Yakuza is a series of games that are a mix of beat ‘em up, action-adventure and role playing. It is also an open world, not in the sense of Grand Theft Auto, but very dense. We previously took a deeper look into the prequel of the Yakuza story, through Yakuza 0.
The Yakuza series first came out in 2005 and 2006 as an English release but didn’t quite catch on (one of the reasons being the horrible dubbing). As the years went on, almost every two years a new iteration came out and in 2017 the original Yakuza (the first game) got a remake. I thought this was an opportune time to look back at the series in chronological order for the protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. To avoid spoilers about the story, which is what makes the game great, I'll be focusing on the feel of the games.
After playing Yakuza 0, the transition to Kiwami is seamless. They are on the same engine and they were released the same year, so that should not come as a surprise. But the mechanics and the tutorials didn’t feel as slow and grinding as they were in 0, so that was a definite plus. Overall, the combat is a bit harder despite being at the same difficulty setting. Although harder, the fighting for minibosses felt a bit uninspired. I remember vividly my first miniboss from 0 where I was on my toes trying to time my hits right but with Kiwami, it was rather boring. This situation was quickly remedied later.
The reason for our protagonist Kiryu to be this “weak” at the start of the game is that he went to prison for a crime he didn’t commit for his sworn brother Akira Nishikiyama, who ends up being the villain of this game. Speaking of characters, we have 0’s second protagonist Goro Majima back as well, though not as a playable character but as a constant challenge to improve our combat. I actively sought him out because Majima has some creative ways of hiding and setting up fights that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The substories were very bland. My guess is they were carried over from the original where these stories weren’t just the focus of the main game – just like there is not any business to focus on to get some cash. The main story itself is captivating while not quite as mysterious as 0. As a gamer, I wanted more moments with Haruka, the 9-year-old Kiryu needs to protect. She is precious, and I would get angry when random encounters would cut her off while she was talking.
One important last note on Kiwami: There is a car chase that is superbly annoying and difficult to beat with a controller; forums are filled with frustrated people. Playing it on the PC with a mouse makes it doable and is the best way, in my opinion.
In Kiwami, we had access to various combat styles catering to different tastes, but here you are only dealt one that feels very heavy and even sluggish. Considering Kiryu’s general fighting style, it is fitting but if you prefer faster jabs, you may be disappointed.
This game is a step up from the last with much more detail in the visual department. It was truly stunning to walk around and admire the surroundings. But with this new engine comes rag dolling and weird choices in sound effects. Yakuza was never 100% serious as a game, but it is very off-putting to see Kiryu flopping around when he gets kicked down. The same goes for Majima, who gets a three-chapter separate saga, and is assigned weird whipping sounds during his fights.
As for overall difficulty, the final boss could have used more thinking. I had maxed out my stats and with a few pieces of equipment and it was over before I even knew it. If you want to enjoy the combat, you’ll want to set the difficulty as hard.
The story itself was on point and with each chapter in the story, new substories are unlocked. As for business, you have a cabaret club again and if you advance far enough, there are some interesting plot points that can induce a hearty chuckle. Sega utilizes Majima with a tower protection kind of game in the guise of Majima Construction, the theme of which lives in my head rent-free. The interactions of the characters, hiring new staff and other aspects are interwoven into a fun little package.
As it was released in 2010, this game is the oldest in the series. It got a remaster but not a remake. After all the new iterations, the combat feels the most clunky and the story feels incredibly uninspired – some may even say cheesy. I found the sudden shift in the tone of the main story weird, which is painfully blatant by the change in writers. Cheesiness aside, the stories revolving around the orphanage did get me a bit teary-eyed but that could be attributed to Kiryu being his happiest and more understood here.
Substories were the saving grace of the game. Business in the cabaret club was subpar but one needs to keep in mind that these iterations are the predecessors of much more fun ones.
Circling back to combat, because it is a big part of the game, it turns into a “who can stunlock the other” competition and the boss fights felt like bullet sponges but with fists. It was the first time I actively sought out guns and other weapons to shorten the fights. I have painted a rather negative picture but with the overall narrative, it was a good game. Parts of it have me and my husband talking to this day (in particular, a certain scene with Kiryu and Rikiya at a hotel, you’ll know what I mean when you play it).
This is an overarching story that gives you four characters to play, not just Kiryu. At first, I was taken aback by the idea of many protagonists but the pacing of the story was much better compared to the third game and the different characters really added to the story. The ex-banker Shun Akiyama was my favorite – fast combat and a smooth talker. With each character, you get to experience different combat styles, which keep you on your toes and compel you to curse loudly (something your neighbors will "enjoy" in the middle of the night). It is hard enough to keep you engaged but not so hard as to make you lower the difficulty.
You operate the same cabaret business but with Akiyama at its helm, which I did try again but just couldn’t warm up to. In Taiga Saejima’s arch, there was a dojo trainer side to the story which was fun to play with.
The least interesting part of the story was the one featuring a cop. Police officers and detectives are a part of the whole Yakuza story, but this one just didn’t win me over. Overall though, it is a big improvement from Yakuza 3.
