I have only recently got into Yakuza after years of friends telling me I needed to play this game. These were not basic “oh you’ll like this game” or “you should try this out, you may like it,” the comments were more “you NEED to play this game” and “I know you’ll LOVE it”. Basically, they knew me and they knew Yakuza would be a perfect fit. However, whenever I tried to get them to explain it the answer was always an approximation of “you need to play it to understand it”. As Yakuza is a series that defies characterization.
If you’ve played Yakuza, you will likely know what I am talking about. It is sort of an action RPG, in part an open world crime game, it’s also a Virtua Fighter emulator, and an insanely addictive Cabaret Club simulator...and that is just the first five hours of Kiwami 2! The entire series apparently gets even more outlandish with each subsequent release.
When pushed to sum up the series in one sentence Yakuza Producer Daisuke Sato replied, “it’s difficult to sum up in one sentence, but if I had to I would say that...” “I feel that Yakuza is a series where you can do stupid things very seriously.” Which really does capture the heart and soul of Yakuza.
What is interesting is how unique this situation is, as there is nothing quite like Yakuza given it is a direct contradiction in terms. Except when its not. What Yakuza does well is creates well rounded, believable, and serious characters and often puts them in extremely silly situations, where they often act as the straight man in one large absurdist scenario.
A perfect example is where in Yakuza Kiwami 2, Kiryu our hero, is roped into becoming a manager of the aforementioned Cabaret Club Four Shine. Deciding to help the down on their luck ladies, Kiryu, worn down, looks straight at the camera and both to himself and the player asks “how did I get myself into this?” A logical question for a convicted murderer (he didn’t do it), former (sort of) Yakuza, who is REDACTED DUE TO SPOILERS FOR YAKUZA 1.
In this way Kiryu the “Dragon of Dojima” is actually one of the best comedic characters I have ever had the pleasure of playing. The silliness of the mini-games and side stories plays well off his stoic character proving why a straight man is such a common element of comedy. What is even better is when Kiryu cracks and joins in on the fun. Ridiculous to the extreme it is also quite entertaining.
Add on to this the scenarios themselves that make up the Yakuza games main plot retain a very serious tone. Emotional deaths, twists, and some seriously bad people are common place. Providing a very noticeable but not out-of-place contrast to the sillier side of the series.
One notable exception to this and a fan favorite like for this reason is Goro Majima “The Mad Dog of Shimano”. A character so patently absurd he should not work, but he does. As unlike basically all the other recurring characters in the series who are played straight, Majima is decidedly not. He is unabashedly outlandish and a great foil for Kiryu. Or you can just sing Karaoke with him, whatever goes!
Honestly, if there is any serious complaint I had with the series as it stands today is the way Sega has handled localization with several interesting spin-offs remaining Japan exclusive. Most notably its Samurai era spin-off Yakuza: Ishin for the PS4 from 2014 which just sounds delightful. Though we did recently get Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise which is effectively a Yakuza game with a Fist of the North Star skin, which I am not complaining about. As well as Judgment a contemporary Yakuza spin off releasing in a few months.
All in all, Yakuza is one of those special series that if its for you, you will love it. If its not, you won’t get it as there is a lot off-putting about it for certain people. As it is very Japanese in style with all the positive and negatives that entails from consuming a foreign cultural product. Its treatment of woman for example, I have heard is a turn off and quite frankly I can see how that is a valid concern.
For me however, Yakuza is a series I have been waiting a long time to discover. One that is unabashedly weird, that revels in its absurdity, and just lets you have fun with serious people doing silly things. If this sounds like a series you may enjoy Yakuza Kiwami and Zero, two of the best games in the series, are available for very reasonable prices on the PSN.
The fun thing about writing this is I have not even scratched the surface of what Yakuza is. I have only played a very limited amount of the series, only knowing stories of how it gets bigger and crazier as we move to the recent Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, a sort of end point for this chapter of the series. Exploring and getting to know Yakuza is a feeling I have not had in regard to gaming in quite a while and that is why I love it so much.
Seriously, if this sounds fun play it! Beat up some thugs, have some whiskey, play some baseball, just do whatever. Yakuza lets you have fun.
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