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Like a Dragon: a guide to the Yakuza series

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Ascend to the heavens like a dragon

With BlondeBass's recently informative guide to the Kingdom Hearts' series confusing miasma of sequels and prequels chronology. I thought it'd be appropriate for me to step up, and do something similar for the Yakuza series now that 0 is just about to release. Originally, I had planned for a blog to go more thoroughly in depth with the series and games, and I might still do that. For now, we are going through the cliff notes. but I always say that and it always turns out something more. Bass's blog compelled me to do this blog since I really want this series to reach a lot more people.

The cool thing about the Yakuza series is how accessible they can be, yet still have a very complex combat system, once you start upgrading and experimenting with the vast amount of combos. It does not play off a high skill ceiling but it does offer plenty of challenges with some of its many fights. Then you have the mass amount of side content, and mini-games, which is packed in-between all of the fighting. This aspect will probably draw in those, who weren't already attracted by the awesome combat but instead the promise of a detailed Japanese simulation experience.

And Yakuza is certainly very Japanese. On the subject of accessible, the games evolve a lot between each entry but not too much for you to lose touch should you start with say Yakuza 0 and then move to an older game like Yakuza 2. You can feel the wide gap between the games, but you can also easily get used to what is familiar. 

I could be cheap and simply refer to Hyperbithero's impressive video on Youtube listing all the important titles, but some people just want the convenience of written text to skim through--Well, I'm here to serve. I also want to clear up any questions people might have. Because I always see the same questions popping up, like "Where should I start?" so let's get them all cleared up once and for all... hopefully.

I will start with the main series then do a rundown of the alleged spin-offs and how they connect or don't connect, to the main series. The important thing one needs to understand about the Yakuza series is that unlike Metal Gear Solid, or even Shenmue and other respective long-running franchises, there is no overarching story. There are recurring characters, both main or minor, that show up again as well as familiar locations. The story is organic in that way like if you start with the very first game you will get to experience the growth of the main characters who show up again. There are a lot of rewards for the faithful fans, but not any real punishment for those who decides to jump in midway through...

Anyway, let's do this!

The main series

Yakuza 1 (PS2)

2005 is where the series began. The Yakuza series was a big gamble for creator Toshiro Nagoshi, as the premise was something that deliberately thought up to appeal to adults, specifically adults in Japan. Nagoshi wanted a game that would appeal to a Japanese audience, hence the heavy Japanese elements that have since become a staple of the series. This is something Sega wasn't all that willing to invest in as they saw no long term profit in a product that couldn't be sold outside of Japan. With only a budget of 2.3 million yen to begin with, a rather poignant metaphor for the plot of the game, Nagoshi made it happen. The youtube channel Yakuza fan goes into detail with the history of the series beginning here.

The story is about Kazuma Kiryu, a young Yakuza of the Tojo Clan, who finds himself taking the blame for the murder of his boss Sohei Dojima at the hands of his close friend Akira Nishiki, after the former tried to rape his childhood sweetheart Yumi Sawamura. Kiryu misses out on a whole decade, and the turn of the century, as he returns to Tokyo's fictional Red Light District Kamurocho after having been incarcerated for 10 years. It's a very different Kamurocho then he remembers, the people he knew and loved have all but turned their back on him, or changed, or in hiding.

Kiryu on his own takes it upon himself to investigate the sudden disappearance of 10 billion yen from the Tojo clan while taking care of a mysterious orphan girl named Haruka, who is targeted by the Yakuza due to being the supposed key to the missing money. Kiryu decides to protect her himself and find answers.

The game itself is a seemingly very standard action-adventure affair with a hub world that looks and feels closer to the old school arcadey brawlers and beat 'em ups. Playing the game, however, makes you realize that Yakuza is anything but the standard brawler. The first game's hub areas aren't as open or 'expansive as later titles. They are more of interconnected areas like your average JRPG (Rogue Galaxy, Shin Megami Tensei etc) as opposed to Grand Theft Auto. This always gave the setting a stronger sense of character and personality.

The mini-games and side activities are scarce but are very much there to help make the world feel alive. The old murky PS2 colors and lighting gave it a very noir-esque feel which made both 1 & 2 so appealing. Much like Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear, the cinematic feel compliments the game's atmosphere.

The localization of the game is where the quality takes a dive. The dialogue is a heavy handed bile of slurs and generic threats, not very compelling or faithful to the original script. In terms of taking liberties it's right up there with Insomniac making the quirky Overstrike into an edgy shooter. The promising cast of celebrities Hollywood starlets like Michael Madsen and Eliza Dushku even prolific voice actor Mark Hamill are not enough to save Yakuza's dub from being anything but Resident Evil 1-level of hilarious drivel. Crime dramas have a lot of nuance in regards to how different they are between regions, and Yakuza is very distinct in its Japanese nature. Sega would take this to heart with the infinitely superior sequel that would follow up.

