Fifteen years ago, Sega released Yakuza, the first in what would become one of the Japanese company’s longest-running game series to date. A spiritual successor of sorts to 1999’s Shenmue, which pioneered cinematic storytelling in realistic settings with martial arts brawling, it was also a Japanese take on mature crime-themed games that the games industry was gravitating towards in the early ’00s in the wake of Grand Theft Auto 3.
But while the Yakuza series has been a success in Japan, becoming the equivalent of an Assassin’s Creed or Call Of Duty with a new instalment or spin-off on a near-annual basis, it remained something of a niche to the rest of the world. However, the series has had a better-late-than-never revival in the West, largely thanks to 2017’s prequel Yakuza 0, as more newcomers started to discover the story of stoic and fearsome ex-yakuza enforcer Kazuma Kiryu who tries to leave behind his life in the Tokyo criminal underworld only to be constantly pulled back in.
But there may be a better case for why 2020’s Yakuza: Like A Dragon should be your best entry point to the series. Not only does the game swap up the tried-and-true action-based brawling for a modern-day twist on turn-based party-based RPG combat but also introduces a brand new protagonist. That’s only as true as saying that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a new story arc for a new generation, yet it’s still going to involve past characters and histories that you’ll want to go back to experience.
The problem for many new Yakuza converts is that there hadn’t been a way to appreciate the past games as intended. After laying the groundwork in 2017 with Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami – a remake of the first-ever Yakuza game – the next title was 2018’s Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life, in effect skipping a decade’s worth of story. It would be like watching Breaking Bad’s first season before going straight to the finale and then having to catch up on what happened between a year or two down the line.
Granted, each Yakuza title has its own self-contained story and usually contains plot summaries of past games, but they’re hardly an ideal substitute to the real thing. Without that experience of the relationships built over time, from getting to know the kids at the orphanage Kiryu sets up in Yakuza 3 to new characters like legendary yakuza hitman Saejima or unorthodox moneylender Akiyama in Yakuza 4, it’s difficult for many emotional beats to fully resonate in Kiryu’s swansong.
Instead, it’s after leaving PlayStation exclusivity that Yakuza has found a new lease of life. Each title in the franchise has been getting steadily released on Xbox Game Pass, beginning with Yakuza 0 and followed by Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza Kiwami 2 in 2020. The third, fourth and fifth entries have just landed on the subscription service as the Yakuza Remastered Collection giving players a couple of months to digest before Kiryu’s story concludes with Yakuza 6 in March.
In some ways there’s still some incongruity, namely how playing the remastered collection of PS3-era games pales in comparison to the lavish remake that is Yakuza Kiwami 2. But I’m honestly more jealous of new Yakuza fans on Xbox who are able to play through the whole saga chronologically and haven’t had to endure agonising long waits for localisation. This was the case with Yakuza 5, which arrived a full three years after its 2012 release in Japan, at a time when the series’ future outside its native country was uncertain.
It’s now hard to think of a more ideal platform for the Yakuza series than Game Pass. With its generous library of downloadable (and now streamable) games, it’s no wonder Microsoft’s service is likened as “Netflix for games”. If that’s the case, then Yakuza is its House Of Cards or The Crown.
Sure, Game Pass has Microsoft’s own first-party releases like Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Gears If War – and we can also expect an even greater back catalogue following the tech giant’s acquisition of Bethesda in 2020 – but no game better resembles a TV show like Yakuza.
That’s apparent in how these games love to indulge in lengthy yet gripping dramatic cut scenes where you might spend 10-15 minutes without having to pick up the controller. However, it’s hard not to get absorbed in these moments, with close-ups relishing every detailed pore of these old yakuza’s world-weary faces as loyalties are tested, fists clash and buried secrets come to the surface. It feels even more like an ensemble TV show by the time you get to Yakuza 4 when the game introduces multiple protagonists. The only downside is that the series is structured so you have to play each individual character’s path one after the other instead of cutting between them like you would in a TV episode.
Yakuza 5 takes the multiple protagonist structure even further, with each arc feeling like an almost different game altogether, from Kiryu’s side quests swapping between being a by-the-book cab driver and vigilante street racer to Saejima’s prison break turning into a survival shooter as you hunt a formidable bear in the mountains. More bizarrely is taking Kiryu’s adopted teenage daughter Haruka through the ups and downs of being a J-pop idol.
Unlike other games in the crime genre, Yakuza isn’t all gritty melodrama. Its stories are grounded with a lot of heart, underpinned by Kiryu’s Batman-like code of not killing (even if you may be plunging a sword into someone or chucking a goon off the top of a building in-game). Even the lowliest thug or the most despicable power-hungry mastermind has a chance for redemption.
That the series remains largely in the small but dense red-light district of Kamurocho also gives it the same kind of familiarity as a soap opera, as you gradually see these characters and places over the course of multiple entries grow and change. More importantly, what new fans come to most appreciate in Yakuza games is their ability to veer straight into surreal absurd comedy at the drop of a hat, which comes from the many brilliant side quests as you get to know the colourful characters of Kamurocho, some who make recurring appearances in the series.
Whether you binge through the whole series or take your time each evening, Yakuza really is a fantastic combination of surprises. On one hand, you’ve got high drama as the excellent voice cast let their emotions rip, on the other you suddenly drop into a weird and goofy comedy. One moment it’s a surprisingly detailed Japanese touring simulator of Tokyo nightlife, the next you’re getting your hands dirty smashing bicycles over gangsters’ heads.
In these long, dark, cold, locked-down evenings, it’s exactly the kind of escape we could all do with.