This post was made in order to help gamers who want to play Yakuza but doesn’t know where to start. I also want more people to play through this series, as well as broaden their horizon when it comes to video games from Asia. This isn’t only a guide, but also a love letter to a game that I‘m truly invested in.
I love this franchise and I want to try my best to make you fall in love with it too!
(PS: I did my best to make this guide as spoiler free as possible!)
A tiny backstory
I’m not only a massive fan of the Yakuza franchise (also known as 龍が如く- Ryū ga Gotoku), but I also have a very weird connection to those games. When I lived in Tokyo I had a friend who wrote and directed her own drama CD’s, a form of a radio play that‘s very popular in Japan. One day she invited me to a studio to see how the voice actors did their work. I, who am I big VO supporter couldn’t say no to that opportunity and before I knew it I was sitting there bearing witness to some spectacular performances. I met three voice actors that day but only one person truly stood out to me. It was a man that didn’t quite fit that “Japanese” norm. He was tall and broad, dressed in a white tracksuit with a massive accessory around his neck. The man was also wearing sunglasses along with a cap in matching color.
His name was Takaya Kuroda… and I had no idea who he was. All I knew was that he was very nice, respectful and had one hell of a speaking voice.
One week later on my way home from school, I decided to visit a video game store. That’s when I came across 龍が如く3 or Yakuza 3. I brought the game home and played it for a bit, enjoying it greatly. But something was bothering me. The main character's voice… I’ve heard that voice before but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. A quick Google search later made me realize that the voice of Kiryū Kazuma was the same man that I met 7 days prior. Oh boy, was I shocked. Anyways, from that day on I became a genuine fan of the franchise, buying all the new titles up to the point of my return back to Sweden.
The Story Begins
The game centers around the character Kiryū Kazuma, a man drifting between the fine line of being good and evil. Kiryū lost his parents early on and grew up in an orphanage called Sunflower together with his best friend Nishiki. They both looked up to a man by the name of Shintaro Kazama who was the owner of the orphanage and the captain of a yakuza group called the Dojima Family. Seeing Kazama’s fame, wealth and influence caused the two young boys to long for the same life. Because of their determination they were after a while allowed to join the Dojima Family, beginning their journey as subordinates.
As the plot moves along throughout the 7 main games, the story gets even bigger. Kiryū grows up, climbs up the ranks and earns the nickname “The Dragon of Dojima” (堂島の龍 Dōjima no Ryū). Dreaming of having his own family (as in his own group of mafia members) in the underworld, Kiryū’s life turns upside down thanks to a sudden and dark event in his life. An event that changes everything.
I’m not going to spoil the whole storyline and explain every detail here but believe me when I say that it’s one hell of a ride!
Why is it so interesting?
Yakuza is unlike any other game you’ve ever played. It combines deep storytelling and interesting characters with elements from fighting games. It also mixes the main story with smaller (and silly) sub-stories that has everything from getting haunted by a ghost lady and putting out fires to buying underwear in secret and dressing up as a mascot that has a giant orange for a head! Also, did I mention all the mini-games?! All the Yakuza titles have a bunch of things you can do on the side! You can:
- Sing your heart out at a karaoke bar
- Play darts against various opponents
- Try food and drinks from all the restaurants (& get drunk!)
- Wrestle in a tournament
- Play baseball and golf
- Disco dance to awesome tunes
- Try all kinds of older games from SEGA (like Puyo Puyo)
- Play the peeing game (yes… you heard that right)
- Go chat with pretty ladies at a hostess club
… and the list goes on and on. As you can see it’s a game filled with lots of stuff! The main games are between 15 and 40 hours long, but with all the extra content you’ll be playing for weeks. This isn’t the only reason why you should play it though. It’s one of the few video games that actually shows a unique side of Japan’s criminal underground. The places from the games (even though the names are different) exist in real life and have stores, shrines and other buildings that you can visit yourself if you’re ever on a vacation in Japan. Lastly, a lot of famous Japanese singers, idols, and actors are a part of the franchise so if you’re a fan of Japanese entertainment you won’t be disappointed!
The game releases: an infographic
The Order of the Games
The order of the Yakuza games can be quite confusing, especially if you live outside of Japan. I often hear that some gamers who want to give them a try feel intimidated and confused, not knowing where to start. Maybe this list can give you a heads up:
Quick list: Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami, Yakuza Kiwami 2, Yakuza 3, Yakuza 4, Yakuza 5 and Yakuza 6!
Summary: As a prequel to Yakuza 1, you find out more about what happened to Kiryū that caused his journey to take a turn. That’s rad! However, Kiryū isn’t the only main character in Yakuza 0. You will also play as Goro Majima (who is in Osaka), a former yakuza that accepts an assassination job that doesn’t really go as planned.
