This blog post is inspired by the great video that Jim Sterling did recently titled Yakuza’s Open World is the Biggest and Bestest. I felt myself nodding to everything he said so I thought I’d jot down my thoughts on the Yakuza series
The PlayStation 4-only Yakuza series’ Kamurocho district – loosely based on the city of Tokyo’s red-light district Shinjuku – might be small in size but it’s so densely packed with content that it puts to shame some of video games’ big, open world adventures.
I was first introduced to the action adventure Yakuza series with Yakuza 2 on the PlayStation 2 and I was instantly captured by the craziness of the game world and the rich, deep narrative centred around main character, rising Yakuza (japanese gangster) Kazuma Kiryu.
I love the Yakuza series’ open-world exploration mixed with almost over-the-top combat – Kiryu can switch between four fighting styles – but I think for me much of the charm comes from the Japanese audio with english subtitles and sheer craziness. Kiryu is voiced by Japanese actor Takada Kuroda (the original Yakuza had an english voice over actor but I can imagine the game would lose some of its charm) and the voice acting is just full of passion and really adds to the atmosphere.
Years passed and Yakuza fell to the wayside. I played games (a lot of games) but in the back of my mind, Yakuza was always there, waiting for me to come back. Last year, I decided it was time to get back into Yakuza and bought Yakuza Kiwami, and on booting it up, I instantly felt like I was home in a gaming world that I was familiar with. A few weeks ago, I bought Yakuza Zero, which takes the story back to the 1980s when Kiryu was a young, up-and-coming Yakuza.
Yakuza’s Kamurocho might be tiny compared to GTA’s Liberty City or Assassin’s Creed’s Egypt, but there’s so much content packed in that small collection of streets that I’m not sure I can go back to an open-world game that takes ages to traverse and has side quests that are just there to extend the lifespan of the game. I’ve visited Japan and visited the famed Akihibara district and Yakuza’s Japan felt familiar and warming, with locations that seemed like they belonged in the world: karaoke clubs, bars, noodle joints, convenience stores – and even a Sega arcade.
Yakuza’s side quests also feel as if they belong in the narrative, often quirky, light-hearted diversions from the main story. As he explores Kamurocho, Kiryu might have to pretend he’s a movie producer helping out two film crew workers who have found themselves in a spot of trouble, take a famous fighter around a few restaurants to show him a good time, or chase a variety of hooligans who stole a recently released video game from a small boy.
Even the people Kiryu interacts with have names that will bring a smile to your face: Man with Big Head, Mr Shakedown (a giant of a man who fights Kiryu then steals his money), Bearded Homeless Man, (wait for it) Hatted Homeless Man and Mystery Man. You save your game at phone boxes, too, you can buy noodles from convenience stores, you can sing karaoke, you can race slot cars. The amount of stuff to do in a tiny world map is incredible. Just incredible.
I’m making my way through Yakuza 0 in anticipation for Yakuza 6, which was released in Japan in December, but is only coming to Western audiences next month. I’ll be trying my darndest to get it completed before I tackle the latest adventure of Kiryu.
Tragically, the Yakuza series hasn’t captured the attention of Western games like I think it should have. I think it’s probably been overlooked by a lot of Western gamers and that’s a shame. It’s a series that has a strong narrative with a likeable main character but not one that has been promoted heavily in our part of the world.
Have you got any games that you just adore but aren’t as popular as you think they should be?