Yakuza 5 has been out in Japan for years now, however it won’t be until later this month (hopefully) that we here in the West will be able to play the localized version. While Japanese gamers have been given more than ten Yakuza games over the span of about a decade, we here in the North America have only been privy to half of that. Nevertheless, while the fifth installment is rumored to be coming out later this month (thanks to an official SEGA blog post), those who have been anticipating the title since 2012 need something to tide us over. Thus, the purpose of this article.
Today we will be ranking the five Yakuza games we’ve seen released here in the West ahead of Yakuza 5‘s release. So without any further ado, let’s get to it.
5. Yakuza: Dead Souls
The spin-off, dubbed “Of the End” in Japan, was the least likely to get localized for a Western release, and yet in 2012 we got the game in glorious English form. Though it departs from the mainline series in terms of gameplay and narrative (it’s not considered canon), this third-person shooter in the Yakuza universe was both a surprise and a delight for fans of the series. Sure, the shooting mechanics aren’t the most precise or robust around, and sure, it sort of is a cash-in on the zombie craze that hit its stride a few years back, it’s still a zany, fast-paced, gunplay-oriented take on the typical Yakuza beat-em-up gameplay.
What’s shocking about Dead Souls, though, is that, while its story is clearly goofier than the other installments in the franchise, the tale it has to tell is actually well-focused and executed. Even the characters, all of whom are returning cast members from previous installments, are effectively written and directed. Better still, the game’s many boss fights are its true highlight, offering some genuinely frenetic and cleverly-crafted encounters that had us shooting and dodging to our heart’s content. Having said that, Dead Souls is not a game I would recommend to anyone unfamiliar with the Yakuza series, nor does it do anything to recruit non-fans of the series, but it’s a light-hearted, zombie-filled, 15-ish hour romp through the streets of Kamurocho with a twist. If nothing else, it’s a crazy premise, and that in and of itself is pretty awesome.
Although it would have been great to rank the original Yakuza higher on this list, the truth is the flagship games that came after it built on its formula in smart ways that ultimately culminated in better experiences overall. That isn’t to say this first entry is bad, because it certainly is not. It’s simply not as refined. Nevertheless, it set the wheels in motion and for that it should be played by anyone who even has a passing interest in the series, open-world bet-em-ups, and/or Japanese culture-centric video games. The story introduces us to Kazuma Kiryu for the first time and does a great job at conveying the series’ excellent blend of humor and deadly-serious mafioso tone.
It also was the first time folks were getting to experience a game that was practically Shenmue III–you know, before that was actually a thing. So in that sense, Yakuza holds a special spot in some gamers’ hearts (ours included). Yakuza‘s biggest selling points, however, are of course its bone-crunching combat (based off the woefully under-appreciated Spikeout series), RPG elements amidst more action-adventure sensibilities and its excellent sense of exploration. All of these aspects were iterated on and made bigger as the franchise progressed, but for a first installment in a series this big, Yakuza was and still is a grand game. Its story is also one of the easiest to understand in the series, if for nothing else than because there aren’t a myriad of games and accompanying stories to try to keep track of that came before it. This means it can be a great experience for fans wanting to revisit the franchise’s roots, or for someone who wants to see what the fuss is about without having to Wikipedia dozens of characters’ backstories so that they can be caught up for playing some of the newer titles. It’s just too bad we never got the HD remasters for PS3 or Wii U.
3. Yakuza 2
An improved combat engine and more exploration were the taglines for the second Yakuza game. This was the goal when development started on 2, and the game was a pretty resounding success in that regard. Yakuza 2 felt like a more complete version of the first game, though it was not totally new, nor was it built in Earth-shattering ways. The thing is, though, it didn’t need to. The foundation was already set with the first title, and the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was very clearly the mantra for the dev team when giving us Kazuma’s next adventure in 2008. (Side note: it’s crazy to think that PS2 games were still being released in 2008.) What Yakuza 2 is best remembered for is its deeper, more adult storyline that featured a full-blown love story and several themes completely absent from the original title.
In fact, in spite of Yakuza 2‘s gameplay being rock-solid, this second entry felt more centered on characters than anything else. This makes sense in that the gameplay mechanics were already in place and only needed touched up for this sequel–specifically the combat engine–thus giving time and opportunity for the crime drama narrative to more effectively unravel and encompass a larger cast and bigger ramifications. In general, Yakuza 2 felt like a more serious game from top to bottom; the voice-acting really hammered home this point too, as even the actors were directed in a way that they avoided falling into the usual over-acted anime tropes that tend to make stories feel more wild and not rooted in the reality of true human dynamics. Because of this grittier overall approach, Yakuza 2 supersedes its predecessor in intelligent and important ways; ways that were then taken further into the series with each entry that appeared after it.
2. Yakuza 4
There’s a whole lot to love about Yakuza 4. Whether it’s the four distinct playable characters, the three new protagonists, the unique and differentiated storytelling devices, the subtle graphical improvements over the third game, or the new locations, Yakuza 4 is a massive game–the biggest of the bunch up and to its release. Ultimately, though, it’ll be the new characters, and their subsequent stories that hook folks in for this fourth installment. There’s Shun Akiyama, the suave, ladies-man loan shark; Taiga Saejima, a yakuza imprisoned for murking a bunch of fools from a rival clan back in the 80s, and who is also the brother of series favorite Majima Saejima; and then there’s Masayoshi Tanimura, a cop investigating the deaths of several people in Kamurocho who gets unsuspectingly brought into the mix. Naturally, our leading man Kazuma Kiryu makes a return, rounding out the playable characters to the previously mentioned four.