Worth playing? Yes! You start here!
Platform: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 & PC
Summary: Kiryū ends up getting dragged into a big conspiracy involving 10 billion yen that for some reason “vanished”. At the same time, he meets a young girl called Haruka who is on her own looking for her mother. Their lives intertwine and open up a massive story filled with drama and emotions.
Worth playing? Absolutely! A good reminder though: Yakuza 0 has a lot more to do on the side (like mini-games and side questions) that Kiwami. Since it’s a remake of the first game it’s a bit “smaller” so to speak. But still a great game overall.
Platform: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 & PC
Summary: A war is about to happen between clans, something that could be potentially devastating. Kiryū is sent out to try to stop this, coming across a man called Ryuji Goda who has been waiting a long time to meet Kiryū. Ryuji sees Kiryū as his greatest opponent as they both wear a dragon tattoo on their backs. After all, “There can only be one dragon.”
Worth playing? Yes! Most people see this title as the best one! Also, you will find extra content with Goro Majima that didn’t exist in the original second game.
Platform: PlayStation 4
Summary: The city lights are exchanged for blue ocean when Kiryū is sent to Okinawa. He now runs the Sunshine Orphanage together with Haruka and enjoys the life of a normal human. However, one day he spots two men spying on them. Turns out that someone is trying to pressure Kiryū to give up the orphanage… but he refuses. One year later multiple accidents happen and Kiryū’s friend is shot. Seeing a drawing of the attacker, he notices that it looks a lot like his father. Troubled, he leaves Haruka in charge and returns to Tokyo to solve the mystery.
Worth playing? If you’re really into the series by now, yes. If not, this can be skipped. The story is slightly odd and doesn’t make much sense. The nice thing about it though is that you see another side of Kiryū. He is softer and more caring which is an interesting sight to behold!
Platform: Playstation 3. A remastered version for PS4 has been released in Japan and will reach the west sometime soon.
Summary: Kiryū is again involved in an incident in Kamurocho. First, a man is fatally shot on the turf of the powerful Tojo Clan. Then, a man investigating the murder is stabbed to death. These events spark a full-blown struggle for money, power, and above all honor. In this game, Kiryū isn’t the only playable character. Yakuza 4 also introduces you to the loan shark Shun Akiyama, the burly Taiga Saejima, as well as the police officer Tanimura.
Worth playing? Indeed! It’s a great game that gives you some great characters. However! The studio is remastering the game as we speak, having an initial release on January 2019 in Japan. In the original Yakuza 4, Tanimura was played by Hiroki Narimiya who is a famous movie and tv-show actor. After an incident, he retired and vanished from the celebrity world. This caused a problem for the studio since every remake and remaster gets new voice recordings. So they replaced Narimiya with the voice actor Toshiki Masuda who will take the character for a new spin!
Platform: PlayStation 3. Will release on PlayStation 4 soon.
Summary: A big yakuza leader is resting on his deathbed, causing peace between clans to break. Daigo Dojima tries to find a new alliance and ends up disappearing. Kiryū is once again the man for the job and is sent out to find out what happened.
Worth playing? It’s not a must but it’s a good preparation for the 6th game. It’s a big title with a lot of stories to keep track of. This is the second title to feature multiple playable characters (in this case 5 of them!). For example, this is the only game where you can play as Haruka (the little girl that Kiryū met in Yakuza 1/Kiwami).
Platform: PlayStation 3 (Will hopefully be available for the PS4 soon)
Summary: Kiryū ends up spending 3 years in prison. After he gets out he finds out that Haruka is missing. After some research, she is found at a hospital and in a coma apparently after a hit-and-run. Kiryū decides to travel to Onomichi in Hiroshima, hoping to find the truth behind what happened.
Worth playing? YES! It’s one of the best! The game returns to only having Kiryū as the playable character but the side characters are really interesting and fun. The game is absolutely gorgeous and has little to no loading time. The story is deep and filled with emotions, a worthy end to Kiryū’s story!
Platform: PlayStation 4
Japan vs the West
After every release in Japan, it takes a few extra years before we get it in the west because of localization. In the beginning, the Yakuza franchise didn’t take off at all. Gamers didn’t really get the idea and the people who did enjoy it hated the fact that the first game had English voice acting. Did you know that Michael Madsen was in it? Even Mark Hamill decided to lend his voice, portraying Majima Goro! It didn’t help though as it became so disliked that the studio decided to release the rest with the original voices.
