Now that the West is getting new Yakuza games every six months, there's never been a better to check out the series. But with over seven games and numerous spin offs, it can be hard to know where to start. Well, today's your lucky day! Let me help you take your first step into one of gaming's best series.
What's the big deal?
Yakuza is the closest thing videos games have to a soap opera.
The series follows Kazuma Kiryu, an honorable yakuza enforcer who can't seem to catch a break even after he's left organised crime. People chop off fingers, punch bears, sing karaoke, and cry a lot. When you're not caught up in the story, you're free to do side quests in the neon-lit district of Kamurocho, a fictional spin on Tokyo's entertainment districts that keeps growing as the series progresses.
Picture the lovingly crafted world of Shenmue but toss in liberal heaps of Streets of Rage - that's Yakuza.
Why am I just hearing about this now?
Yakuza never took off in the West as much as it did in Japan. The original game featured a dub with actors like Mark Hamill and Michael Madsen, but that wasn't enough to get everyone's attention.
The series didn't really catch on until Yakuza 3 and arguably hit its highest point with last year's Yakuza 0. It's a prequel set before any of the other games featuring disco dancing and lots of grown men taking off their shirts to reveal awesome tattoos. Now, the world is gripped by Yakuza fever and Sega is handing out games like it's Christmas
Can you just give me the short version?
Play Yakuza 0 and then play Kiwami 1 and 2. Skip Yakuza 3. Definitely play Yakuza 4. You can skip Yakuza 5 if you want. Play Yakuza 6.
Can I play Yakuza 6 without playing anything else?
Yes. Yakuza 6 goes a long way to bring in new players, with an extended opening sequence and options to help newbies learn about the world. That said, I still really, really recommend Yakuza 0 as the best place to start if you're new to the series.
What does Luke think?
Professional Yakuza liker Luke Plunkett made a list of games to play after Yakuza 0 if you've already started and don't know what to do next. He suggests Yakuza 4 as a good next choice if you're speeding through the series.
If you want to know more about the series, here's details on each game.
Should you play? Absolutely.
What's it about? After a murder takes place in a vacant lot, low level yakuza Kazuma Kiryu is blamed for the deed. His quest to prove his innocence uncovers a massive conspiracy to claim the lot, which happens to be the most expensive piece of real estate in Kamurocho. Meanwhile, in Osaka, a former yakuza named Goro Majima accepts an assassination job that will change his life forever.
The best part: It's the earliest point on the timeline and a great place to start the series. Kiryu wins a chicken at a bowling alley that he hires to help manage his real estate empire.
The worst part: Kiryu's story isn't as interesting as Majima's. Some of the best stuff can sneak by unless you really take time to do side quests.
Should you play? Absolutely.
What's it about? Kiryu's rise among the yakuza ends when he accepts blame for a murder his best friend Nishiki committed. Leaving jail 10 years later, he is pulled into a massive conspiracy involving 10 billion yen that's gone missing. Along the way, he meets a young girl looking for her lost mother. Hilarity ensues.
The best part: The Kiwami games are remakes of the original Playstation 2 games that bring some very welcome visual upgrades. This version also adds a ton of additional story that expands on the villain's motivations, helping create one of gaming's best antagonists. Majima hides under a giant traffic cone.
The worst part: Players coming off Yakuza 0 might find it difficult to adjust to the smaller scale, as the game doesn't have as many side quests or activities. The 'Majima Everywhere' system has Majima show up at the worst possible moments.
Yakuza Kiwami 2
Should you play? Yes but it's ok if you don't.
What's it about? As tensions rise between two yakuza clans, Kiryu is called in to prevent an all-out gang war that could devastate Tokyo. This places him on a collision course with a gangster called Ryuji Goda, who is supposedly as strong as Kiryu himself.
The best part: Kiwami 2 adds an entirely new campaign for Majima that helps flesh out his character after Yakuza 0. The final boss fight is the best in the entire series. There's a castle made of gold that's populated by samurai.
The worst part: Daigo Dojima, the would-be heir to the Tojo Clan, is a little shit.
Should you play? You can skip this one.
What's it about? While running an orphanage in Okinawa, Kiryu discovers two men spying on him and learns that a local yakuza boss is trying to shut down the orphanage. Somehow all of this ends up uncovering a CIA plot to eliminate a shadowy group of arms smugglers.
The best part: Yakuza 3 is the official birth of "Dad Kiryu," marking a shift from the more stoic yakuza enforcer to a super sweet dude who stands up for orphans and is generally awesome. A group of real life yakuza reviewed the game and it's hilarious.
The worst part: The plot is absurd even by the series' standard, with a lot of machinations that don't really make sense. There's this whole thing about an identical twin we've never seen before, and it's honestly as silly as it sounds.
Should you play? Dear god, yes!
What's it about? A high ranking yakuza executes a rival gangster after a minor dispute, fanning the flames of conflict between two major clans. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman meets with a loan shark and asks for 10 million yen.
The best part: Yakuza 4 brings in a ton of important characters, from the super cool loan shark Shun Akiyama to the burly Taiga Saejima. (Akiyama is the series' finest character, if you ask me.) It has one of the best cutscenes ever. There is a mad scientist living under Kamurocho who works on some type of mad science time-pod. A rooftop leaping panty burglar falls off a building in an homage to Cowboy Bebop's Ballad for Fallen Angels.
The worst part: One of the protagonists, a cop named Tanimura, is so forgettable that he disappears entirely after this game. Saejima's backstory is radically changed with a pretty stupid revelation. Everyone fat-shames Akiyama's secretary and it's super mean.
Should you play? You can skip this one but it really does help set up Yakuza 6.
What's it about? A major yakuza leader passes away, threatening the peace between clans. Daigo Dojima seeks to set up a new alliance that breaches old territorial agreements and goes missing in the process. Kiryu sets of to discover what's happened.
The best part: Yakuza 5 features a ton of really great locations. Haruka, the young girl who Kiryu befriended in the original game, is finally playable. Saejima punches a bear in the jaw. There's a really fun taxi cab racing mini-game.
The worst part: The game is way too big, with five main characters and a super labyrinthine plot. There's also a ton of filler before the game really gets going.
Should you play? Absolutely.
What's it about? After Yakuza 5, Kiryu spends three years in prison. When he's finally free, his adopted niece Haruka is placed into a coma after a hit and run. Kiryu absconds with her young son Haruto and departs to Hiroshima to learn what happened to Haruka while he was in prison.
The best part: Haruto is the best baby on the planet and must be protected at all costs. The new town, Onomichi, is absolutely gorgeous. A new engine means that there's basically no load times. There is a sentient AI phone assistant that may or may not be plotting to take over the world.
The worst part: The combat is surprisingly stiff and boss fights are a bit of a pain. The side quests are a gamble — some are hilarious but others last a bit too long.
The Bottom Line
The Yakuza games are some of the most authentically moving and hilarious games that you can play. They shift between intense crime drama to self-aware quirkiness from moment to moment. If you like punching dudes, there's plenty of that. If you like playing darts or getting a high score at Hang-On, you can do that too. Each game builds upon the others to create a living world populated by characters that you really come to know.
If you hate cutscenes, this might not be the series for you. But if you're into awesome open worlds and mini-games, it's definitely worth checking out. And with all the new games coming to the West, there's really no excuse for not giving the series a look.