazuma, the Dragon of Dojima.
You follow Kiryu’s story for over 3 decades mainly in Kamurocho (based on real life Kabukicho in Tokyo) as he starts as a 20 years young yakuza member and ends up as a living legend.
Kiryu is a stoic Byronian hero with a very strong moral compass and sense of justice. I admit, first he seemed bland to me, like some kind of stereotypical kung-fu movie protagonist, but as you follow him through the decades, you can see how his character grows and grows to you. He isn’t the hero that Kamurocho wants, but the one it needs.
One of my most memorable experiences through his journey was, as I was strolling in Kiwami 2’s Kamurocho, I noticed how the city changed. You live in this city since 1988, and now you are in 2006, after 3 games. And you start to notice things like you would have actually lived there. How your favourite restaurant was turned into a convenience store, or that they have a large construction site where the public park was.
A sense of nostalgy that you can feel together with Kiryu as you follow him for decades.
So why play Yakuza?
Yakuza games are clearly not for everyone. A huge part of it is a visual novel, and while it is truly captivating, and has a terrific writing, some people might not like 10 minutes long cutscenes. I actually enjoyed those parts, putting down my controller, sipping my tea and just enjoy the exciting action sequences or the tear jerking drama. I kid you now, there were parts where I felt like someone is cutting onions next to me.
The game is insane. In a literal but good sense. Throughout my time in 4 Yakuza games, I have:
- Called a Crayfish through a phone app to assist me in a fight
- Fought yakuzas who had a diaper fetish
- Appeared in TV commercials
- Bought an adult magazine for a kid
- Used an orbital laser to devastate my enemies
- Trained a BDSM mistress on how to be better at her job
And these are just from the top of my head. Again, this might not be for everyone, but it is something that was very exciting for me, wtf moments after another.
Yakuza games also have a strong social commentary on Japanese society. Normally we see Japanese culture through fantasy stories, 500 years old dragons trapped in the body of a 12 years old schoolgirl preparing for new year’s eve. Yakuza is set in the real world. No magic, no real mysticism, just tattooed guys beating the living hell out of each other. However you as a member of the infamous yakuza are shunned by society so you mix and mingle with other outcasts. Homeless, prostitutes, escorts, thieves, and so on. But once you get to know them, you see that they are real people with emotions. Good people. And oftentimes the fact that they remained good is the very thing that pushed them on the bottom of the food chain.
Small, everyday stories, fates of everyday men. No big armies of demons, no impending doom approaching the land, no cries for a hero. But through helping out the lost souls of Japan, you actually feel that you have achieved something greater than yourself.
And finally, as I said, felling in love with the series saved me a ton of money. Normally I would have kept buying games like crazy, but now that I go the 8 games on a discount, I am nailed in front of my PS5 and probably will be for another few months. I finally found out there are games that can consume me like this. It is a brilliant feeling, one that I haven’t felt since my teenage years maybe.
Where to start?
The amount of Yakuza games can be discouraging for newcomers. However there are 2 entry points that could be valid.
You can start like me, with Yakuza 7. It features a new story, new protagonist and the events only lightly touch previous entries. Actually those few encounters with old character made me intrigued to play the other games as well.
Or you can and maybe should start with Yakuza 0. Playing in 1988, the economical boom era of Japan with lavish discos, adult telephone clubs and a breath-taking story where you play not one, but two protagonists.
In conclusion, if you feel open to something new, and something amazingly different from your gaming routine, I highly recommend playing the Yakuza games. I could – and probably will – go on for several posts how this game is so unique and well crafted, that it shames most games that I have played in the last 30 years or so.