In retrospect, Yakuza 1 is the ideal entry point for newcomers due to the many characters, both major or otherwise, it introduces as well as being the root of the series mechanics to which its sequels would build upon. But given its remake is about to be released in the Summer of 2017 I'd say you won't be cheapening yourself by hooking up 0 then moving on to Kiwami.


 

Yakuza 2 (PS2)

This is my favorite entry in the series alongside Yakuza 0, the major reasons are probably the very straightforward but still complex crime drama story full of twists, interesting new characters, a very intimidating but interesting antagonist, good soundtrack, the noir atmosphere being at its murkiest and a cool love interest subplot to Kiryu. And most importantly, the excellent Japanese cast and doing away with the dub (sorry Mark Hamill but you're not Majima to me).

On that note, the game should also be heralded for Sega's improved efforts in its localization. All of the Japanese elements are kept intact, like hostess clubs or board game-based mini-games. The dialogue is stronger, more mature and less slur-based than ever before. It's a vast improvement.

It's a decent entry point to newcomers for those who are able to track it down, it's like trying to track down Waldo in a war-torn Somalia. You'll have an easier time if you happen to live in Europe (like I did). I wanted to play this game so I made the effort but not everyone has the will or the money, but you'd do yourself a huge disfavor for missing out on it. Best pray that Nagoshi announces a remake of 2 in the nearest future. I sure do.

The story takes place a few years after Yakuza 1, and while there are certain threads and obvious pre-established character relations from that game, it's not hard for a newcomer to get settled. Bottom-line, the story is self-contained as always. The game just so happens to be offering the option to let Kiryu narrate the events of the last game and what lead him to the point of standing in a graveyard in the present (it's a spoiler). The Yakuza comes back to haunt him, as another tragedy of instability is befalling the Tojo Clan.

It has no strong leadership with Kiryu's departure to keep the rival Omi Alliance in check, as its former bosses and lieutenants having all been killed. It's up to Kiryu to find new promising leadership in his former boss' son Daigo Dojima. This takes Kiryu to Sotenbori, Osaka, where he comes toe-to-toe with Korean Mobsters, the Osaka Federal Police Omi Alliance thugs, and his alleged equal Ryuji Goda (titled Dragon of Kansai) who presents an interesting duality to Kiryu's more reserved spirit.

The combat is better than before, as it flows a whole lot better and it's easier to land your attacks on enemies. You can now easily shift your array of attacks to several enemies in mid-combo if you so choose. This makes the combat feel less arcadey and more natural. Your arsenal of heat moves have also risen aggressively, the beauty of Yakuza's combat has always been the opportune moment to use a heat move.

The heat moves are situational combat attacks, which will activate when Kiryu interacts with a certain part of the environment, thus he'll use it to his advantage against his enemies. Examples could be if he and an enemy is standing next to a car, he'll then grab the enemy and slam his head into the car and bash him to death with the door. This is what makes the combat feel so satisfying and fun. Yakuza 2 raises the bar with how you can utilize these prompt-based attacks.

Yakuza 2 is a strong title and an ideal entry point for getting people interested in the series due to its immense quality, it's up to Sega to get this game into the hands of people in this generation either through porting the remastered collection or getting to work on a remake. The latter would surely be nice.   


 

 

Yakuza 3 (PS3)

While Kenzan is technically the series first jump-point into the next generation of gaming with the PS3, Yakuza 3 is the first time we get to see the main series in all its PS3 splendor. At the time it's easy to consider it a major overhaul from the previous game just from its looks alone but in terms of overall quality, it is arguably a lot less well executed than Yakuza 2. I don't know if it's Kiryu weirdly pronounced sideburns that look like they could cut through metal, or if it's just the fact Yakuza 3.. doesn't.. come with all of its promised content in the localized title... WUT?!

Yes, it's sadly true. With the sad failure of Yakuza 2's sales, the quality of localization seems to have taken a massive hit when Sega decided to bring the recent main title (and first PS3 iteration) of the series to the West. The dialogue itself is decent but the overall content was handled very cynically with its transition into being dubbed. Sega didn't give the series much time of the day with the apparent threat of time constraints forcing the localization team to cut a few of the mini-games that would not "resonate" with a western audience.

The story itself remained untouched, as they didn't want to take away "the human drama that was inherent to the Yakuza series". The way I see it though is that the mini-games, and especially those embedded in Japanese culture and history are all part of the core that makes Yakuza such a compelling series. It is in fact, just as inherent, which Sega would also come to understand with its sequels.

The story is more personal than before. Kiryu finds himself toppling against a bunch of local Yakuza-thugs, who own the rights to the land where his orphanage is located. They seek a way to sell it off, in the midst of things, his old friend, and leader of the Tojo Clan Daigo Dojima is shot. The attempted assassination is related to the local Yakuza in Okinawa so it's up to Kiryu to kill 2 birds with one stone and protect his loved ones.

