It’s always nice when a major publishing house and a small development team join forces to give fans what they actually want. The cult classic Yakuza series has been rising in the west thanks to the advent of Yakuza 0 (2016), the prequel to the long running franchise. It sold relatively well for its small budget, selling approximately 108,000 units in the first week according to vgchartz.com. Surprisingly enough, the title sold best in the United States, making up 49 percent (53,357 units) of the sales alone. Go figure.
Money talks, and Sega has finally taken notice by pumping out Yakuza Kiwami (a PS4 remake of the original title), Kiwami 2, and the highly anticipated Yakuza 6: Song of Life in 2018. It’s a great year to be a Yakuza fan, but for those who are on the fence, I’ve three solid reasons why you should give this series a go, whether you’re Nippon savvy or not.
3. Cathartic Combat
I have played a plethora of action-adventure titles, from The Legend of Zelda to Devil May Cry. Neither could ever deliver the cathartic feeling that Yakuza‘s combat system provides. Because of the game’s realistic limitations, every brawl (especially on Hard) feels like a fight for survival, and they make sure you feel it through every punch. This is dialed up to eleven when the Heat mechanic is involved, allowing Kiryu to perform brutal attacks that would make Kimbo Slice blush. The more you attack, taunt, and don’t get hit, the faster it fills up. There is no better feeling than lifting a giant electric transformer from the ground and slamming it on a two-bit goon. The most recent title in the west, Yakuza Kiwami, takes full advantage of this through four fighting styles: Brawler, Rush, Beast, and the highly coveted Dragon of Dojima (albeit gimped in the beginning).
The first three styles were taken straight from Yakuza 0 to diversify Kiryu’s fighting prowess. Brawler is your balanced style with no major weaknesses. Its primary feature is the Resolute Counter, which allows you to retaliate during hit stun. It’s a great tool to use when surrounded. The Rush style is a love letter for boxing enthusiasts, allowing the player to bob and weave through attacks while dealing a myriad of quick blows. On top of being much faster, it also stuns enemies quickly, allowing for nasty follow-ups. This style is best used for singular opponents, especially boss fights. The only downside is that it deals the least damage.
The Beast style throws all caution out the window and emphasizes reckless offense. Sacrificing speed for power, it’s the slowest of the three, but packs the biggest punch. This style allows the player to clothesline opponents, perform tombstone pile drivers, and shoulder tackle goons. However, the true boon is the super human ability to grab any object during an attack’s active frame, basically allowing Kiryu to grab a motorcycle mid-frame and swing it around like a paper fan. The Dragon style is Kiryu’s original stance, and it is by far the cream of the crop. It’s fast, fluid, and most importantly, hits like a dump truck. Yakuza Kiwami takes the Metroid Prime route by giving you its full powers in the prologue, then strips it away when the game actually starts. By defeating Goro Majima (his arch-rival) numerous times, you slowly regain that lost power until you’re a fully fledged dragon again. No matter what style you choose, this man is the reason why healthcare exists.
2. The Cast
In Japan, the series is known for hiring A-List talent into their cast. For you anime fans out there, here’s handful of names that will whet your appetite: Kôichi Yamadera (Cowboy Bebop), Hidenari Ugaki (Street Fighter Alpha), Rie Kugimiya (Gintama), Rikiya Koyama (Tokyo Godfathers), and Takaya Kuroda (Appleseed Ex Machina). If you’re remotely a fan of Japanese media, you should be foaming at the mouth right now. This all-star ensemble is only the tip of the iceberg, because the characters they play as are written so well, you’d be pardoned for thinking these people were real.
For brevity’s sake, I’ll focus on the main attraction: Kazuma Kiryu. His sharp glare and barb-wire attitude screams “Touch me and you’ll get cut.” However, he exudes a sense of kindness, and extends a helping hand to the weak. He’s the hooligan with a heart of gold, and the more you begin to explore his character, the easier it is to see why fans love him so much. He carries the weight of the yakuza world on his shoulders to protect his loved ones.
Although The Dragon of Dojima is a legendary name in the Yakuza-verse, the irony is that, by yakuza standards, he’s the worst gangster of all time. Like his father figure, Shintaro Kazama, he is a technical pacifist who abhors unnecessary violence, defends the weak, and has strong morals. One would think this would lead to a peaceful life, but his virtuous/stubborn nature always causes more trouble than he’d like. He’s the antithesis to the yakuza way, but Kiryu’s blazing determination, overwhelming charisma, and immense strength all paved the way to cementing his name as a legendary figure in the criminal underworld. His character is so influential that even Takeshi “Beat” Kitano took part in a major role for the upcoming Yakuza 6: Song of Life.
1. Ample Affable Content
Given its underworld inspirations, the Yakuza series is incredibly dark, and it isn’t afraid to show you the harsh realities of it, either. It’s filled with Sonatine-esque violence, scams, racketeering, murder, blackmail, sex trafficking, drugs, organ brokers, shady real estate, etc. However, to judge these games as mere crime dramas is misleading, because the series is actually zanier than the Animaniacs on a Saturday morning. This is the defining characteristic of the Yakuza series, because it masterfully balances grit and giddiness.
While players can continue with the main story arc, the real star of the show is Kamurocho itself. There is so much available in Tokyo’s infamous red light district: karaoke spots, bikini bars, arcades, shogi parlors, batting cages, hostess clubs, eateries, disco dancing, dates, illegal fighting circuits, mahjong parlors, underground cat fights, pool, darts, slot car racing, etc. The best part is that Kiryu, despite his stoic demeanor, is a total ham and loves doing all of the above. It’s hard not to smile when halfway through a karaoke song, it transitions into a hilarious music video of Kiryu belting his lungs out while acting to the song’s theme.
That’s just Kiryu’s portion. In Yakuza 5, you eventually play as Haruka Sawamura, Kiryu’s foster daughter. However, because she is a pop idol, she can’t fight, so she proceeds to have dance battles to practice for her upcoming competition. It’s an interesting and refreshing perspective as you get to see Sotenbori, Osaka through a young girl’s eyes instead of a legendary yakuza. This delicate balancing act is the reason why the series has its fans. If the main arc is the dinner, then the abundant side content is the desert. Every great meal needs a palette cleanser, and fortunately the Yakuza team understands that.
If there is an underlying theme in the Yakuza series, it’s this: Although the world is a dark and unforgiving place, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Kazuma Kiryu isn’t a perfect man by any stretch, but he does the best that he can with what he has. He’s aware of his flaws, and the fact that tomorrow is never promised. These are very human concepts that anyone of any age and culture can relate to. The only difference is, you’ve never heard it from a legendary altruistic ex-yakuza. Give this series a shot. You won’t regret it.