Unfortunately, not all of us are privileged with being able to go to PAX East and play the most exciting games coming out later this year. That’s okay, though, because while Chris was busy creaming himself multiple times over Evolve, I got to sit down with an old gem that passed me by years ago, and my week was probably just as fun as his. All thanks to Yakuza!
In a bloated industry where there seems to be a market for everything from farming sims to Sims farming, there are still a number of great Japanese titles that get overlooked simply because they are so heavily Japanese in their design. This appears to have always been the case with the Yakuza series, Japan’s answer to GTA that’s as oddball and convoluted as it is entertaining and engaging. Whether the franchise simply falls prey to a slowly withering Japanese industry, or whether it won’t sell simply because it happens to have the stigma of being produced by Sega, which is a death sentence no matter how good a game is (*cough*Valkyria Chronicles*cough*), the series never really managed to take hold in the West. The 5th entry currently remains in localization limbo with little hope of seeing our shores a year and a half after its’ Japanese release.
As someone who had only passively heard of the series before just a few months ago, it honestly only took about three hours of watching a play-through of the fourth entry to be totally hooked on it, and I’m ashamed to think it took so long for me to notice it. With an RPG-infused fighting system, an overwhelmingly authentic take on Tokyo’s Kabukicho District, and a penchant for the bizarre that only the Japanese can have, it managed to scratch a deep itch I never even knew I had. It’s utterly criminal that such an incredible franchise is going to waste here in the West, and that’s why I’m here to tell you the top reasons why you should put down those pringles and be playing these games. RIGHT NOW.
4. Stories which Are Overly Complex, Utterly Over-Dramatic, Heartrending, and Comically Ridiculous All at the Same Time
I’ve never really understood what it was about Japanese story-writing that drives them to make their dramas more convoluted than a scientific journal on metaphysics. Backstabbing, secret bloodlines, complex backstories, and old romances always combine to make stories that take all of your mental effort not to get lost in. If you’ve ever played one of the Metal Gear Solid games, then you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Still got that idea of Hideo Kojima’s writing in mind? Good, now believe me when I tell you that Yakuza’s stories are literally twice as complex and stupid. Maybe more so. I’m not even joking.
The Yakuza games, to put it most simply, are gripping crime dramas with too many characters and everybody scheming far more than is possible. Yet that’s what’s so incredible about the story-telling in each game – no matter how opaque and dumb the plots are, they nonetheless have a way of grabbing your attention and holding on to it all the way through. One minute you’ll be fighting your way out of a nightclub because an old enemy-turned-ally-turned-enemy has finally caught up with you, the next you’ll be running around trying to find dog food for an orphan girl’s starving stray puppy. There’s no real way of telling what nonsense each game is going to throw at you next, but because the main stories never get overwhelmingly emotional even when dealing with difficult subject matter, they very rarely ever lose your engagement for too long. It’s a strangely unique style that really has to be experienced to be believed.
3. One of the Most Fully-Realized Sandboxes Ever
While GTA and other open-world franchises have always pushed for bigger and bigger environments that only seem to become more vapid as they grow in size, the Yakuza series has always been content with a small area of roughly 1-2 square miles. Don’t let that fool you, though – despite the lack of car-stealing, gunfights, and rampages (which grow old pretty quick in those games for some people, anyway), the game world has a mind-blowing amount of sidequests, minigames, and other random nonsense to keep you entertained for quite some time.
The Yakuza games are typically based in the fictional district of Kamurocho, a recreation of one of Tokyo’s red-light districts known as Kabukicho, and damned if it wasn’t one of the most faithful I’ve ever seen. There are drugstores on almost every corner, numerous bars and night clubs, full-on arcades, and even a batting cage if the urge strikes you to use a baseball bat for its’ intended purpose, rather than as a weapon (which is weird, but whatever, no judgment). You could literally get lost for hours just playing ridiculous arcade games – full-on games, even, including a Virtua Fighter emulation in the most recent entry – or wasting all your money on Pachinko. You could just run around getting into fights with street punks, if you’re like me and never get tired of breaking giant traffic cones against people’s heads. There’s even, as I hinted at before, a complete golfing game! The city is your oyster, and you’d be surprised how easy it is to get distracted from the main quest in a world so small yet vibrant.
Kamurocho in Yakuza was one of the first great examples of a living, breathing game world, and if you feel the need to experience the seedy underbelly of Japan in all its’ absurdity, violence, and glory, Yakuza’s your quickest route to some messed-up adventures. Just try not to waste too much money on hostess clubs.
2. A Brutally Extravagant Fighting System
Getting into the combat realm of things, the Yakuza series has always eschewed the gunplay that is more abundant in Western crime titles than smugness at a vegan convention. Y’see, the thing about Japan is that gun laws have been so strict since WWII, it’s incredibly rare that anybody, even Mafioso, would have/use even a simple handgun. Instead, everything is decided at the end of a man’s fists, as you brawl your way through the main story thanks to an impressive combat system that’s fairly complex in its’ mechanics.
Starting with basic punches, kicks, and grabs, your character slowly gains more and more tricks and tools at their disposal as you level up and progress, allowing you more and more creative ways to show a man why he has too many bones. Then, soon after that, things just totally lose all logic in the most awesome way possible. Fighting well will slowly fill up a bar called the HEAT gauge, and when it hits that first mark on the bar is where things start to get REALLY fun.
Fighting in Yakuza is centered on trying to pull as many HEAT moves as you can as quickly as possible, and for good reason: they’re some of the most violent, goofy, and totally absurd finishers you could possibly imagine, and pulling them off is about as fun as that sounds. Starting with stepping on men’s faces and swinging them full-bodied against streetlights, you’ll slowly move up to things like back-flipping a man into the air so you can catch him with your foot, backhanding a man so hard he does a 720, and suffocating a man with whipped cream. One character in the fourth entry has a move called Essence of Bell Ringing, which has you deadlifting a man so you can run him head-first into a wall (before, of course, kicking him into it on his way down). These moves are satisfying, cringe-inducing, utterly hilarious, and serve to top off one of the most fun and creative fighting systems I’ve seen in years.
The Yakuza series has a ton of great qualities, but if I had to choose my favorite, it would have to be the inclusion of one of the most overlooked and legendary badasses of the gaming world, Kazuma Kiryu. As the ultimate symbol of Japanese masculinity, he’s everything they prize in a man: he’s humble, modest, selfless, honorable, noble, kind, quiet yet charming, and best of all, he’ll totally kick anybody’s ass in a fistfight.
Kiryu is just a simple man caught up in a twisted crime world of quadruple-crossings, faked-deaths, rubber bullets, and professional golf, all of which he always seems to take in stride no matter how dumb and convoluted the plots of each game become. He’s a weird bastion of hope, justice, and peace in a city where Yakuza can be noble and cops can be wicked, and no matter how fucked-up the situation seems to become, he’ll always come out on top one way or another. One time, he was even thrown into a ring with two tigers. So what did he do? Obviously, he did what any real man would do – he beat them into submission. With his FISTS.
By the fourth and fifth iterations of the series, Kiryu is such a legendary badass of Kamurocho, even in his forties, that the developers had to make it so you played as other characters throughout the game. Even then, Kiryu has to show up in the last act to pull everything together and kick the shit out of whatever idiot villain has concocted the newest evil plan that’s ten times more complex than it needs to be.
I could list an endless number of reasons why you should be playing the Yakuza games, but if you do it for any reason, do it for Kazuma Kiryu. You won’t be disappointed.