There is a consensus opinion on Yakuza 3's story not being as strong as the rest of the series, and if nothing else rather slow in comparison to Yakuza 2. In my opinion, I find it to be a refreshing new chapter in Kiryu's story. It presents the hardboiled ex-gangster in a new light as a father figure for a group of adopted orphans, as he's resigned himself to living in peace and run an orphanage. It's an interesting development build on top of his own backstory as an orphan, and now a foster father for both Haruka and the children. A lot of the game is spent in the sunny-based areas of Okinawa, alongside these orphans, which is probably a turn-off to a lot of people. It's safe to say that it'd be a turn-off to newcomers. Yakuza 3 is not the ideal starting point, but it's a strong entry in the series.

In terms of combat, there's certainly nothing wrong there--It's as fast and intuitive as Yakuza 2 and adds another big roster of heat moves including some sword-based ones partially based on Yakuza Kenzan. Not too much has changed, but not a whole lot needed changing.. until a bit later.

 


 

Yakuza 4 (PS3)

This was my entry point into the series. Funny enough, it was actually a review from the fast-talking-dick-analogy-spewing Yahtzee Croshaw who got me into this game. I had heard about Yakuza before but back then I didn't give it the time of the day enough to consider. Yahtzee's off-hand remark and comparisons to the likes of Shenmue and Deadly Premonition with regards to its side content got me intrigued to finally try it out. Whether or not the recommendation was intentional or not, it was that review that gave me the kick to try out. Man, am I glad it did because Yakuza 4 isn't just a good game and an overall good sequel. It's also an excellent entry point for newcomers.

Yakuza 4 is a first time for the series, where a Yakuza game doesn't solely star Kazuma Kiryu, though while he is still in the game he serves more of a supportive role to the real stars of the show. The events of the previous games see Kiryu having settled down in Okinawa and moved away from Kamurocho leaving a vacuum to be filled. Instead of one protagonist, you get 4, namely the crooked-dirty cop Masayoshi Tanimura, ex-Yakuza-convict Taiga Saejima, moneylender-with-a-heart-of-gold Shun Akiyama and of course Legendary Dragon of Dojima Kazuma Kiryu.

Long before Grand Theft Auto even as much as introduced the notion of multiple protagonist Yakuza was already relishing the concept in all its glory. You could not be in more comfy hands though as the game starts off with what I'd consider the GOAT character, Shun Akiyama.

Akiyama is a fresh breath of air over the usually stoic but well-meaning Kiryu. He's got a lot of charm, he's a suave Spike Spiegal type of roguish character who's got his heart in the right place for the people who prove their worth of investment to him. You see, Akiyama is not your typical moneylender, he only lends out his services to those that prove their willingness to put everything on the line for the sake of their dreams. He does this through some carefully picked tests in order to determine his client's character.

Taiga Saejima is former blood brother to recurring character Goro Majima, he got imprisoned on death row for the crime of killing 18 made men of a high ranking Yakuza family. Saejima's goal was to bring his beloved boss to the top out of respect for what he's done for his family and himself. He planned this with Majima but things don't go according to plan so Saejima has to carry it out on his own, which sends him to prison. The events of the game unfold and imply that there was an underlying sinister plot to the assassination which sparks Saejima's determination to break out and discover the truth.

Masayoshi Tanimura is a dirty cop, who gambles a lot and uses cheap tactics to put criminals behind bars. He's also half-Chinese which in regards to his story is a huge negative stigma in the streets of Tokyo. Although while it doesn't play into how characters treat Tanimura, it does play into his own side story, which is centered around Tokyo's Chinatown district. Tanimura hangs out with the local Chinese immigrant locale and protects them from loan sharks, Yakuza, and other thugs. There's an interesting side story with Tanimura helping out a female Chinese undercover agent, who's searching for her family's killer, the plot twist is very intriguing and the chemistry between the two reminded me a lot about Kiryu and Kaoru from Yakuza 2 (which is geeeewd). Tanimura's main goal is tracking down his father's killer, and the truth behind his death, which just happened to be related to Saejima's assassination attempt years earlier.

Finally, there is Kiryu, whose meeting with an escaped Saejima prompts Kiryu to return to Kamurocho and help out the new guys and get them on the right track.

The real beauty of Yakuza 4 to me was the big side stories for each of the new characters. Tanimura would have that thing with the Chinese agent, Akiyama owns a hostess club which you have to manage through a surprisingly deep customization system and Saejima is training a dojo (which is my favorite out of them all). These can be considered expanded substories, as they are long, and take a bit of time before you've finished it all but it feels really reward to do them even more so Saejima's story.

Saejima has to help this incompetent leader of a local Dojo named Sodachi in getting his business up and running. This sub story is titled Fighter Maker, which is about turning a group of weak, arrogant and pompous boys into strong fighters. It's a task he had no real investment in but ends up taking an interest in due to the worth he sees in it, as well as its people. It sparks a lot of beautiful relationships between Saejima, the owner and the pupils he ends up hiring. You can go out and drink with your pupils, getting to know them and build character, train them in combat scenarios or make them sweat through building strength. All in all, it's a really neat system of building character both for Saejima and these minor characters. 

