Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the recent soft reboot of the long-running Yakuza series, has drawn a lot of attention with its over-the-top action and detailed, modern setting. For newcomers to the series interested in exploring past games, however, the sheer scale of the saga can be daunting.
Over eight games, SEGA’s crime fiction franchise covers 32 years in the history of Kamurocho, a fictional Tokyo red light district. Interweaving tales, enduring rivalries, and tragic betrayals see players following the lives of several Yakuza protagonists from the snowy streets of Sapporo to the sun-bleached shores of Okinawa, but always, inevitably, returning to the familiar streets of Kamurocho. Though Kamurocho is only a handful of city blocks, it feels like home as it grows and changes through the years. There’s nothing quite like it in gaming.
While the Yakuza games have always managed a loveable charm, not every entry is equal in quality. Like any long-running story, there are highs and lows. When all is said and done, however, players may find that the journey’s highest points make up for its lowest many times over.
No doubt Yakuza was groundbreaking and unique in its time; it did, after all, lay the blueprint of Kamurocho that would sustain the entire series, but it has aged poorly next to its successors. Both narratively and mechanically, the original Yakuza is bit clunkier than what would follow. While the 2016 remake Yakuza: Kiwami makes some much needed changes (including the addition of some of the game’s best story beats), its also faithful to the original’s largely underwhelming script.
That being said, it is a great introduction to the series. The main character, Kiryu, is introduced well, and the overriding conflict of the series is established effectively.
There aren’t any bad Yakuza games, but some, like the third entry and first PlayStation 3 outing, can certainly be described as “uneven.” Yakuza 3 shifted the series focus from the bustle of downtown Tokyo and onto a rural orphanage in the Ryukyu Islands. Far from a side-story, this diversion informs the writing of much of the rest of the franchise, but it can also feel like a drastic drop in pace on first blush.
When the story does pick up and reintroduce the crime drama everyone knew was coming, it is awkward at best and laughable at worst, but it hits the same emotional notes at the end of the day. The third entry is the most divisive among fans.
Yakuza 2 is one of those sequels that delivers on almost every expectation. In all ways, it is the superior to its predecessor, and it features one of the series’ most memorable antagonists. Kiryu Kazuma, who is known as the Dragon of Dojima, must face off against Ryuji Goda, who is known as the Dragon of Kansai. The confrontation between the two near invincible men is easily one of the coolest boss fights on the PlayStation 2. It is only because Yakuza 2‘s accomplishments are comparatively small-scale and would be succeeded later in the series that it remains this low on the list.
Yakuza 5 is still the most ambitious game in the series. It features five protagonists, five separate city locations to explore, and five distinct playstyles. In addition, the climactic narrative is both the longest and widest in scope of the games to date. The overwhelming scale is impressive, with each character having lengthy sub-narratives tied to unique systems as mundane and varied as dancing and driving a taxi.
Unfortunately, Yakuza 5 suffers a bit from its own weight. The five character stories are not interweaved, so it can feel like five separate tales only loosely connected by a finale which brings everyone together.
That being said, some of the greatest franchise highs are within the game’s lengthy runtime. If players aren’t bothered by a languid, meandering narrative, Yakuza 5 is a great time.
Yakuza 6, which concluded the story of Kiryu Kazuma in its 28 year entirety, had big shoes to fill. Instead of wrapping up the narrative with a bombastic finale, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio opted instead to tell a quiet, introspective tale that allowed the aging protagonist to reflect on his life. Sure, even the rural streets of Onomichio see some over-the-top combat and antics, but by and large this final chapter is closer in pace and tone to Yakuza 3.
Though its ending is divisive, the conclusion to a seven-part tale was never going to satisfy everyone. Regardless of what many consider to be missteps in the writing and a noted lack of series favorite characters, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is a loving send-off which leaves players feeling warm and optimistic.
Yakuza 4 featured four protagonists compared to its sequel’s five, but it avoided the bloat by keeping the story confined to the streets of Kamurocho. Instead of a wide spread, meandering tale, the narrative concerns a tightly written and fast-paced conspiracy through the eyes of four of Kamurocho’s citizens. Because each playable character sees and connects to the city differently, the game stands as the most varied and complex portrayal of Kamurocho in the series.
The introduction of Akiyama, a homeless man turned millionaire money lender, is a high point for the whole Yakuza franchise.
In a startling heel-turn for the series, Yakuza: Like a Dragon swapped genres. No longer are the streets of Japan party to arcade-style brawler combat; in this seventh game inspired by Dragon Quest, turn-based combat is the focus. Impressively, the gameplay loses none of the fast, improvisational cadence of battles in the transition, instead being, if anything, even more over the top and fun. On top of that, Ichiban Kasuga, the new protagonist taking the baton from Kiryu Kazuma, is a likeable and charming dope who never fails to warm the player’s heart.
Like its inspiration, Dragon Quest, Yakuza: Like a Dragon highlights themes of friendship, self-sacrifice, and personal growth. Wrap it all up in one of the series’ most engaging crime dramas yet and the result is a must play. It also serves as an entry point to the series, requiring no prior knowledge.
Yakuza 0 released late in the series run, but serves as a prequel. Years before any of the drama that would define the life of Kiryu Kazuma, he was a low-level debt collector in Kamurocho. The Tokyo of 1988 is notably different from what is seen in the franchise later, and the time period is recreated in loving detail. Not only is there a lot of joy in seeing beloved characters before their big break, Kamurocho itself predates gentrification in the late eighties, making it an interesting vision into the past.
On top of that, the story in Yakuza 0, which plays out through the perspectives of two protagonists, is hands-down the most exciting, high-energy writing in the series. Few games in general approach the level of adrenaline Yakuza 0‘s heights can inspire.