SEGA's Yakuza series has been around since the days of the PlayStation 2, but only over the last year or so has it really began to seep into the consciousness of a wider Western audience. This is largely thanks to 2017's Yakuza 0, which sparked a whole new wave of interest on PlayStation 4. It helped, of course, that Yakuza 0 ended up being one of the very best games in the franchise to date.
Now, you may be sitting there wondering what Yakuza is all about, and whether you'd like to give the series a try. Perhaps more importantly, you're questioning where you should actually start.
To date, there are nine mainline Yakuza games, and that's including two remakes. From the outside looking in, a series made up of nine different entries can seem incredibly daunting, so we've put together this guide in the hope that our knowledge of the series can point you in the right direction.
But before we begin...
What is Yakuza, exactly?
Yakuza is sometimes referred to as "Grand Theft Auto set in Japan", but that's not the case at all. The Yakuza games are not open world, and the only thing they really have in common with Rockstar's blockbuster franchise is that they have a core theme of crime.
Yakuza games are very story-based, with a lot of cutscenes and dialogue. Every game in the main series features Kazuma Kiryu -- a beast of a man who always manages to find himself wrapped up in the latest drama of the Japanese criminal underworld. In some games, however, Kiryu isn't the only playable character.
The series primarily takes place in a fictional red light district known as Kamurocho, although other settings do pop up in a number of games. Kamurocho and other environments are generally quite open, but again, they're not open world. You can freely explore the streets of Kamurocho, but you can't hop into the nearest car and take a drive into the distance.
Kamurocho and other settings in the series certainly aren't as vast as the maps that you'll find in open world titles like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin's Creed, but they're densely populated. There are karaoke bars, batting cages, shops, apartment buildings, restaurants -- everything that you'd expect from city life in Japan. And the key thing to note is that you're free to enjoy each attraction.
Indeed, minigames play an important role in the Yakuza series. When you're not following the story, you can head to the arcade and play some old school SEGA games. Or, if you're feeling a little more social, you can spend some time at the local hostess club and chat to the ladies. Minigames tend to be shockingly in-depth, with high scores and other details keeping you coming back for more.
It can be hard to nail down the genre that the Yakuza games actually belong to, but for our money, they're essentially action role-playing games. RPG elements like levelling up and steadily unlocking perks are part of the package, while side quests offer up optional storylines for you to pursue -- many of which are wonderfully comical.
And then there's the combat. Yakuza is absolutely stuffed with fighting. Whether it's teaching street punks a lesson or going toe-to-toe with a murderous crime boss, Kiryu usually finds himself having to punch his way through problems.
Yakuza's combat system is pretty standard, at least on the surface. It's got free movement, light attacks, heavy attacks, combos, blocking, and dodging. Where it sets itself apart is the 'heat' system. As Kiryu brawls, you'll fill up a special meter that can then be spent in order to unleash powerful cinematic moves. These attacks are often brutal, and transform the otherwise solid-but-not-amazing combat into something that's quite spectacular.
Oh, and it's worth mentioning that Yakuza can be very mature at times. It's been known to tackle some dark subject matter, and it goes without saying that there are many moments of bloody violence. Just a heads-up for the squeamish.
The Yakuza Timeline
As mentioned, there are a total of nine mainline Yakuza games, but two of these are remakes. That means there are seven Yakuza titles that you need to take into consideration if you're looking to play through the whole story.
And yes, all the mainline Yakuza games have a chronological order. In Yakuza 0, Kiryu is 20 years old. By the time Yakuza 6 rolls around, Kiryu is nearing 50.
Below, we've listed all of the games in chronological order.
- Yakuza 0 (takes place in 1988)
- Yakuza: Kiwami (remake of the first Yakuza, takes place in 2005)
- Yakuza: Kiwami 2 (remake of Yakuza 2, takes place in 2006)
- Yakuza 3 (takes place in 2009)
- Yakuza 4 (takes place in 2010)
- Yakuza 5 (takes place in 2012)
- Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (takes place in 2016)
Does the main story continue over multiple Yakuza games?
Now this is the most common question that we see floating around when newcomers ask about Yakuza.