The combat has gotten a bit of a makeover with the introduction of 3 new protagonists. Saejima is brute force incarnate, and he delivers slow but powerful hits to his enemies and can lift big motorcycles to use as melee weapons. Akiyama's combos are heavily reliant on speed and kicking, which makes him easy to use for people new to the series as he is also very fun but in terms of heat moves he doesn't rival the likes of Kiryu. Tanimura is a very different sort of character, he's weak and can't take a lot of punishment, he makes up for that with his ability to parry almost any attack with some very useful offensive combos. Finally, there is Kiryu who packs an arsenal of moves he's learned from previous games, along with some new ones. There's a lot to pick from with him if you're new to the series.

Unlike the previous two games, Yakuza 4 centers it premise solely on Kamurocho due to its story but it does, however, open up the city a bit more. Rooftops are now accessible as well as sewer levels, an underground mall as well as parking lots. The games have always done well in expanding on Kamurocho's size and add more and more layers to its iconic locale. If you're a newcomer to the series then you won't be judged from starting with 4 because it's one of the better starting points.


 

Yakuza 5 (PS3)

In the decaying days of the PS3 we somehow still managed to get Yakuza 5 released in the West only less than 2 years ago in mid-December of 2015. Sadly, the game would only see the light of day digitally on PlayStation Network. This bundled together with the constant delays and weak marketing campaign would mean it would fade into obscurity like its predecessors. Try as I did to sell it to people even naming it my GOTY at the time.

Yakuza 5 is a game worth your time even if its story doesn't hold up to the excellence like Yakuza 2 or 4, it comes packed with a massive amount of content that rivals any other released title in the series thus far. You get to play up to 5 different protagonists this time in 4 different cities all at the size of Kamurocho. Once again like Yakuza 4 all of them have their own unique fighting moves, and all of them have their own massive sub-plot titled "Another Drama".

These dramas can span from everything to driving strangers around in a cab while having dialogue heavy conversations with them, to hunting bears and wildlife in a snowy mountain as Saejima, to having dance-off street battles as Haruka in Osaka (yes you can play as Haruka) to playing baseball mini-games as the newcomer ex-baseball player and current porn-mag writer Tatsuo Shinada. Not to mention first-person-snowball fight simulators and doing crazy street racing in your cab as Kiryu... ARGH, it's insane.. THERE'S SO MUCH GEEWWD STUFF!

I spent a lot of time on Saejima's hunting side story, as there is a lot of genuinely good writing and depth put into these dramas, particularly this one. Unique shooting mechanics were developed for this mini-game which goes to show the level of detail the developers put into the side content. A lot of these new massive activities are the evolution of similar big sub-stories from Yakuza 4 which I can do nothing but praise the Yakuza Studio for their efforts. Yakuza 5 stands attest to the fact that these games do indeed get better with every entry but they aren't perfect, though.


The story of Yakuza 5 is self-contained as always though it is highly recommended that one plays Yakuza 4 first before moving on to this game, as it features most of the main cast from that game. The story doesn't branch out from it but it does build on top of the established characters from said game, and it helps make the new story more engaging than it really is. Yakuza 5's story takes a lot of time before it builds up to anything exciting, and given the mass amount of content and several playable protagonists, that is a lot of time. It worked for Yakuza 3 but the same can't be said for Yakuza 5.

Each character's story leads into a grander, much larger scaled story that ties them all together, and while some of them are quite engaging like Akiyama's and Haruka's, some are just dull like Saejima. The best one is probably Shinada's which deals heavily with sports, baseball in particular, with topics like foul play, corruption in sports management and rigged matchmaking--All of it very relevant to the modern sports world, while not being a fan of baseball myself I still found myself intrigued by Shinada's struggles if nothing else because he's such a funny character.

The pay-off, however, does not do it justice. Ultimately the game introduces too many convoluted plot twists and kills the presumable main villain off-screen to replaced by another guy whom we sort of met through the game but had little reason to suspect as being the villain.. It's ultimately a confusing miasma of factions, motivations, and betrayals, through which I was just idly trying to piece together with zero understanding. The departure of writer Hase Seishu since Yakuza 2 seems to have finally reared its head.

Overall you can't go wrong with Yakuza 5 but it's not an ideal starting point for a newbie in any sort of way.

 


 

 

Yakuza 0 (PS3, PS4)

Wooooah, woooah, woooooah! Why did we go from 5 to 0 you ask? Well because 0 was/is/will be released after 5 and that's how we are doing it. Do not think of this as the chronological order of which to play the games. Think of it as a rundown of the games that were released in order. Because that's more or less what it is. Yakuza 0 alongside the samurai spin-off Ishin is the series first entry into the current gen of consoles. The tech for the games was designed so that it'd be able to run on both consoles at a smooth 60 frames per second and man does it make all the difference. Yakuza 0 might not have the pweetty graphics of Grand Theft Auto but it does have a smooth frame rate that helps brighten up the already beautiful 80s Kamurocho.

