You’re just in time as we’re about to dive into Japan’s criminal underworld. I hope you took the time to polish your boots because Yakuza is all about kicking ass like there’s no tomorrow.
Our lead character, and protagonist of the series, is Kazuma Kiryu. Bearing the nickname, The Dragon of Dojima, Kazuma has a reputation for being one of most ruthless members of the Dojima Family when it comes to fighting. He also stands out due to the ironic dragon tattoo on his back. He does have a softer side to him which is why many fans have, and still continue to praise his character despite him being a career criminal.
Taking the blame for his best friend, Kazuma is arrested for the murder of Sohei Dojima, head of the Dojima family and sentenced to 10 years in prison. While serving his time, he is expelled from the Tojo clan and his fiancee, Yumi, mysteriously disappears. It’s a bit slow at first but the story starts to pick up around the third chapter where it is revealed that ¥10 billion (~$83 million USD) has been stolen from the Tojo clan. This sets the entire Japanese underworld to go searching for the missing funds in the hopes they might keep it for themselves. Having served his time, Kazuma’s job is to try and find his missing fiancee, figure out who stole the ¥10 billion and discover who killed the head of the Tojo clan, Masa Sera. All this while trying to keep the other families off his back who want him dead for having killed the head of the Dojima family.
Starting to get confusing? You get the hang of it all eventually but being a game based on a real crime syndicate, it also inherits their sometimes confusing hierarchical structures. Personally, I would have appreciated it if the game had an in game glossary but in saying that, it’s easy to forget that Yakuza is a series that primary appeals to those who are in Japan themselves. My guess is that it was probably assumed that the player already has at least some vague idea of who the Yakuza. It would make sense seeing as it was almost a full year until the game made the jump to the west so it likely wasn’t planned with western players in mind at all.
Despite those minor gripes, it only makes me appreciate the game more as it knows exactly what it is trying to be. If you take a peek at the manual, the developers have laid out diagrams showing the flow of the game. Yakuza is split into chapters with each one transitioning between often lengthy cutscenes known as "Story Events" and enemy encounters known as "Battle Mode". When you’re not in either, the game lets you freely roam the open world streets of Kamurocho. Each chapter is finished off with a boss fight leading straight into the next chapter.
Kamurocho is a hectic and colourful city to explore. There’s a variety of places to visit, along with a few subtle real world tie in stores. Some offer items such as weapons and armour that can be used in battle or food that can restore health. Others might house side quests or even just provide venues to hang out which serve no real purpose other than letting you win prizes and cash. You’ll encounter random groups, ranging from rival families on the lookout for Kazuma to street hooligans itching for a fight and boy, are they in for a surprise when The Dragon of Dojima steps up to the plate.
Combat is what Kazuma Kiryu was born to do and Yakuza’s main draw as a franchise alongside the story. All of punches Kazuma throws feel like they have the weight of a truck behind them and it’s really satisfying. The battles take place in an enclosed area and play out like a beat-em-up where your goal is to clear out all of the enemies in front of you. Defeating enemies grants EXP that you can funnel into one of three attributes. As you rank up each one, you’ll gain more health and unlock stronger combos. Kazuma also has a heat gauge that builds up each time he lands a punch. Once it’s maxed out, he can use it to perform special moves. If he were to trigger it next to a desk, he might slam someone’s head into it or if they’re on the ground, he might stomp their face into the pavement. It’s all about feeling like the biggest badass in Japan and I think the game does a really good job of it.
Yakuza isn’t without its flaws though. Being a medium budget title, the age is starting to show a bit on the older, non-HD versions. The visuals are still nice and bright but some of the backgrounds stand out awkwardly as being obvious pre-rendered images. The camera can be a bit wonky when traversing the city as its perspective will change depending on where you go. Your perspective might be south of Kazuma as he runs down towards the screen then it might transition to showing Kazuma from the side which can be a bit disorientating.
My only other issue was with the use of the lock on feature in combat. It’s not a proper lock on as you just hold R1 to stay facing the direction of your enemy. Some bosses easily dash around you but Kazuma doesn’t follow through so you have to run away to avoid damage, drag Kazuma around to face the enemy and re-lock on which can be a huge pain. Each subsequent game adds some much needed fixes and additions to the combat so it’s an issue that doesn’t stick around for very long.
Yakuza is one of the many titles with a dedicated fan following but I would say that it is still considered a niche title due to sales here in the west being fairly low. If it does sound like a franchise you’d love to pick up, you’ve still got plenty of time to give it a spin. If you like it enough, maybe you could even join me later this year in lending support to the upcoming Yakuza 5. It’s going to need all the support it can get to show that it is still has plenty of western fans. I’d consider it one of my go-to series for how to have an interesting, well-written story without the need to sacrifice challenging, enjoyable gameplay and vice versa.