There is no "main story" in Yakuza. The games may feature returning characters and might even reference plot points from past games, but there's no single story that runs through all of them. None of the Yakuza games are direct sequels, and none of them end on cliffhangers or anything like that.
Each Yakuza game has its own storyline that starts and ends within that game. You can jump into the Yakuza series at any point and enjoy the game for what it is, even if you have no prior knowledge.
However, as alluded, there are returning characters, and events of past games often influence the events of others. For example, there's a character called Nishikiyama who starts out as Kiryu's friend in Yakuza 0, but events in that game eventually lead to him being the main antagonist in Yakuza: Kiwami.
If you want to experience everything that every character goes through, you have no real choice but to play each and every Yakuza game.
Again, though, it's perfectly possible to jump in at any point and have fun. The games generally do a very good job of explaining who certain characters are, and most of them have a mode where you can read about the events of prior games.
So which Yakuza game should you start with?
As with most entertainment, it's probably best to start with Yakuza at the beginning.
Launching in 2017 for PlayStation 4 (and PlayStation 3 in Japan), Yakuza 0 is technically a prequel, but we reckon it's still the best place to begin. The game charts the early days of Kiryu's yakuza career, as he collects debt money from Kamurocho's biggest losers.
Yakuza 0 also features Goro Majima as a second playable character. Majima's a recurring and important character in the Yakuza series, so you get an in-depth look into how he climbed the criminal ladder.
As you'd expect of a prequel, Yakuza 0 sets things up rather nicely. Its story introduces you to a wide cast of characters -- many of whom are at least referenced in the other games. What's more, its narrative does a great job of selling the overall tone of the series, with loads of brilliantly comedic side quests contrasting the serious nature of the main plot.
And, as mentioned earlier, Yakuza 0 is, in our opinion, one of the best games in the series. It's always a good idea to start off on the right note.
Which Yakuza games are must-plays?
If we had to recommend any Yakuza game to newcomers, it would always be Yakuza 0 for the reasons outlined above. Not only is it a fantastic game, but it's also the best entry point in the entire series.
Beyond Yakuza 0, the recommendations become a little more complicated -- and it doesn't help that, at the time of writing, some games are only available on PS3, and not PS4.
Yakuza games currently available on PS4 in English:
- Yakuza 0 (released in 2017)
- Yakuza: Kiwami (released in 2017)
- Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (released in 2018)
- Yakuza: Kiwami 2 (set to release in 2018)
Yakuza games that are currently only available on PS3 in English:
- Yakuza 3 (released in 2010)
- Yakuza 4 (released in 2011)
- Yakuza 5 (released in 2015)
So, if you've only got a PS4, you're missing out on a chunk of Yakuza games, all of which take place in the latter half of the current timeline.
This may make Yakuza 6 a tricky proposition for newcomers who want to experience the series in full, and that's a shame because much like Yakuza 0, Yakuza 6 is easily one of the best games in the franchise.
Again, though, you could jump straight in at Yakuza 6 and still have fun -- it really all depends on how deep you want to go.
Now, the other factor that's worth taking into consideration is how long each Yakuza game takes to complete. On average, the main story in a Yakuza game lasts around 20 to 30 hours. Add in side quests and other optional activities, and that probably jumps closer to 50 hours. Not unlike your typical RPG, Yakuza can demand a large time investment.
If you don't have time, or don't have the means to play through every game, we'd recommend sticking to the best ones, plain and simple. As far as we're concerned, Yakuza 0 and Yakuza 6 are the must-plays of the series. That's not to say the other games are bad -- far from it -- but if you're only ever going get a chance to play one or two titles, they're the Yakuza games to go for.
It's also worth noting, however, that Yakuza 3, 4, and 5 are being remastered for PS4 -- at least in Japan. From where we're sitting, there's a good chance that they'll be remastered here in the West, too. If you absolutely must play every game in the series, then it may be best to wait for confirmation before kicking things off with Yakuza 0, and going from there in chronological order.
Are you new to Yakuza? Let us know if you plan on spending some time with Kaz in the comments section below.