This is another ideal entry point for newcomers, even more so with the upcoming remake of the first game "Yakuza Kiwami". But as we've established already, these games are self-contained and 0's promise of going back to where it all began with central characters Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima only bolsters that statement. You get to witness the origin of these characters how their relationship bloomed, and eventually became what it is in later games, and the game requires no real knowledge of the other games to do so. It's rewarding for fans but not punishing for the new guys.

Yakuza 0 takes things down a notch by featuring only 2 protagonists this time but with a very cohesive and strongly written story for both of them. It also features its share of awesome mini-games all meant to compliment its 80s setting. Everything from Disco Nightclubs to old school karaoke bars, to pocket racer circuits, to 80s Sega arcade games like Space Harrier or Outrun. When you're not doing that you're either dealing in real-estate business as Kiryu or managing your hostess club as Majima and both side events have a massive amount of depth put into them. 0 has all of it and more. It's bottom-line the ultimate Yakuza experience next to Yakuza 2 in my opinion.

The story is a big reason for its quality. Unlike Yakuza 5 you won't find yourself switching to a whole new character 6 hours later in the game as you just go used to Akiyama or anything. No, this time you will gradually shift between Majima and Kiryu to keep the pace flowing for both but also to keep your skills with both characters constantly sharp.

In Yakuza 0 we play as a very young Kiryu in his early 20s who has more or less just been enlisted into the Tojo Clan's Dojima Family by his foster father Shintaro Kazama. Kiryu ends up being suspected of murder after he collects money from a guy who turns up dead at a vacant lot of which happened to be the very place he stripped him of his cash. This lot also happened to be a very desired piece of land by the Yakuza, which ends up making Kiryu a target for shaming the clan and bringing attention to their business. Dojima offers a promotion to anyone who can secure it, and ultimately Kiryu gets mixed up in the lot of it. He decides to clear his name in order to protect his foster father from facing retribution for getting him into the clan.

 On the other end of the spectrum, we have an early 20s something Goro Majima, who is conspicuously less crazy than what long-time fans are used to. This is actually a very interesting insightful look into what kind of man Majima really is. Despite not being crazy he's still cheeky and smarmy as heck (loveable as always). Majima is forced to run a hostess club on behalf of the Tojo Clan in Sotenbori, Osaka to redeem himself from the "alleged" crimes he committed against the clan's wishes alongside Saejima (it's explained in further detail in Yakuza 4).

Wearing his iconic eye-patch, you're set to running a stylish hostess club in all its 80s grandeur... The Tojo Clan, however, isn't pleased with the fact that Majima's punishment isn't quite punishing enough so they put him on a mission to assassinate a specific target who is a threat to the clan. This target, however, turns out to be a defenseless beautiful blind girl of which Majima falls on hands and knees for, which is rather surprising given what we previously thought of him. But it actually adds a lot of layers to his character. Majima thus makes it his mission to protect this girl from the clan at all costs.

The shared themes of this story in the 'guise of a seemingly economy high Japanese setting is redemption, love, friendship and brotherhood--How far will you go to save the ones you love? All of this is packed into the usual pompous action-riddled package that is stable of the Yakuza games.

If you thought the more dramatically balanced story would make the games less crazy you thought wrong. The combat is as gloriously over-the-edge and fun as always. From Ishin, Yakuza 0 introduces 4 different fighting styles for each character in the game. Kiryu's a mix of a Rush, Thug and Brutal style alongside his classic Dragon of Dojima style which can't be unlocked later as a bonus.

Majima's is more of a fast and acrobatic dancer style, along with his own version of the Thug style and a brutal style where he brandishes his classic baseball bat weapon. His bonus style is based on the fighting style he used against Kiryu in the first game with a knife and everything and it's fun. The combat in 0 is by far the best in the series alongside Ishin, it's fast, it's skillful and broken teeth and faces have never been more satisfying to beat into the pavement than it is now.

This game nets you all the aspects that make up the Yakuza series so if you're newcomer than don't be afraid to start here.

 


Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (PS4)

After many sequels, Yakuza finally takes the real step into the current generation with Yakuza 6. The most recent game in the series which just released in Japan last month is also the first time the developer utilize the power of the PS4. Its visuals, controls, and overall gameplay presentation have been amped up to match the new console's capabilities, and while it certainly looks nice it is at the expense of a low frame-rate that tends to make the game look rather ugly at times. This doesn't become a huge problem in combat, and you can really start seeing the beauty of the game's visuals once you get to Hiroshima.

