Jumping Into Yakuza in 2023
When it comes to a video game franchise that has spanned nearly two decades, such as Yakuza, it can be challenging to keep track of, especially considering the series has undergone a name change in the West and abandoned the numbering system. There’s a new Gaiden game on the horizon featuring zombies, samurai, Kenshiro, and questions arising from the renaming of recent entries. But fear not, for someone who has played all of them is here to help. If you’re eagerly anticipating the upcoming Infinite Wealth but are uncertain about what you need to do to get there, Noisy Pixel has got you covered with a comprehensive look at the entire series, from start to finish.
However, instead of providing just a chronological list, I’m here to suggest a recommended play order, whether you want to start from the beginning or dive into the series’ current turn-based era. Let’s start with the titles I recommend skipping:
Skip: Yakuza: Dead Souls (PS3)
As the seventh generation of consoles neared its end, the Yakuza series faced challenges gaining popularity in the United States, the world’s largest gaming market. Yakuza 3 had a limited reception, and Yakuza 4 didn’t seem likely to spark widespread interest. So, like many Japanese developers at the time, SEGA attempted to create a game tailored for the American market. The result was Yakuza: Dead Souls, a non-canonical semi-rail shooter set in a Kamurocho Zombie Apocalypse in 2011.
Unfortunately, it’s the only title on this list that remains exclusive to the PlayStation 3, and for good reason. While it received some praise for its story, critics and series fans alike rejected its gameplay as unfun. If this game ever resurfaces, it’s likely to feature a very different combat style. However, there’s been no word from SEGA despite other titles making the jump to eighth- and ninth-gen consoles.
Skip: Yakuza and Yakuza 2 (PS2)
Before you dismiss this recommendation, please note that I’m specifically referring to the original versions of these titles. While you can still find copies, I generally only recommend revisiting them for dedicated enthusiasts familiar with the series who want to experience the earlier versions. The original Yakuza games are solid, with the first one featuring a full dub featuring notable actors (including Mark Hamill as recurring rival Goro Majima). However, the dub’s perceived overacting led to harsh criticism, resulting in the series not being dubbed again until the release of Judgment over a decade later. There are better ways to experience Kazuma Kiryu’s story than dusting off the PlayStation 2.
Now, let’s explore the two different approaches that make the most sense when tackling the series: The Completionist and The Modernist.
Additionally, from this point onwards, all entries are available on all current platforms except the Nintendo Switch. They are also available on Game Pass, with the exception of the most recent entry, The Man Who Erased His Name, which is not on PlayStation Plus Premium. But before diving into the play order recommendations, here’s a brief overview of each release with minimal spoilers.
Yakuza 0: The Perfect Prequel
This prequel to the first game is set seven years before the opening of the original in 1988. Kamurocho appears bright and glitzy, but beneath the surface lies a dark underbelly. A violent conflict erupts over a small plot of land when a dead body is discovered there, and the last person to see the man alive is Kazuma Kiryu, an up-and-coming member of the Dojima family in the Tojo Clan. Kiryu had been sent to collect a shady debt from the man. Now, Kiryu must unravel the mystery surrounding the murder, the empty lot, and the conspiracy tying it all together. Meanwhile, in Osaka, former yakuza hitman Goro Majima operates the Grand Cabaret, the largest club in Sotenbori. However, this glamorous role feels like a gilded cage.
Yakuza 0 was released a year before the remake of the first game and marked the beginning of the series’ popularity surge in the West after going viral. It introduced multiple protagonists, making Kiryu’s legendary frenemy, Goro Majima, a playable character. Both Kiryu and Majima can unlock various combat styles. This entry features a unique upgrade economy where players spend in-game cash to boost stats and abilities. Kiryu can also earn additional cash by investing in Kamurocho’s real estate.
Yakuza Kiwami: The Beginning
Yakuza Kiwami is a modern update of the tale that introduced players to many of the series’ major characters, including the hero, Kazuma Kiryu. Kiryu witnesses his sworn Tojo Clan brother, Akira Nishikiyama, fatally shoot the Dojima family patriarch, their boss, for allegedly attempting to harm their close female friend, Yumi Sawamura. To prove his loyalty, Kiryu allows Nishiki to escape with Yumi, taking the fall himself and serving ten years in prison. When he’s released in December 2005, he finds a changed world, both around him and within his own organization. Nishiki is now the patriarch of his family and seems to harbor resentment toward Kiryu. Additionally, ten billion yen is missing from the Tojo Clan’s coffers, and a young girl named Haruka is somehow connected to the missing funds, as well as to Yumi’s daughter.
