If someone were to summarize what the Yakuza franchise is, there would be a variety of potential answers depending on who you ask. Some might call it a Grand Theft Auto clone crime drama. Others will say it’s a comedy game focused on gaffes, and with Yakuza: Like a Dragon‘s release in 2020 there is now a significant portion of people who believe it’s an RPG franchise.
In reality, the answer is all of the above. The Yakuza franchise began on the PlayStation 2 in 2005 as a clunky brawler with an interesting enough story that didn’t do anything particularly well. It also had one of the most hysterically bad English dubs ever made. Did you know Mark Hamill was in this? Well, he doesn’t know that fun fact either apparently. The result of that horrible English dub, along with a poor showing in the states, resulted in Yakuza titles often released with Japanese audio and English subtitles in the US. But while they remained niche in the West, they exploded in popularity in Japan, resulting in eight mainline titles, multiple spin-offs, and SEGA’s most lucrative franchise today behind only Sonic the Hedgehog.
These days, however, Yakuza is a worldwide franchise. They’re even back to giving their U.S. releases an English dub and some notable voice actors have been involved. This week, Yakuza: Like a Dragon was released on the PlayStation 5 with a free upgrade for owners of the PlayStation 4 version. As it turns out, it was one of the biggest games of 2020. For longtime fans of Yakuza, it’s hard to believe. And for newcomers, it can feel overwhelming with so many titles to play.
With all that Yakuza out there — and its recent addition to Xbox Game Pass — there’s never been a better time to get involved in the franchise. You just need to know where to start.
Where To Start
One thing that’s great about the Yakuza franchise is they all tell self-contained stories that are interesting by themselves. With a focus on telling self-contained stories over an overarching plot, they avoid the issue that some players might feel of having to play every single game. If a player wants to only play Yakuza 0 and Yakuza 7, they can. And while they might not recognize every character in either title, or get all the nods to other games, they’ll understand enough of what’s going on to appreciate the game.
That said, there is a reward for those players that do dive into every game of the franchise. The world of Yakuza changes from game to game, including many of the characters gamers become vested in as their story develops. You begin cheering for them or, in other cases, cheering against them.
If you don’t have time to play them all, however, the best places to start are likely either Yakuza 0 or Yakuza: Like a Dragon. The former is a prequel to the entire franchise that establishes the backstory of many main characters. It’s also a game that, if you don’t like it, you will likely not like the rest of the franchise. It’s the perfect barometer to test your willingness to invest deeply in the Yakuza ecosystem.
Like a Dragon is also a great starting point, too, because it represents a massive shift in gameplay. Yakuza 0 through Yakuza 6 are all beat’em up brawlers with light RPG elements, but in those games, one of the major focuses was the cinematic style heat actions. These are single button pushes that, in specific situations, allow the player to do massive damage almost like a quick-time event. Perhaps these are what inspired the developers to switch to turn-based RPG combat in Like a Dragon.
Like a Dragon also introduces new characters and a new city to explore. There are still elements from the previous games that make their way into the latest Yakuza, but it’s the closest thing the franchise has had to a reboot, making it a great entry point into the franchise. It also helps that the plot is spectacular, and better than most of the Yakuza games, which often don’t have the most engaging of storylines. Many Yakuza games see fans let their love for the characters push them past plots that aren’t so great, but Like A Dragon is a notable, and welcome, exception.
The Appeal of Yakuza
Much of the Yakuza franchise may be personified by the game’s vibrant characters, but the best argument to explore the franchise is the larger world in which they exist. The majority of the Yakuza franchise is set in one town called Kamurocho. It’s a fictional version of Tokyo’s Red Light District and, unlike the typical crime drama open-world game, Kamurocho is not a huge expansive world. It’s small in comparison, but while other worlds may have a problem of emptiness this one is filled with detail. Every corner has something, whether it’s a shop, a restaurant, mini-games, or the major side-quests of this franchise’s substories.
These substories are, in fact, the driving force of the Yakuza franchise. Unlike the GTAs and Red Dead Redemptions of the gaming world, Yakuza does not typically allow player to cause chaos in the streets. You can’t just go up to a random person and shoot them or start a riot. There are street fights, but those occur when the main character is provoked by random passersby desperate for a brawl. For some players, this may be a turnoff, but the substories more than make up for the supposed lack of freedom.
Many of these stories take the main characters of the franchise and throw them in the wackiest situations you can think of. In Yakuza 0 for example the main character, Kiryu Kazama, is tasked with defending a Michael Jackson-esque man named “Miracle Johnson” while he films his famous “Thriller” video. Another sees the player running a successful host club, or there are the taxi races in Yakuza 5, or maybe you want to be dressed up as a beloved children’s mascot and kick the crap out of people that have wanted nothing more than to punch said mascot.
If side quests aren’t your thing, the actual gaming sims in the franchise may be your thing. Go play a round of bowling and if you bowl a Turkey the bowling alley will reward you with a chicken. You can name the chicken “Nugget” and hire it to work at your Real Estate firm. Go play a round of mahjong or shogi. More interested in gambling? Hit up one of the secret casinos and play some poker or blackjack. There are batting cages, discotheques, hanging out at bars, and that’s just the start. Not to mention karaoke, which is a rhythm game that turns into a music video your character will actually perform.
There’s no need to go around causing mayhem because there’s so much to do in the city itself that it’s unnecessary. Exploring each town to see what it has to do is far more fulfilling than the average crime drama video game.
Yakuza is, admittedly, pretty weird. It’s also funny and tragic and very Japanese. But most importantly, Yakuza is… Yakuza. There isn’t another video game series out there like it and it’s one that you don’t want to miss out on. All of the games are available on the PlayStation 4/5, Xbox, and PC. And in a world where there are so many video games and series you might not have time to try out, Yakuza is certainly worth giving a shot.