There isn't a whole lot to say about the game since I haven't finished it yet but in terms of story, it takes place straight after Yakuza 5's ending. Sort of a first for the series the game ties itself quite a bit to the endgame of Yakuza 5, there's even a cutscene replaying the ending of that game then showcasing the aftermath what would lead up to the events of 6. How much it plays into the actual story is unknown at this time for me but it does play a significant enough role for me not to recommend playing before finishing Yakuza 5 and consequently 4 as well.

Kiryu is once again imprisoned for his involvement in the events of Yakuza 5 (not entirely sure why) and when he returns to the Sunflower Orphanage, he finds that Haruka is missing. She's apparently run away due to some nasty rumors on the net involving her relations to the Yakuza. When another rogue Patriarch of the Tojo Clan decides to get wise avour and set off a fire in Kamurocho that would end up hospitalizing her Kiryu is forced one last time to fight the Tojo Clan and rebuild from within by starting his own gang. And this journey takes him to Hiroshima, where Haruka was apparently last seen and she has a son.

Gameplay-wise, Yakuza 6 has given the series a massive overhaul again. Sadly abandoning the 4-based style combat from Ishin and favorof a system closer to Yakuza 3. A new Ultimate Heat Mode reminiscent of the Red Heat Mode from Yakuza 3 allows Kiryu to deliver powerful blows to his opponent, like a charged up blow to the face smacking enemies across the room. It looks incredible with the graphic engine, and it's fun to deliver devastating attacks outside of your classic heat moves and there are certainly plenty of those to be had. The combat can be a bit sluggish, as Kiryu is starting to suffer from the Rockstar Games-syndrome in which the character controls like a fridge on a rollerskate so sometimes it's hard to pick up items from the floor in mid-combat, or even walk out of a door without slamming into walls. Looking past that it is as exhilarating as always.

Mini-games are certainly still there, I haven't bumped into many of the new ones, only ones I've already seen in 0 like Space Harrier or Outrun except that one involving some weird chat with Japanese porn stars which was actually rather funny more than it was lewd. Other than those there are activities like diving, baseball team management, Puyo-Puyo, Virtua Fighter 5 in arcades and more. For lack of a better term, Yakuza 6 is still stacked with side activities, and certainly still has substories. The sub stories so far feel less substantial, not as meaty as previous games, perhaps a bit too streamlined. But that's my impression so far and it may changed as I play more.

Yakuza 6 is a big new step for where the series could be headed next, it is the alleged last chapter of Kazuma Kiryu, but its mechanics could serve as a template for future games. There is a lot to look forward to for those yet to play it when it releases in 2018. So far I can only say look forward to it.

Spin-offs and unessential titles

Yakuza: Dead Souls (PS3)

Man what is it with popular culture's fascination with zombies? We can't get enough of the rotting little bastards. Considering the ironic metaphor they present on the dumb sheep-like consumerism of modern humanity. It's funny to then consider the way zombies have now become a bloated product in of itself, where consumers would blindly buy everything with zombies in it with no perception of irony whatsoever.

So, yes, of course the Yakuza series couldn't possibly escape the zombie frenzy, but given how this series is generally more popular in Japan you'd think that the Yakuza Studio wouldn't have made a zombie game a priority over something more... I don't know otaku-based maybe? But whatever the case it feels like Dead Souls is a game in the Yakuza series that was made with a skewered view of a western audience in mind. If I seem cynical on this game then it's because that I am.

Unlike other games in the series this one plays more like a shooter and thus has abandoned its traditional beat 'em up action mechanics in favour of a system more reminiscent of Resident Evil. Boy does it show too with its vast array of crazy undead mutants, not just your traditional zombies, but some sort of meaty-fat-mutated blob monsters too. It's crazy. The shooting mechanics themselves aren't the best, they can be rather tacky and not quite as smooth like say Resident Evil 4. It's a step up from how guns used to work in the main Yakuza titles but not on the level of the Yakuza Studio's very own shooter Binary Domain. Which is indeed a shame as it could have made the game more fun.

In terms of story there is certainly not a lot of that outside of the sub stories. Here are some zombies it seems to say, they eat people, and where they come from is not a question you should be asking, when you're busy mowing down a horde of undead with your inexplicable mini-gun arm. Dead Souls isn't completely mellow though as it does feature something called safe zones, where the game basically plays like your standard Yakuza games with sub-stories featuring eccentric characters who seems to be treating the zombie outbreak like a conflict in a Third World country--Rather passively.

Dead Souls do have its high points like Majima being playable for the first time in the series, and the return of Ryuji Goda from Yakuza 2 who in this "What-if" scenario is still alive and kicking. This leaves the developers with a lot of room to build his character, and they actually do it rather well. He's best antagonist in the series and deserves some more attention. The best part about the game of course is Majima--He treats the zombie outbreak not with a grim stern look, but rather with a gleeful smile in the same sense as that of a high school girl getting a date on prom night. Majima is just having a good time and he doesn't hide that fact at all. Whether it'd be slaughtering the undead with a smile, or singing karaoke.. Heck, he doesn't even know the lyrics he's just giving it his all regardless.