What’s neat about this ensemble-like cast is that not only do each of their stories intersect in the end, but they each play differently and take place in different parts of the city. It makes the experience feel fresh, and having the story leave off each time it switches narratives at just the right moment keeps players invested throughout the game’s lengthy adventure and coming back for more. Seeing how each of these very unique characters, with very different backgrounds and motivations, come together is wholly satisfying, especially by the end when the various angles start becoming enmeshed with one another. But this design approach pays off the most when in combat as the four characters all fight with exclusive styles. Taiga is slow but powerful, Masayoshi is fast and nimble, Shun is a bit of a blend of the two, whereas Kazuma is the most well-rounded and balanced of the quartet. It makes for an adventure that is constantly changing things up.
Yakuza 4 also sports a ton of side quests. It’s actually a bit overwhelming how much there is to do here. This is by far the most expansive game of the Yakuza series, with more mini-games than you can shake a stick at. Be it pachinko, fishing, onsen, table tennis, hanafuda, or karaoke, there’s a little something for everyone in Yakuza 4. It’s just a really meaty experience.
1. Yakuza 3
By and large most fans of the Yakuza series agree that the third game is the best of the original four. Though there’s more to do in 4 than in this one, Yakuza 3 feels like the pinnacle of the series. It had two games before it, therefore the development team had learned much about what did and didn’t work in the Yakuza context. For starters, its story is the best of the lot. Although 4‘s is really good, its focus isn’t solely on Kazuma, and because it has to spread itself across four campaigns, the narrative can feel a little disjointed at times. More importantly than that, however, is the fact that many of us show up to Yakuza wanting to learn more about Kazuma’s exploits, and in 3, his tale is front and center–and it’s only his tale. Because of this, we get an intimate view of the guy we had only known up and to the release of 3 as a badass Yakuza-turned-nice-guy; but the curtain had not been pulled back for us to see the more human side of Kiryu. In pulling back this proverbial curtain, we get a glimpse at what Kazuma’s life looks like post-mafia involvement, which was a refreshing take on a character we only knew within the context of killing, beating, and the general madness that is mob-life.
Being able to see this softer side of Kazuma made him feel more human. In many ways, this third game is a character study of how a former Yakuza member assimilates into society once he’s decided to step away from the violence. Thus, seeing Kiryu in a setting like the Sunshine Orphanage is a really profound juxtaposition to his previous lifestyle. In a sense, Yakuza 3 provides a lot of social commentary without ever beating folks over the head with it, but then also, and more importantly, tells a great tale of redemption, forgiveness and the ability to change that exists within all people, regardless of where they come from and the decisions they’ve made. Because of this, the third game feels smarter, more “grown up,” and is all the better because of it. And having Haruka star in the role opposite of Kazuma was a great choice by new series writer Masayoshi Yokoyama. In essence, Haruka represents all that Kiryu isn’t: young, innocent, naive, gentle, untainted by the cruel ways of the world. It’s such a great contrast, and one that helps establish Kazuma as an even deeper character. The two just make a great on-screen duo.
Though, Yakuza 3 isn’t a one-trick pony, keep that in mind; it has more to offer than just an outstanding story and weighty themes. Yakuza 4 was as big as it was because of Yakuza 3. With the third installment, “bigger is better” was seemingly the motto the devs had in mind. It enlarged the sandbox trappings exponentially and felt like a keeping-with-the-times kind of endeavor, as video games were becoming more about the non-linear, open-world structure we see in today’s titles like The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V. The brand new location of Ryukyu also supplemented the familiar landscape of Kamurocho well, giving players a fresh locale to explore for the first time.
And these old and new settings were made all the more enticing thanks to this being the first title on the PlayStation 3. Certainly the PS2 had its limitations, which in turn made narrow the parameters within which the developers had to work for the first two titles. Consequently, the graphics in Yakuza 3 were stunning (especially given the scope of everything) and the smoother animations really helped bring to life the sense of movement particularly seen in combat. Speaking of which, not only had the combat system been improved since the second game, the load-free feature meant that combat was now seamless and therefore responsible for playing an even larger role in the context of the overall experience. Even the inclusion of the first-person mode was great fun when wanting to get fully immersed in the experience and see the game’s huge world through a different lens.
Yakuza 3 was and is the total package. It holds nostalgia for a lot of folks; but that’s not why everyone remembers it so fondly. We remember it because of what it achieved and what it still achieves when stacked up against today’s games. If folks are looking for a good entry-point to the series, start with Yakuza 3. It includes a recap of the events of 1 and 2, to catch folks up to speed, and simply shows off everything that has, at this point, become synonymous with the series.
Yakuza 5 is right around the corner. Its lineage and pedigree outlined here show that it comes from a near decade’s-worth of quality action-adventure and RPG conventions, brought together to create a sprawling open-world crime epic. It’s the closest thing Japan has in terms of their own Grand Theft Auto, and we only say that to emphasize the sheer popularity and scope of the series. It’s also the culmination of all of SEGA’s work; it manages to be contemporary, with those grand, sandbox ideas, while still maintaining the classic SEGA touch of feeling like an arcade game in the best of ways at times, especially in its combat that harkens back to Spikeout and even earlier classics like Streets of Rage.
Although Japan has far more Yakuza games than we do here in the West, SEGA — and in the case of Yakuza 5, SCEA — have done a superb job at providing pitch-perfect localizations–something we suspect will continue with the forthcoming installment. There are a lot of games coming out this month and next, and plenty that have come out in the past few weeks, that will be competing for people’s wallets, but we firmly believe that, so long as it continues the trends set by its predecessors, Yakuza 5 is worth putting at the top of folks’ must-buy lists. There isn’t a hard release date just yet, but word on the streets is pointing to a late November/early December launch. So be on the lookout for our review shortly after the game goes live.