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Feeling the Heat, Strolling the Streets, with Spirit Like a Dragon: What Makes Yakuza Special

The entirety of the Yakuza series (known as “Ryu Ga Gotoku” in Japan, lit. Like a Dragon) released to this point follows the tale of Kazuma Kiryu, organized-crime-footsoldier-turned-orphanage-runner as he butts heads with the numerous seedy underbellies of Japan. Fifteen years and seven mainline entries later, Kiryu’s story has been well and truly wrapped up. Thanks to the smash hit success of Zero resurrecting the series’ interest in the West, this fantastic RPG-brawler series is finally approaching the popularity it deserves. Let’s jump in and see why.

Yakuza, it must be said, is very Japanese. Its world, at first only the red-light district Kamurocho but joined by plenty of other locations later, is aimed and poised at recreating the nightlife feel of the real world Kabukicho. The overall size of the world is only a handful of streets, but it makes up for it with pure density. The streets are populated with tons of people. Bright signs and opportunities litter the sidewalks, with many places free to be partaken in, from restaurants to mahjongg halls. Simply walking down the street, taking in the sights, and learning the layout is highly recommended on your first visit, because even on the earliest games, the city is wonderful to just explore; very few open worlds manage to feel this way.

What really sets Kamurocho apart from cities in other games is the passage of time. Every mainline game takes place in the same time that the Japanese release happened; every new game evolves the city underneath you. Characters, shops, and landmarks change, grow and move between games; it goes so far as to give a festive makeover to the entire city for the games that take place around Christmas time. Retreading old ground to see what’s changed is just as engaging as your first visit. While they do eventually add extra districts like entertainment district Sotenbori, old town Onomichi, and even a cozy mountain village, all of which have plenty of their own charm, Kamurocho never stops feeling like home.

The persistence extends to our main character, Kazuma Kiryu. Over the course of the seven mainline titles, Kiryu and his adopted daughter Haruka grow up with each other, Haruka becoming a fine young lady, Kiryu getting plenty of opportunities to impart wisdom to himself and his contacts, carrying friendships, rivalries, and even random strangers through the years – sometimes, but not always, via a good punch. It isn’t just a series of games; it’s one complete, comprehensive story from Zero to The Song of Life.

The words “heart of gold” are wasted on a man like Kiryu; honestly, he’s more like a golden human being. Honorable to a fault, never turning down a man in need, and plenty of wisdom from years of beating the crap out of people, even with his past. The man is the exact opposite of the sort of criminal you’d expect from a name like “Yakuza” (the original team has stated that they think it gives people the wrong idea), making him a great, down-to-earth protagonist to attach to throughout the crazy crap that happens. You do get extra protagonists to follow around in 4 and 5, who bring their own viewpoints and experiences, but Kiryu remains the standout throughout the series.

The supporting cast in each game is one reason to keep coming back. The list of interesting people that you meet over the thirty years of in game time is way too long to list here; everyone from Date the selfless detective, to the crazy old man Komaki who teaches you martial arts, to the assassin family that confronts you at the 100% ending of every game… but with that said, I need to bring attention to just one character.

See, Goro Majima is the best part of the series. He’s insane, and in quite the literal way. He knows how to make an entrance. Some of the best moments in the series is just how far he goes to screw with Kiryu. Any time his head pops up, somewhere, somehow, he’s going to do something ridiculous, like call Kiryu a cute nickname, and it’s impossible not to smile. He is absolutely a fan favorite, and the team knows it, which is why he gets so much attention from Zero onwards.

The gameplay is pretty simple to describe on the surface; imagine a role-playing game where, instead of traditional turn based battles, you beat the ever loving bejesus out of people. The brawler combat starts simple, but thanks to some traditional and not so traditional leveling systems, you eventually gain tons of options in fights. Every game has its own spin on the combat; from Yakuza 1-3’s one-size-fits-all, to 4 & 5 having different characters and styles, to Zero & Kiwami’s changeable styles on one character, to 6 & Kiwami 2’s physics-based characters, the game knows how to shake things up just often enough to stave off repetition.

The one thing that makes the combat stand out is the concept of heat. Heat builds up over the course of combat, allowing you to pull out context-sensitive special moves. Every heat move is brutal, a pained wince every time you discover a new one… and there are hundreds in every individual game, from as simplistic as beating a guy with a motorcycle, to chucking a guy off a bridge, right down to more jokey ones like turning a guy into a snowman. Every weapon, location, and boss has their own unique moves. You never run out of new ways to knock a guy’s teeth out.