 

Yakuza Dead Souls is the kind of game I can't recommend to anyone but hardcore fans of the series, and even then it's a slippery slope. There's a lot of good to be had in it, like Majima, Akiyama or Ryuji, then there's a lot of bad like ... well it being zombies and thus tirelessly predictable in terms of story, dodgy gameplay, bad framerate. Inside you can still find something that resembles a Yakuza game with its eccentric characters, subplots and even mini-games too.

 


Ryu Ga Gotoku: Kenzan

The very first "Yakuza" type of game to arrive on the PS3. Yes, it's true, Kenzan came out before Yakuza 3. It's a rather interesting experiment too, sort of like what Catherine was to Atlus' Persona 5. It tested new water for the series and how they would bring it to the next generation console. Instead of Kamurocho, Kenzan takes place in Feudal Japan, a setting that is criminally underused in video games outside of Capcom's Onimusha games. A Yakuza-styled game set in Feudal Japan is like a dream come true, and that is exactly what Kenzan is.

I haven't actually "played" the whole game yet myself but I've tried the Japanese demo and it feels very good to play. You can definitely tell the difference between it and Yakuza 3 with the emphasis placed on sword-play in Kenzan. It's more complex than your standard melee attacks in an average Yakuza game, which it probably would have to be considering you're playing as a skilled swordsman. You can also refer to your standard melee combat in which case the game plays like how a Yakuza game usually would.

It's more fun to experiment with the sword but having the option is something I thought was really cool. The combat features 4 different fighting styles, melee, one sword style, two-sword style and even a two-handed sword style, all of them have their respective heat move actions that are triggered through various means in the environment. Same as always, but the emphasis on sword gameplay and your role as a samurai is just really cool in general. It's fun not quite as fun as Ishin but a really strong spin-off that should have been released in the West.

In Kenzan you play as the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, who is living undercover after suffering a historical defeat by the Tokugawa Clan at the Battle of Sekihagara. He's now living in ancient Kyoto as a bodyguard, and meets a little girl named Haruka (yep) who wants him to kill a local hitman responsible for killing her family, who is also an imposter pretending to be Musashi, known as Kazumanosuke Kiryu (yep) which happens to be Miyamoto's current identity. Initially Miyamoto refuses the girl's request due to his desire in wanting to remain retired, he changes his mind once he notices her determination in getting the money for the assassination by going as far as taking a job in a brothel. This unfolds into an engaging classic Samurai story about retribution and redemption.

Kenzan has a lot of charm to go with it; Despite the main character basically looking like Kiryu he's nothing like him. He's more laid back and smarmy than the usual stoic manner of Kiryu which is a refreshing change of pace. A lot of the characters are subtlely based on the main characters from the main series but they don't exactly like them. They share common personality traits, with new twists that makes for some unique characters whom can somehow still add a lot of new aspects to the established character of which they are based on. Despite the setting it's still easy to relate to them, and the bundle of extremely Japanese-cultural mini-games and sub stories based on the old era are out of this world.

Saying Kenzan is underrated is an understatement as it never released anywhere but Japan and why that is? Only the three Moirai knows.


Ryu Ga Gotoku: Ishin

The samurai game to rule them all--Really, though, Ishin is like a must for the West I feel. It needs to exist so that it may quench the drought of Samura/Feudal Japanese based games of which none has ever seen in years. Thankfully Nioh is looking rather nicely judging by the awesome Beta but we are talking about a game that plays like Yakuza with combat in the line of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. Yep, Ishin's combat is reflective of that we've seen in 0 mixed with that of the smooth freestyle attacking combos of a Devil May Cry game.

The story of Ishin is once again presented as your classic Samurai story, it's about revenge. The Kiryu-looking protagonist is this time Sakamoto Ryouma, who sets out on a task to seek revenge for the murder of his mentor by joining a special police force of samurai called Shinsengumi. To discover the murderer's identity, he utilize the resources of this special police to track him down. On this journey he'll come across basically the entire roster of renowned Yakuza characters from the other games like Akiyama, Saejima, Majima, Ryuji Goda, Kazama, Date and a bunch of bad guys from Yakuza 5 etc. Much like Kenzan but less subtle in regards to how the character basically look and act exactly like their main series counterpart this time.

Yes, there are guns too!

Ishin is Kenzan but better in terms of performance, mechanics and story. It's a beautiful game, and much like 0 and Kiwami it runs at 1080p and 60fps making for a gorgeous trip through Feudal Japan, piled together with some of the most stylish and fun to play combat in an action game in line with Bayonetta 2 or Devil May Cry 3. The decision to bring in old characters from the main series together in this game as ancient samurai works rather well with how it plays on established conventions--it makes for a really interesting story too.

Ishin is another game that has been criminally ignored by Sega's localization department due to its nature as a spin-off in an already niche series, and its roots in ancient Japanese culture. But not everyone who played the first Assassins Creed had a major in history surrounding the First Crusade. The importance lie in telling a good story and thus making the player invested in the historical aspect as well. Come on, Sega!