This remake mostly expands the scope of the original game, introducing the iconic Kamurocho district of Tokyo with its many citizens and activities. However, if you choose to start here, be aware that it faithfully recreates the somewhat clunky combat of the original PS2 release. The famous and brutal “Heat Attacks” are much scarcer here compared to other titles in the series, as the meter takes longer to charge, and some combat scenarios can be challenging and feel unfair. Nevertheless, the compelling story compensates for these shortcomings, making it a valid starting point. The remake introduces the “Majima Everywhere” system, in which Kiryu’s rival, Goro Majima, repeatedly confronts him in unexpected places and disguises.
Yakuza Kiwami 2: The Golden Child
One year after the events of the first game, Kiryu, now protecting his adopted daughter, Haruka, has left the Tojo Clan behind after the dramatic events of his past. While visiting old friends, a representative approaches him with a message. The Tojo Clan is trying to avoid an all-out war with their largest rival, the Omi Alliance, but they lack a permanent leader. Acting Chairwoman Yayoi Dojima seeks Kiryu’s assistance in convincing her son, Daigo, to assume his rightful place as future Chairman. However, fate has other plans, as does the legendary Dragon of Kansai, Ryuji Goda.
Kiwami 2 is a significant overhaul of its predecessor and expands the world of the franchise by introducing the rival Omi Alliance family and additional locations beyond Kamurocho. It also features a post-game story that focuses on Goro Majima, addressing some of his unresolved storylines from “Yakuza 0.” This title is arguably a highlight of the series, but what follows presents a challenge for Completionists.
Yakuza 3, 4, and 5 Remastered (The Yakuza Remastered Collection): The Growing Pains Era
Following the events of Yakuza 2, Kiryu has had enough of being pursued by the Tojo Clan. He decides to spend the rest of his days running an orphanage in Okinawa, honoring the memory of his father figure and the home where he grew up. However, his peaceful life is disrupted when he becomes entangled in the machinations of warring yakuza families, forcing him to engage with new allies.
These three titles were re-released on the PS4 in 2019 and 2020, representing a period in the series where its scope expanded rapidly. “Yakuza 3” is relatively straightforward, featuring only Kiryu as a playable character in Okinawa and Kamurocho. However, it is considered the most dated entry, as the Remastered Collection mainly provided a visual upgrade to bring the games to modern hardware. Yakuza 4 and Yakuza 5 each feature four or more playable characters and multiple locations, with some of the new cities being smaller in scale and less memorable than Kamurocho. Fortunately, the combat in these two titles is significantly improved from Yakuza 3, and many new characters remain relevant in the current games. Still, some characters introduced in these games have not reappeared since their debuts, making parts of these games feel like extended diversions from the main storylines.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life: The Sunset of a Saga
After the events of Yakuza 5, Kiryu is left comatose. Even after waking up, he declines an offer from the Tojo Clan chairman to help him avoid jail time for his illegal actions, opting to serve his sentence and reunite with his family. However, upon his release three years later, he discovers that Haruka has mysteriously vanished. While searching for her among old friends, he learns that she was involved in a hit-and-run that left her in a coma and her newborn son without a caretaker. Kiryu embarks on a journey to piece together what has transpired, take care of the baby, and outrun his past once and for all.
Yakuza 6 was marketed as the conclusion to Kiryu’s story, though we now know that it wasn’t truly the end. At the time, it felt like an odd finale, lacking closure for most of Kiryu’s supporting cast. Nevertheless, it provided strong character arcs for the new characters, making it more satisfying in hindsight. It was the first game in the series to employ the new Dragon Engine, resulting in more fluid combat at the cost of some amusing physics-based visual glitches. While it may seem underwhelming on its own, it remains a solid entry.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon: The New Generation Begins
Arakawa Family member Ichiban Kasuga, a nerdy and loyal enforcer, volunteers to take the fall for a murder attributed to his family’s patriarch and serves an eighteen-year sentence. Upon his release in 2019, he finds that no one awaited his return, and he’s left for dead after searching for his family. Ichiban wakes up penniless in the coastal city of Ijincho and must rebuild his life from scratch to uncover what happened to the world he once knew.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon acts as a soft reboot of the series, introducing significant changes while preserving some elements. The game still features content-packed cities with numerous minigames and a dramatic story. However, it replaces the traditional action-beat-em-up combat with a turn-based system, aligning with the shift in the lead character, Ichiban. The game introduces a job system and magic as battles play out in Ichiban’s imagination, emulating his favorite Dragon Quest battles. While there’s a continuing storyline from previous games, enough has changed that newcomers can dive into this entry without missing much of the story.
Now, let’s discuss the two upcoming titles, recognizing that the series has evolved and rebranded itself:
Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name: The Completionist’s Reward
Following the events of Yakuza 6, Kiryu leads a new life under close scrutiny to protect his loved ones. However, he can never fully escape his past as a significant player in the yakuza conflict. External forces conspire to draw him back in, potentially for the final time.
