I’m old enough to remember when the first Yakuza game released on the PlayStation 2 in 2006 (2005 in Japan). That initial release was treated like a joke in the U.S. Yakuza was seen as a Japanese crime curio by some and an inferior Grand Theft Auto knock-off by others. But mostly, it was just ignored.
Over the years, creator Toshihiro Nagoshi and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio continued to churn out one Yakuza sequel after the other. I remember a small minority in the gaming community praised the series’ combat, humor, and storytelling, but the general public broadly waved off these games. However, slowly something started to change. With each new Yakuza, that vocal minority grew until they just couldn’t be ignored.
I decided to find out what everyone was going on about with the release of Yakuza 0. That’s when I started to feel bad for brushing off the series for so long. While playing Yakuza 0, I finally understood why the franchise had gained such a following over the years. The combat isn’t just fun; it is incredibly gratifying. Each hit delivers a satisfying smack, and I love grabbing random bikes off the corner of the street then smashing them across some punk’s face. As you battle, you build up a heat gage, which is used to deliver a variety of brutal, bone-crunching punches and other fight-ending super attacks. In one, Kiryu cartoonishly shoves a box of nails into his opponent’s face before kicking them to the curb.
But Yakuza is more than its wild combat. My favorite aspect of the series is its incredible balance between absolute absurdity and high drama. In one Yakuza 0 side-quest, you help a Michael Jackson-like superstar shoot a music video by fighting zombies in the street. In another, you must pretend to be a complete stranger’s boyfriend so she can avoid an arranged marriage. But one of my favorite absurd moments is when Kiryu brings a foreigner food after he mistakenly hears them say “I need a pizza” instead of “I need a visa.”
Yakuza is full of genuinely hilarious moments, but those scenes are often balanced with surprisingly rich narratives about a man with an unshakeable sense of justice caught up in a web of conspiracy in the criminal underworld. The fact that Yakuza actually pulls off the wild tonal shifts from its side-quests to its main story is one of the things that makes it so incredible. Sure, Yakuza can be a little overdramatized. But, I love its almost soap-operatic approach to storytelling, and several moments in Yakuza 0 left me with my jaw open.
I’ve already played through Yakuza 0, the remake of the first game Yakuza Kiwami, and the JRPG-inspired Yakuza: Like a Dragon, but that’s not enough; I need to see this series to completion. I’ll be honest with you. This could be a bit of an uphill battle. Like many, my time is limited, and I have a lot of other games to play. It’s no secret that 2022 is shaping up to be a banner year for the industry. I can’t wait to get my hands on titles like Elden Ring, Horizon Forbidden West, God of War Ragnarök, Marvel’s Midnight Suns, Gotham Knights, Starfield, and *inhales deeply* the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s a real murderer’s row of upcoming titles, and they’re sure to keep me busy, but honestly, the best moments in Yakuza are as good as anything else the industry has to offer, so I need to make time for them.
If you’re looking for something new to dig into this year, check out Yakuza. I swear Sega isn’t paying me to write any of this … Please, they have my family, and they’re forcing me to write this article about the Yakuza series. Someone send help! I’m trapped! Oh crap, here they come. Play it cool … And that’s why my New Year’s Resolution is to play more games in Sega’s blockbuster action/RPG series Yakuza.