How To Get Into the Ever-Growing Yakuza Series
It's never been a better time to be a Yakuza fan – if only due to the sheer amount of Yakuza games there are. Across the mainline series, prequels, remakes, and spin-offs, developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has released 15 Yakuza games since 2005. But with that kind of output, it can be a little confusing to know where to start and in what order you should play the games (spoiler: not in release order or chronological order!). If you're thinking of jumping into this ever-expanding series before the release of Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon next month, but need a little help getting started, I've got you covered.
The recent Yakuza renaissance outside of Japan, in a lot of ways, can be attributed to the 2017 release of Yakuza 0, the sixth main entry in the series. This is the best place to start your Yakuza journey.
Taking place more than a decade before the events of the first Yakuza game, Yakuza 0 reintroduces the series' characters, allowing new players to get to know its large cast and where each of them came from. The standout here is Goro Majima, playable for the first time, and given one of the better story arcs in the series. Later in the Yakuza timeline, Majima is a loose cannon and a bit of an oddball antihero, but in Yakuza 0 we're introduced to a subdued, almost subtle Majima and discover the life events that led him to lose control and become the person he is in later games. We're also given a chance to explore series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu's younger self, his role within the Tojo yakuza clan, and the friendships and relationships long-established in earlier games.
A lot of people point to Yakuza 0 as the best game in the series, and for good reason. It tells a mature story of trauma, love, and camaraderie and how all of those things can be intertwined with sometimes messy results. It also serves as the best introduction to the series’ characters, even better than the first Yakuza game, giving each plenty of screen time to explore their personalities and motivations. As such, it is a great place to jump in. Now that Yakuza 0 is also on Game Pass for Xbox One and PC, there's really no reason to not try it out.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life
After you finish playing Yakuza 0, just jump all the way to the end. It's worth it, I promise.
Playing Yakuza games in 2020 can be all over the place. Like a lot of PlayStation 2 and early PlayStation 3 titles, some of the Yakuza games haven't aged super well. From a gameplay perspective, some of the older games are pretty clunky compared to their more recent, streamlined counterparts. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life does not suffer from such issues.
The first game created in Ryu Ga Gotoku's Dragon Engine, Yakuza 6 is the first Yakuza game made for the current generation of consoles (Yakuza 0 launched in Japan on PlayStation 3), and adds a ton of quality-of-life stuff that aid pacing, like a reworked leveling system and the ability to take your fights seamlessly in and out of environments, which makes for more dynamic combat encounters.
Yakuza 6 is also one of the series' best and most confident stories, amplified by the great visuals and motion capture employed through the Dragon Engine. Special mention goes to legendary Japanese actor and director Takeshi Kitano, who turns in an excellent performance as one of the game's main characters.
While it may seem like a bad idea to jump to the end of a story more than a decade in the making, Yakuza 6 is built around the idea that it may be a player's first Yakuza game, and features a great in-depth primer on the series' story up to that point, allowing newcomers to jump right in and experience the best-playing Yakuza game to date without needing to wade through its previous baggage.
Judgment is a Yakuza game by technicality. It doesn't feature any of the characters from the main series, instead introducing its own new cast. But it does take place in the same universe and open world. And to date, it's the best cure for Yakuza burnout. Let's take a pit-stop here.
Until the release of Yakuza 7 in November, which introduces turn-based combat to the series, all of the Yakuza games follow a pretty similar formula: You walk around Kamurocho, the games' open-world city (based on Kabukicho, Tokyo's real-world red-light district). You get in random street fights, slowly progress the game's main story, do some wacky side quests, rinse and repeat. Even for the biggest Yakuza fan, this can get repetitive quickly, especially considering each game will take you between 30 and 50 hours to complete.
Judgment doesn't wholly break from the Yakuza formula, but it does introduce enough new features that keep it fresh and interesting. Playing as private investigator Takayuki Yagami, Judgment features a bunch of new detective mechanics, like investigating a crime scene, participating in courtroom cases à la Ace Attorney, and tailing suspects alongside all the stuff Yakuza players have come to expect. It's a great twist on the usual Yakuza gameplay that allows this spinoff to sit comfortably alongside its predecessors.
Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza Kiwami 2
Okay, we're back on track here. After seeing how the Yakuza story starts and ends, and taking a quick detour to play Judgment, it's time to play the series proper. Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza Kiwami 2, released outside of Japan in 2017 and 2018, respectively, aren't the best Yakuza games overall, but they are the best ways to experience Yakuza and Yakuza 2.
Kiwami and Kiwami 2 are both remakes, and they do a good job bringing the original two games in the series, which were originally PlayStation 2 exclusives, closer to modern standards. Kiwami 2 especially excels in this regard, since it was made in the aforementioned Dragon Engine and has all the same bells and whistles of Yakuza 6. Kiwami 1 originally launched on the PlayStation 3, so it's still an update of a last-gen game.
Gameplay-wise, the two Kiwami games are more of that great Yakuza “run and around and beat the crap out of dudes” you've come to expect if you've made it this far. But especially compared to the highs of Yakuza 0 and Yakuza 6, the stories of these games, even with rewrites and changes made for the remakes, just never hit the same marks. They still feel hokey and rushed the way older game stories can as they try and tell an in-depth story under the confines of limited space. Considering Yakuza 0 is a prequel and Yakuza 6 has that story primer for new players, I still contend they're the best two games to play if you're new to the Yakuza series. But if you made it this far, Kiwami and Kiwami 2 are a great look at where the series came from.
The Yakuza Remastered Collection
Lastly, if you want to play Yakuza 3, Yakuza 4, and Yakuza 5, The Yakuza Remastered Collection released in February 2020 is the way to go. There's no new bells and whistles here like with the Kiwami games; these are just remastered ports of the PlayStation 3 games – a decision series producer Daisuke Sato told us came down to time – but the new physical release is currently the easiest and cheapest way to play these three games.
Are you planning to jump into the Yakuza series before Yakuza 7 is released on November 10? Let us know in the comments below!