The Yakuza Series: What is it, and what have I been missing?

I did not expect that a single-player game I decided to play based off of a meme would turn out to become one of, if not my favourite series of all time. Yet, 2020 has been an unprecedented year, and it has resulted in me putting over 300 hours put into Yakuza 0, Kiwami, and Kiwami 2.

Further, it seems like I am not the only one who has just recently discovered the Japanese beat’em up (now RPG). Sega’s annual report for 2020 cited that since 2018, over 3 million Yakuza games were sold, which account for 20% of their lifetime sales. When one considers that the series has been a part of Sega’s lineup for more than 15 years, it has to be a huge boost of confidence for the developers of the Yakuza series, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio.

This is me watching my grades slip after finding Yakuza.

While the now-famous Baka Mitai memes certainly have had a hand in causing a few people to pick up the game (including myself), it certainly shouldn’t be pointed to as the sole reason towards the series’ surge in popularity. After all, looking past the memes, one can discover that the Yakuza series is much more than meets the eye.

All the way up to the latest release of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the series has been a beat’em up game including a strong storyline with RPG and open-world mechanics thrown in. What makes the series stand out is the absolutely fantastic execution of all the mechanics above and more.

The best thing about Yakuza to me is that it very deftly toes the line between hilarity and tragedy in its storytelling and characters. The core story of most of the games is very serious, taking main character Kiryu Kazuma (sometimes others) through internal struggles, conspiracies, bringing him towards the seedy underbelly of Japan. However, the side-missions and substories often come in stark contrast to the dramatic, long-take cutscenes of the main story.

In Yakuza 0, you can jump from investigating a lead on a murder case in the main story right into racing pocket circuit cars, managing a real estate business, or helping a kid find his lost video game. The substories at no point felt like a drag, and help humanise the character of Kiryu far beyond the main story. We see a side of Kiryu that’s always willing to help someone out and will go out of his way to help the downtrodden of society. Contrasting that with his Yakuza roots and it makes Kiryu one of the best protagonists I have played, and I haven’t even gotten to the combat yet.

The combat is brutal, sometimes frustrating, but I always found it extremely fun. While Yakuza grounds itself in reality by setting the game in fictionalized cities of Japan, the combat often has characters perform near-superhuman displays of strength and agility, often with hilarious results. Further, a surprisingly in-depth progression system has Kiryu grow to herculean levels of power. Combine that with some absolutely ferocious special moves (called Heat Actions), and you get one hell of a gameplay loop.

Kiryu using a moped as a giant blunt weapon against a bunch of thugs
A quick check finds that Mopeds/Motorcycles can weigh anywhere from 220 to 500 pounds (or 100 to 226 Kilograms).

Kiwami 2 and Yakuza 6 also feature the dragon engine, which revamped combat to somewhat mixed results in the community. The extremely over-the-top combat is toned down slightly, and combat has been streamlined to make it feel more realistic. Yakuza 6’s combat was considered to be a bit clunky, but Kiwami 2 took the dragon engine and refined it, and it’s made the game one of my favourites to play based on combat alone. Even after finishing the game, sometimes in the evenings I will boot up Kiwami 2, and fight a few mobs. The combat is just that fun to me.

After playing through Cyberpunk 2077 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, I realize that open-world games aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be. Having a giant open-world means very little if the world itself is empty in terms of interaction. Ancient Greece and Night City are breathtaking, but both games suffer from a lack of actual interactivity, which relegates these worlds to just being elaborate setpieces for your character to go from point A to B.

Yakuza, however, oozes with things to do before, during, and after the story is completed. The effort that goes into some of the minigames that generally aren’t at all required for main story progression is honestly astounding. Disco in Yakuza 0 is hilarious as you watch stone-faced Kiryu dance his heart out to 80s era songs. Karaoke has the now famous Baka Mitai, but don't let it distract you from some absolutely top-notch other tracks, like Judgement, or in later games, Tonight. All of these songs are original as well, and after the hilarity of watching Kiryu sing with the voice of an angel dies down, you will realize that the songs have no right to be as good as they are.

Yakuza 0 and Kiwami had bowling and baseball. Across the series, you can play games like poker, blackjack, Cee-Lo, Koi-Koi, Oicho-Kabu, Mahjong, and at the arcade, Sega has included many of their old arcade games as fully playable minigames. Restaurants and bars offer different selections that can heal you and give you XP in Kiwami and Kiwami 2.

All of this doesn’t take into account the beauty of the city itself. While Yakuza 0 and Kiwami show a bit of age with the older engine, looking at the fictional city of Sotenbori in Yakuza Kiwami 2 looks like a picture-perfect representation of real-life Osaka.

A picture of the streets of Sotenbori, based on the real-life city of Dotonbori.

When I was (and still am) stuck at home due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I found a lot of solace in the Yakuza series. The series was a fever dream, one that made me laugh and cry for hours on end as I sunk my teeth into the series. It also taught me a lot about being a strong person, with Kiryu’s story being one of my favourite pieces of storytelling in video games, rivalling Red Dead Redemption, and the Witcher in terms of getting me invested.

I can feel the painstaking love that went to making these games, and the localization team in charge of converting the language of the games from Japanese to English deserve a hell of a lot of praise for bringing the games to a western/English speaking audience. The Yakuza series is crazy, and an absolute hidden gem that the wider gaming community deserves to enjoy. I eagerly wait for RGG Studios to continue the Yakuza series.

Note : All my opinions are my own.

footnote: Yakuza 7 still hasn’t come to PC in Asia yet. I’m very upset.

Freelance Writer, Student, and lover of all things gaming.

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