KurohyÅ: RyÅ« ga Gotoku Ashura henu & KurohyÅ 2: RyÅ« ga Gotoku Ashura henu (PSP)

 The title is basically translated to Black Panther: Like a Dragon A New Chapter. This is another series of spin-offs that distances itself from the main series more than that samurai titles as it instead focuses on a cast of completely different characters. It does, however, take place in Kamurocho so in terms of setting it'll seem familiar to fans. The open world aspect of the main series is still there though it plays like the old PS2 titles with it interconnected areas, most likely due to the limitations of the PSP (and the fact that console is really dated). You can still mahjong and other Japanese-specific mini-games, and the combat while looking more like a 2D fighter with its camera still plays like Yakuza. I'm uncertain if there are cameos or serve any ties to the series but that doesn't seem to be the case. Consider this spin-off and its sequel if you want something different, but only if you still have a PSP lying around.

Remakes & Remasters

Yakuza 1 & 2: HD Edition (PS3 & Wii-U)

Hey, did you know that Sega actually did a HD-remaster for Yakuza 1 & 2? No? Well that's because they didn't even think of releasing it in the West the stupid fools! They even re-released on the Wii-U of all things. On the Wii-U! What. Were. They. THINKING?! The HD remaster comes with an all new freshly painted coat of textures to the original PS2 titles. Thankfully not at the expense of the murky aesthetics of which I loved the old games for--The HD remaster is really well done in vein of the Metal Gear Solid Collection and actually improves the combat a bit to make it more fluid, and in line with the recent released titles in the series.

Heck, they even improved the character models with the Wii-U version even more. I feel like Nintendo could take a few cues from Sega here, not the kind of cues they've taken with Super Mario Odyssey but this with their own remasters. If Sony were to continue to release PS2 games on the PS4 then why the hell not these two? Sega already put them on a plate for you with whipped cream on top. Dig in, Sony!


 

Yakuza: Kiwami (PS3, PS4)

There may just be hope for Sega, yet. Over any expectations anyone might have had Sega at the PSX conference back in 2016 announced the localization of the Yakuza 1 fully-fledged remake titled "Kiwamit/Extreme" for PS4 already slated for the Summer of 2017. Now that deserves an applause!

But no really Sega has been looking very sharp lately with the acquisition of Atlus by their holding company. Atlus has managed to help bring the Yakuza titles to the West more frequently, that is to say the new ones (not the long desired delicious samurai spin-offs, damn it). But we'll take what we can get and the promise of Kiwami in the Summer feels rather convenient for a fresh new start for the series. With Yakuza 0 coming out in just 1 week it's easy to settle in new players into the world of Kazuma Kiryu. And you're all in for a ride!

Kiwami reconstructs Kamurocho, the characters, substories anything else from the first game in an all new aesthetic in vein of the recently released Yakuza 0. It's a step-by-step recreation of the first game, even adding in a tons of new story content to flesh out some major characters, capturing every movement, every expression, every tune in all new coat of paint. It does this rather well. If you want details on how well it does this then check out my review here.

The playing order

Up until now you might have wondered how exactly you're supposed to tackle these games, and in which order it should be. In retrospect, it's not as hard as any other series due to how self-contained these games really are. Unlike Kingdom Hearts, you aren't missing out on anything by skipping at least 1 title.. Well, you aren't missing out on anything integral but it is recommended that you play them all, preferably in order, if you can.

  • Yakuza 0 > Yakuza Kiwami > Yakuza 2 > Yakuza 3 > Yakuza 4 > Yakuza 5 > Yakuza 6
  • Yakuza 4 > Yakuza 5 > Yakuza 0 > Yakuza Kiwami > Yakuza 2 > Yakuza 3 > Yakuza 6
  • Yakuza 0 > Yakuza 1 > Yakuza 2 > Yakuza 3 > Yakuza 4 > Yakuza 5 > Yakuza 6
  • Yakuza 2 > Yakuza 3 > Yakuza 4 > Yakuza 5 > Yakuza 0 > Yakuza Kiwami > Yakuza 6

All in all I'll recommend starting with either 2, 4, 0 or 1 (be it Kiwami or the original). The preferred choice is Kiwami due to it being original Japanese cast of which you'll get plenty reacquainted with across the series. It is preferred way to play the Yakuza games. Don't be ashamed if you choose to start with Yakuza 3--I don't recommend it but it's not a big issue.

However, you choose to play these games I'll be happy enough if you are simply playing them because this is a series that should be more popular than it really is like the Persona series or Shin Megami Tensei. It has all of the best aspects of Japan melded into one series and you don't want to miss out on it.

I hope my blog has managed to shed some light on the series for some people and helped clear up any questions on how to engage it. Look forward to 0 and FEEL THE HEAT!

 

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