The combat is, of course, the hands-on way of solving conflict in this universe. Every mainline Yakuza game usually involves someone trying to get powerful by playing the factions of the organized crime world against each other. Conspiracies, alliances, betrayals, secrets, and wars abound across the plot of every main story, leaving room for Kiryu and co. to charge through and wreck every last little inch of them, usually with long dungeons and dramatic boss fights. This is balanced out by each game’s plethora of side activities.

See, when I said Kamurocho has opportunity littering the pavement, I wasn’t kidding. Each game has several dozen sidequests, notable for the fact that you have nothing akin to a fetch quest most of the time. There are tons of notable ones; a favorite of mine is the quest where you play the head actor in a zombie movie, but I’m sure everyone knows the one where you fight a bunch of fully grown men in diapers. Many of them usually tie into side activities, arcade games, baseball, golf, hunting, foxy boxing, property development, cabaret management, the colosseum, half a dozen different kinds of gambling… and it’s all fully developed, to the point where multiple side activities could become cheaper standalone titles on the strength of their content alone. The sheer variety of this series is ridiculous, to put it lightly.

What’s most notable about Yakuza, though, is how it manages to balance the serious and the ridiculous. The best example of this is the previously mentioned Heat system; no-one ever actually mentions its existence in-game. It never shows up in cutscenes; it’s simply there to make the game more awesome, while maintaining the story’s tone. The rest of the game also keeps this separation between the fun and the fury; you aren’t going to run into the diaper men in the main plot, but it’s there on the side when you’re ready for a break. In an age where bigger, more flashy titles need to remain 100% serious 100% of the time, having this series knowing exactly when and where to cut loose is the best.

This results in every Yakuza game having some ridiculous levels of playtime. The main stories usually take a day or two, but going for the full 100% can easily triple that, even with the assists they give you to speed things up. You can at least guarantee that you’ll get a lengthy game if you only are able to play one. While some activities, like gambling, are recycled across entries, they do introduce plenty of new content between games to help keep you interested. If you do plan on 100%ing every game in the series, you will have hundreds upon hundreds of hours.

The main series has seven entries; Zero, then 1 through 6. You should absolutely go through the series in chronological order, thanks to the “Kiwami” (basically remasters) versions of the first two games they have released. At this point, the only platform that will have every mainline entry is the PS4, and it’ll only be there by 2020 with the finished release of the Yakuza Remastered Collection. Sega has shown a lot of willingness to port Yakuza to PC, with Zero and the two Kiwami games doing really well. There are also the spinoffs; the only one in English is Dead Souls. While it was fun, it wasn’t exactly well received due to bad performance.

The best is hopefully yet to come, though, in the form of Yakuza Kenzan and Ishin. The best way to describe them is Japanese historical stage plays starring the Yakuza cast; they take over roles of figures of the past while bringing their own personalities. It even means they can bring back characters who died, so the entire game is more or less a giant reunion with a samurai backdrop, and it sounds amazing. Not to mention you get the usual slathering of drama, side activities, and you even get four unique control styles, one of which is a freaking sword-gun dance combo.

I say sounds because the only two console titles to never make it West are said Kenzan and Ishin. Kenzan makes a bit of sense because it was back during the early PS3 days, but Ishin has always eluded me; it was a launch title on PS4 when the PS4 had basically nothing to play. It was cool samurai stuff when cool samurai stuff was…well, cool (*cough* still is *cough*). I suppose it was just as a result of the series not being too popular. Thankfully, with the remasters of 3-5 coming out (Ishin released directly after 5) we have one more chance to get Ishin over here before the PS5. Sega, the comments section of EVERY article bringing it up is begging you to bring it over, come on!

With all of that said, though, there has been some hubbub about the recently announced Yakuza: Like a Dragon and its turn-based combat, not to mention the new protagonist. But considering the overwhelming quality of what’s come so far, I can’t help but be extremely excited. Fifteen years, ten games (we didn’t even get to cover Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise & Judgment) and not a single bad game among them, and people are worried? Jeez, guys, save your pessimism for the new Watch Dogs or something, at least that looks like garbage from the outset.

Yakuza as a series comes with the strongest recommendation you can imagine. The beat-em-up action is fantastic, with tons of characters and styles throughout to keep things interesting. There are ridiculous amounts of great sidequests, minigames, and content to send playtimes into the triple digits. The characters are memorable, lovable, and thoroughly enjoyable to beat senseless. The world grows along with you, giving a sense of progression comparable to almost no other series. The only thing stopping you used to be that you needed three different PlayStations to experience the entire thing, but now with the entire saga on PS4 (for prices that can honestly be described as “ludicrous” – you can get Zero, Kiwami and Kiwami 2 for $50) even that isn’t a problem anymore. With Kiryu’s journey finished, now’s the perfect time to hop in…and beg Sega to localize Ishin.