By the time of the third release (Yakuza 3), the games had started to grow a cult following. But it’s actually thanks to Yakuza 0(and perhaps Yakuza 6 as well) that the series gained even more attention. Today the Yakuza franchise has a small but solid fan base in EU and US, which means that Ryū ga Gotoku Studio can continue to release their upcoming games in the west.
As a part of Yakuza Online’s pre-registration campaign that started in September (& ended November 16th, 2018) SEGA asked their fans to vote for their favorite characters. The poll featured over 100 characters from Yakuza 0 through Yakuza 6 and the ones with most votes would end up as a special bonus character in the new game.
Here’s the top 10:
- Goro Majima (Yakuza 0–6)
- Kiryū Kazuma (Yakuza 0–6)
- Taiga Saejima (Yakuza 4–6)
- Shun Akiyama (Yakuza 4–6)
- Yoshitaka Mine (Yakuza 3)
- Ryuji Goda (Yakuza 0, Yakuza 2/Kiwami 2)
- Akira Nishikiyama (Yakuza 0, Yakuza 1/Kiwami)
- Yuki (Yakuza 0/ Yakuza Kiwami 2)
- Homare Nishitani (Yakuza 0)
- Daigo Dojima (Yakuza 0–6)
There are many characters to love and just as many to dislike. I’m sure you too will end up having a list of your favorite people after playing the games.
The Yakuza Studio
In 2005, a restructuring happened at Sega and they formed something called the Entertainment R&D Dept. They were responsible for developing brand new products for the company, specifically those aimed at the consumer market.
Yakuza had the biggest success and went on to spare an entire franchise. In 2008 it continued as Sega CS1 which got the same team with some staff from Sports Design R&D.
Since the production of Yakuza continued it was given a whole dedicated team also known as Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio. According to one of the leads of the studio, it’s not a company organization but rather a “production team” or a “concept”, much like the Sonic Team.
The success of a Japanese game
Scott Strichart and Sam Mullen are both producers at Sega and according to them, Yakuza is a game in a very unique position. It has a good mix of mature, heavy content with fun and silly stories on the side. Yakuza is rather unusual on the market just because you can’t really place it in one category. It’s many things in one. Also, the series stays the same even if it’s brought to the West, representing the Japanese IP. It’s not changed for the Western market in terms of, for example, gameplay. People who went out and actually gave the series a chance often found something they weren’t expecting.
But there are some big challenges as well. First of all, catching up with the Japanese releases can be quite a test. It takes around 2–3 years to localize one title just because the games are so massive. They also have to protect the authenticity and at the same time make it appealing to Western players. That can be quite a struggle, to say the least.
Moving forward with new releases I hope they will continue to put effort into getting people to give it a try! The best way is to market the game as unique and as “something that you’ve never experienced before”. That it’s something that will always stay Japanese and that it will fit in your video game collection just because it stands out.
If you wanna read more about the localization in the West, I suggest checking out these interviews below:
How Sega Brought Yakuza 0 To The West
The delightfully weird and heartfelt Yakuza 0 released last month to an uproar of praise and accolades. Our own Jeff…
Sega capitalizing on foreign exchange with Yakuza, Total War
Sega Europe exec John Clark says audiences in Asia and the West are increasingly interested in games from the other…
What’s happening now in the Yakuza world?
Yakuza Online recently came out on iOS and Android (November 21st). It will be a Japan-only kind of thing for now but hopefully, we’ll get a taste of it later. What is cool is that they got 1 million downloads after just a week!
Next January they will release a remastered version of Yakuza 4 on the PS4, also in Japan. But remastered versions of 3, 4 and 5 will reach us eventually, hopefully starting next year.
Another interesting thing that foreign fans might not know about is the event that’s going on right now at the Tokyo Mystery Circus in Shinjuku / Tokyo. Apparently, it’s an attraction where you tour Kabukicho while getting messages from Kiryū via the app Line. You will also be able to put on some boxing gloves and kick some butt, Yakuza style!
Reaching the final part of this guide, I hope that I could give you some insight into this franchise. If it was helpful and made you even slightly curious, then I’ve done my part!
If you wanna try something new that will leave a mark on your gaming experience, I’d say go for it. It will take you on a journey with a deep story, lots of amusing moments, fantastic voice acting and a great atmosphere. Many of the games are cheaper now than when they released and there’s always a sale around the corner. So what are you waiting for!? Go try it out!
With the guide done, I’m heading to Tokyo! What will happen there? Well, besides a nice and very needed vacation I might have some business up my sleeve. Does it have anything to do with the Yakuza franchise? Maybe :P You’ll just have to be patient and wait until “next year!” Stay tuned!