Like a Dragon Gaiden differs from the series norm by offering a more limited scope. Nonetheless, it is a crucial title for those who have played all preceding entries, as it explores themes closely tied to Kiryu’s story, especially from the first game. Players who have the full context may find it a more satisfying experience than newcomers.
Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth (also known as Yakuza 8): The Next Big Thing
The next mainline title sees Ichiban traveling to Honolulu, Hawaii, in search of his long-lost mother, Akane. He awakens on a crowded beach, stark naked, and is arrested for public nudity. Surprisingly, Kiryu Kazuma comes to his rescue, sporting a new look since their last encounter. Kiryu has his own reasons for being in Hawaii, which also seems to involve Akane. Furthermore, he has a surprise revelation—he’s been diagnosed with cancer. Could this be the end of the line?
While this game is a few months away, a vertical-slice demo accompanies the release of Gaiden and is unlocked upon completing the game’s story. Hawaii offers a stark contrast to the series’ previous settings, with a different atmosphere than the urban streets of Kamurocho. This change in scenery coincides with significant refinements to the mechanics introduced in Yakuza 7. The game features both Ichiban and Kiryu as playable protagonists, each with their own party.
Now, let’s briefly touch on the remaining games that are not as relevant to the main point of this article, namely, how best to prepare for Infinite Wealth and the recommended order to play the games.
Judgment and Lost Judgment: The Spin-Offs
Tokyo Defense Attorney Takumi Yagami is known for his perfect record in a defense-hostile judicial system, at least until he’s forced to resign in disgrace when an exonerated former client murders their girlfriend. Several years later, he becomes a private detective and odd-jobs expert. However, his past comes back to haunt him when a serial killer case appears to have ties to his former client. Yagami must collaborate with the underground yakuza families of Kamurocho to uncover the truth and clear his name.
These two games form a new branch of the series, maintaining action-combat gameplay while being separate from the mainline games. The first game is set in Kamurocho but features an entirely new cast and can be played independently of the rest of the franchise. A supporting cast member from Judgment appears in a side quest in The Man Who Erased His Name, but that’s the extent of the connection. These games are highly recommended for those who have already caught up with the main series.
Like a Dragon: Ishin!: The Samurai One
The year is 1853, and Japan teeters on the brink of revolution as its oppressive caste system pushes its citizens to their limits. In this tumultuous era, Ryoma Sakamoto, a Samurai hailing from Tosa, returns to his homeland after extensive training abroad. His aim is to join forces with his father figure, Toyo, and his brother, Takechi, as part of the Tosa Loyalist Party, which seeks to rebel against the ruling class. However, the night before their rebellion is set to commence, a mysterious figure cloaked in black infiltrates the Party’s headquarters, murders Toyo, and vanishes into the shadows, leaving the crime to be falsely attributed to Ryoma. Now, Ryoma must flee from his home and assume a new identity to uncover the truth behind Toyo’s death and potentially prevent Japan from plunging into a devastating civil war.
During the PlayStation 3 era, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio released two standalone historical spinoff games that transplanted the traditional Yakuza gameplay into Japan’s feudal era. The first, Ryu Ga Gotoku: Kenzan!, primarily served as a test game for their newly developed high-definition engine. However, the second installment, Ryu Ga Gotoku: Ishin!, marked a grand farewell to the generation and offered a more comprehensive gaming experience. In 2022, Ishin! was announced to be receiving a full remake using Unreal Engine 4 for modern consoles, along with a complete localization for the first time. While Ishin! boasts an excellent story, some may find its gameplay lacking, as the shift in engine doesn’t entirely suit the developer’s style, resulting in a somewhat rigid feel that harkens back to the PS3 days. It is definitely a worthwhile experience for die-hard fans of the series, but it may not be as appealing to newcomers. Moreover, it has no narrative connections to the main series, except for the utilization of familiar characters to portray historical figures.
navigating the vast and diverse world of the Yakuza video game series can be an exhilarating journey, with various entry points and playstyles to suit different preferences. Whether you choose the Completionist track, delving into the series from its origins and savoring every moment, or opt for the more streamlined Modernist approach, jumping into the latest installment and catching up on the essentials, the Yakuza games offer a captivating blend of storytelling, action, and quirky diversions. Additionally, exploring spin-offs like Judgment and Lost Judgment or diving into historical adventures like Ishin! can further enrich your Yakuza experience. With a multitude of choices, there’s a Yakuza game for every player, offering a rich tapestry of narratives and gameplay experiences to discover and enjoy. So, whether you’re a veteran fan or a newcomer, the Yakuza series welcomes you to embark on a thrilling gaming odyssey through the streets of Japan.
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