One thing that the Yakuza franchise does right is to add and improve with every iteration. I must admit I spent the most time playing this compared to the others. The substories are superb, the other mechanics are on point. Take Kiryu being a taxi driver for example. All missions involve this. Heck, I didn’t think it would be fun to adhere to traffic rules, but I must say driving the U.K. way has had me fail a few times. My favorite part of the new mechanics was the hunting with Saejima. For a brawler, they handled the shooting pretty well and I found myself going back to the mountains quite a bit.
Again we have several characters all culminating into one overarching story but while the transition from one character to the next in their combat style felt a bit jarring in 4, here it seemed not as bad. Saejima is slow and tank-ish, Akiyama is quick and Kiryu is something in the middle. Even the section with Haruka, a teenage girl, which is never getting into a fight, felt interesting. But the fifth character, oh boy, Tatsuo Shinada, he was just annoying beyond measure. I am aware that I am everything but the target audience for this character (ex-baseball pro, smut author) but the way he is written is just a nuisance. I breezed through his part of his story (the first time I didn’t read any dialogue unless I needed to) and accidentally stumbled into a substory or two which made up for his annoying character a tiny bit. This brings me to the writing of this: Top. Notch.
The Quick Time Events (short QTEs) are a bit annoying as when you miss certain ones you need to retry and when I was doing the final fight and just missing the last QTE when I had whittled down the “end boss’” health down ... let’s just say I was a bit frustrated. But nothing to sweat about really.
We are back to basics in the last part of the Kiryu saga and playing only as Kiryu.
We have got a clan creator that is an improvement to the Majima construction story. I thoroughly enjoyed the story surrounding it. While I did not venture off into all of the substories as the main story had me hooked, they were worth pursuing. You could manage a baseball team, or one of my favorite ones was finding cats for a cat cafe. Do you need to do these? No, like I skipped the former, but you know that there is much more to explore and feel as if you are missing out.
I need to compare the combat to Kiwami 2 where the rag dolling was very distracting, but it was improved. Heat actions (certain special moves) were mostly locked behind the “extreme heat mode” which makes sure the player has more control over when it comes to using them. Playing this on easy mode was the easiest of them all. It could have been prior experience or stocking up on health items/food, too.
There were much fewer quick-time events (QTE), which was bliss, but whenever I saw some I almost reflexively hit them, thanks to my prior experience.
I won’t spoil anything about the main story, but it was a fitting sendoff for the Dragon of Dojima. My husband knew what was going to happen and yet we both teared up.
Kiryu is no longer our protagonist anymore. He is aging, after all, so we are given Ichiban Kasuga, which I could describe as a typical shonen protagonist – aloof, positive thinking, spontaneous. After Kiryu, you may at first feel a bit annoyed but with the other characters joining in, the game balances itself out. This brings us to the big overhaul of combat: turn-based. Many Japanese role-playing games (JRPG) are turn-based and as it is the Yakuza tradition, they tried something new. After about 20-plus levels, chances are you will get bored. The developers were probably aware of that as they have an auto-combat mode in there as well. A second gripe I had with the combat is the levels and health bars. In the previous games, I knew how to handle an opponent depending on the length and color of their health bar. Here there seemed to be a wrench in the works when the levels didn't matter. You either need to whittle them down one health point at a time or get tanked by multiple hits, which called for some polishing.
My third gripe was that, just like other RPGs with turn-based combat, you need to grind, which is irritating if you are familiar with other games in the series. After a certain point in the story, I wanted to finish it as soon as possible. But in this game, you’ll get obliterated by the enemies if your level is not high enough. Whereas in the previous games, even if you hadn’t maxed out your character, you could beat the boss. It is a given that you’ll need to be skilled and probably have a fair share of health items but otherwise, it wasn’t impossible.
You get a completely new map located in Yokohama and one that is comparatively huge. It is separated into different zones depending on your level and progress in the story but a nice touch. The taxi service was a bit weird as the fast travel mechanic and you couldn’t go to certain stops for some reason.
Now comes the praise! The localization was amazing. The Pokemon-esque enemy types, in particular, made you seek different types and I found myself double-checking if I had read that name right (Puns are always a plus in my book). Each and every substory was worth its time. In what other game would you end up fighting a giant Roomba that loses control and starts sucking in everything around it? Or a monkey driving construction equipment?
The interactions with the party members were memorable and you really found yourself interested in the dialogues that you can trigger while walking around the different maps.
I haven’t even touched upon the minigames and businesses, but I must say I can’t help but cast some shade on the catastrophe that Cyberpunk 2077 was/is. Yakuza now has go-cart-like racing and even those vehicles handled it better than Cyberpunk’s. As for the business, you are given a confection firm that Kasuga is trying to grow, and it is fun as well because it is never just managing the business alone. The story surrounding each part of the game is complimentary.
Why 'almost complete'?
The popularity of the Yakuza franchise is not as big as some other triple-A titles are in the West. So sadly we're missing out on some of the spinoffs. I am really curious about Yakuza Ishin taking place in the mid to late 19th century, which each Yakuza character plays the role of a historic character. There is another spinoff called Yakuza: Dead Souls, which is basically a story surrounding a zombie outbreak, which isn't really a part of the Kiryu saga, so I left it out. But I'll definitely get my hands on it in the near future.