What is this series?
The Yakuza franchise is SEGA's long running series of open world action-adventure beat-em-up/RPGs. The games began life on the PS2 and were a smashing success, offering gripping crime drama mixed with lively and bustling recreations of actual Japanese cities with some fantastic beat-em-up gameplay. These games could be considered spiritual successors to Shenmue, but they've grown into their own beasts that they're truly unique titles in their own right.
The games star Kazuma Kiryu, the platonic ideal of what it means to be in the Yakuza; he's strong, loyal and always fights to protect those closest to him and for what he believes in. He was a high ranking member of the largest yakuza family in Tokyo, the Tojo Clan, until one fateful night in 1995, wherein he is sent to prison for the murder of his boss and expelled from the family as a whole. Despite his status as a civilian, he always ends up pulled back into the struggles of his former clan. Over the years, more playable characters join the roster with their own stories to tell to add tons of variety to the gameplay and they're all very distinct from each other, so there's a little something for everybody! As mentioned before, these games are set in recreations of Japanese cities, such as the real-life Kabuki-cho district in Tokyo or Dotenbori in Osaka, which makes them excellent pieces of virtual tourism as well!
Despite the gripping melodrama of the main stories, the franchise is also very well known for its unique brand of humor and side-content. Tired of unraveling the latest plot set to undermine the Tojo? Take a break and hang out at an arcade with some Sega classics, like Outrun or Fantasy Zone! Go sing your heart out at Karaoke! Be Michael Jackson's bodyguard for some zombie music video! There is a lot here and you couldeasily spend days just exploring virtual Tokyo!
What games are there?
This series has been more or less a yearly series ever since the first title released in 2005, so there's a lot! I'll go over the main series and then some spin-offs and include some trailers for each title.
- Yakuza 0 (PC/PS4/Xbox)
A prequel to the rest of the franchise, this game takes place in the 80s, when Japan's economy was booming. Starring Kiryu and fan-favorite character Goro Majima, this game shows the events that made these two into who they are in the present day. Accused of a murder that he didn't commit, Kiryu abandons the Tojo clan to investigate the incident and clear his name before getting tangled in a massive conflict over a plot of land in the center of Kamurocho. At the same time, Majima, exiled from the Tojo for attempting to perform a hit, works as the manager of The Grand, which prospers under his guidance as the number one cabaret in Sotenbori. One day, an opportunity to get back into the Tojo's good graces falls into his lap; the condition? Assassinate Makoto Makimura. This game is jam packed with content, featuring two side-campaigns focusing on two distinct business ventures and two very long main-campaigns; this game is one of the most popular in the series and is an excellent starting point for the franchise.
- Yakuza (PS2)/Yakuza Kiwami (PC/PS4/Xbox)
One fateful night in 1995, Kazuma Kiryu is arrested for the murder of his boss, Sohei Dojima. For this grave transgression, he is expelled from the Tojo and sentenced to 10 years of prison time. When he gets out, he steps back into an unrecognizable Kamurocho. Unable to contact his best friend, he takes in the daughter of his first love and tries to unravel the mystery of what had happened in the 10 years he was gone. Kiwami is a full remake of the original game using the engine from 0 and is incredibly faithful to the source, right down to cutscenes using the same mo-cap data from the original! Majima even gets an expanded role with the Majima Everywhere system here to capitalize on his popularity from 0! As this was the first game in the series, this game makes for an excellent starting point for the franchise.
- Yakuza 2 (PS2)/Yakuza Kiwami 2(PC/PS4/Soon to be on Xbox)
A year after the events of the first game, Kiryu finds himself entwined in the drama of the Tojo's succession crisis while also having to fend off declarations of war from an insurgent group from within the Omi Alliance, a rival clan based in the Kansai region of Japan. The remake of this game was the second Dragon Engine game, and it shows! Its not as faithful a remake as the first one, but as a trade off, there is a new, excellent campaign starring Majima, and this game gets to show off what the Dragon Engine can really do.
- Yakuza 3 (PS3/PS4)
Kiryu makes his HD debut in this game! Set in both Okinawa and Kamurocho, Kiryu finds himself running an orphanage and returning to deal with more Tojo drama! Don't bother with the PS3 version of this, SEGA of America cut like half of the side content in this game and the localization was very questionable.
- Yakuza 4 (PS3/PS4)
This is the first of the series to offer a wide variety of protagonists, all with their own tales throughout Kamurocho. Just like with 3, don't bother with the PS3 version; I don't think the localization dropped a ton of side content, but there were some translated lines that are a lot more uncomfortable to look back on.
- Yakuza 5 (PS3/PS4)
This title might be the most content-rich of the series, featuring five different protagonists and five different cities all across Japan. Third verse, same as the first two; play the PS4 version for an updated localization and an actually stable framerate.
- Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (PS4)
The final step of Kiryu's journey, this game features the debut of the Dragon Engine, which allows the player more freedom in exploring the cities and features a brand new physics based combat engine! Bear in mind that this was the first game to use this new engine, and as such, this title is a little lighter on content compared to the others.
- Judgment (PS4)
There's been a string of creepy murders in Kamurocho where low level yakuza grunts have been found dead with their eyes gouged out. This is a spin-off title starring famous Japanese actor Kimura Takuya as Takayuki Yagami, a defense attorney turned private investigator who is haunted by the outcome of his final case from three years prior. This game's tone feels more like a mystery drama rather than a crime flick and the player character being a detective allowed the team the chance to try out new gameplay ideas, like investigation and tailing. This was the first new title released after 6 and demonstrated to the world that even without Kiryu in the spotlight, this series would still go on strong.
- Yakuza: Like a Dragon (PS4/Xbox)
Following the end of Kiryu's journey, this game begins the story of Kasuga Ichiban, a Tojo grunt who took the blame for a murder to protect a fellow clan member and does hard prison time as a result. When released, he finds that the Tojo has been driven out of Kamurocho and the Omi Alliance have taken over. This game features a radical shift in gameplay as its a full on turn based RPG! Ichiban is a huge fan of Dragon Quest, so he sees the random street fights and dramatic encounters with high ranking family members as RPG battles!
- Yakuza Dead Souls (PS3)
This is an odd spin-off that was both meant to give the developers practice with developing shooters and capitalize on a growing zombie trend. This game features a zombie apocalypse centered in Kamurocho. It's not very good and it almost killed the series for good outside of Japan, but at least the team used their experience from this to make Binary Domain, which I'm told it's a very good shooter.
- Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan! (PS3)
This is a Japanese exclusive title meant to bring the series into the HD era and giving the team a chance to try out many of the features the series would become lauded for, like full 3D environments and 3D facial scanning of the actors for their characters. This game stars a retired historical legend Miyamoto Musashi who now goes by the name of Kazumanosuke Kiryu, whose life is upended when he meets a girl named Haruka, who asks him to assassinate Miyamoto Musashi.
- Ryu ga Gotoku Ishin! (PS3/PS4)
This is a Japanese exclusive title meant to get the team's feet wet with PS4 development. It takes place during the final days of the Samurai and follows Kiryu's ancestor Sakamoto Ryoma, who is a real historical figure.
- Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise (PS4)
Yes, really. The Yakuza team made a Fist of the North Star game out of the Yakuza 0 engine! Follow Kenshiro in a Greatest Hits' form of his classic journey through Fist of the North Star with the gameplay you've come to love and expect out of the rest of these games! This was also the first game from this franchise since the original PS2 game to get a dub!