Originally revealed in Japan as Ryu ga Gotoku (literally translates to "Like a Dragon"), the first iteration in the series was released in Japan in December 2005. Almost nine months later the game came to the West, re-branded as Yakuza. Developed and published by Sega, the series has enjoyed great success in Japan and while it remains less popular in the West, the series has garnered a cult following. With over 4 million titles shipped worldwide across the series, Yakuza can be considered a success and Sega have already hinted at further installments.
The Yakuza series is a free-roaming action-adventure which, unlike similar open world games, focuses on hand to hand combat rather than gun play. The style of combat leads to more structured fight sequences, with fight intros played prior to an engagement. It is also possible for random encounters to occur throughout the world. Another staple of the series are the side activities, which have included arcades, karaoke bars and UFO catcher machines. In the past, several similarities have been drawn between the Yakuza series and Shenmue due to the freedom that each of the games offer in their gameplay.
Like the Shenmue series, the Yakuza series is known for its realism. The Yakuza games are regarded as gaming's most realistic crime simulators. Compared to the exaggerated Hollywood movie pastiche of Grand Theft Auto, Yakuza instead aims for authenticity, based on the activities and operations of real Yakuza gangs. Jake Adelstein's book Tokyo Vice noted the franchise's accuracy compared to his interactions with real Yakuza.
The original Yakuza game starts in 2005 after Kazuma Kiryu is released from prison. Kazuma Kiryu had been imprisoned after taking the fall for the murder of the Dojima family head, Sohei Dojima, in order to protect his childhood friends Akira and Yuko Nishikiyama. Kazuma then learns that 10 billion Yen has been stolen from the Tojo Clan, a clan Kazuma has previous ties too, and after making a new acquaintance his story begins.
While Yakuza was originally released in December 2005 in Japan, it was not released in the US until September 5th, 2006. The game was a PS2 exclusive, a trend that would remain in effect across the current life of the series, as newer games have only been released on Sony PlayStation consoles. The game featured an English dub in place of the original voicework, a move which led to increased development. Due to that, the fate of further release of the Yakuza franchise in the West was yet to be decided.
Following almost exactly 2 years later on September 9th, 2008, was the sequel Yakuza 2. The story picks up a year after the story of the original game and the Tojo Clan has been falling apart and on the verge of war. With their future looking bleak they request the help of their former leader, Kazuma Kiryu, who, after witnessing the assassination of a former member of a rival gang, travels to Osaka to solve the turmoil.
After a long delay from the Japanese release, the game was eventually released in the West. Rather than featuring a new English voiceover, Yakuza 2 released with the original Japanese voicework with English subtitles. This move not only saved Sega money for the release but also proved popular with fans of the series, with the Japanese voice acting being of a high quality. Yakuza 2 enhanced the aspect of freedom from the original by further expanding the range of activities that were available to the player.
Yakuza 3 sees Kazuma Kiryu running the Sunshine Orphanage in sunny Okinawa, a long-time dream of Kazuma given his past as an orphan. However, Kazuma is soon dragged back in to the shady Japanese underworld. The Yakuza are moving increasingly in to Okinawa and are buying up land in the area. In addition to this, the current leader of the Tojo Clan is murdered by someone who bears a likeness to Kazuma's deceased father. To find the truth and protect his orphanage, Kazuma returns to Tokyo.
Yakuza 3 is the first release for the series on the PlayStation 3. Released on March 9th, 2010 in the US, the game sticks with English subtitles and further increases the gameplay options available to the player. Due to the PS3 being the chosen platform for release, Sega have also released several DLC packs in Japan since launch. The game also features trophy support and can now, due to the improved hardware, load battles seamlessly from the exploration state.
March 2010 saw the Japanese release of Ryu ga Gotoku 4: Densetsu wo Tsugu Mono (literally translates to "Like a Dragon 4: Successor of a Legend"), which came to the West in March 2011 as Yakuza 4. Rather than simply following the story of Kazuma Kiryu, this game also follows 3 other playable characters. Each of these characters is involved in the same story and the game follows each of their perspectives. As well as Kazuma, the other three characters are Shun Akiyama, Masayoshi Tanimura and Taiga Saejima.
In August 2011, Ryu ga Gotoku 5 was announced and released in Japan in December 2012. The game was made with an entirely new engine, and improved on the series' gameplay and story. It featured a larger open world comparable to the size of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
The next game in the series is Ryu Ga Gotoku Zero for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. It is scheduled for release in March 2014, in Japan.
Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan!
Unlike previous games in the series, Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan! is set in a feudal Japanese setting, rather than the traditional Modern Day Japanese setting. Apart from the obvious change in setting, Kenzan also changes up the combat by now focusing heavily on sword play rather than the traditional brawling style. Despite this, the majority of the game remains very similar, with the same exploration and side quest elements remaining. Also, characters from the standard Ryu ga Gotoku series, with some name changes but keeping a similar look. Despite the relative success of this in Japan, there is yet to be a western release of Kenzan and with the release of Yakuza 3 and no conformation from Sega a western release seems unlikely.
Yakuza: Dead Souls
In June 2010, series producer Toshihiro Nagoshi hinted that there would be a new Yakuza game, but no other details were given. In the 2010 Tokyo Games Show, more information on Ryu ga Gotoku:Of the End surfaced: the game takes place after the events of Yakuza 4, where a zombie outbreak has occurred in the Kamurocho district. Another big difference is the gameplay, which leans more towards third person shooting. The game still retains other traits found in the rest of the series: open world exploration, a completely new story (albeit non-canon), side missions and upgradeable moves and special techniques. The game was supposed to be released in Japan in March 2011, but was delayed due to Japan's 2011 tsunami and earthquake, a week before the game's release date. Sega realized that the scenes depicted in the game, which shows a district of Tokyo lying in ruins, were too similar to the harsh reality of the earthquake affected areas, and releasing the game then would seem insensitive and disrespectful. The release was delayed to June 2011. A western release, titled Yakuza: Dead Souls, was announced on October 4, 2011 with a date set for March of 2012. The western release contained all of the DLC released in Japan on the disc.
Kazuma Kiryu is the main character of the Yakuza franchise and although there have been other playable characters he has appeared in every game in the series so far. The translation of the Japanese title, "Like a Dragon", comes from Kazuma's large Dragon tattoo on his back, which also inspires his nickname "The Dragon of Dojima".
Kazuma was raised in an orphanage in the 70's after his parents were killed. In 1995, when his friend kills the head of the Dojima family, Kazuma takes the blame to protect those he cares for and goes to prison for 10 years. He is paroled in 2005, where the original Yakuza game picks up, and sets out to uncover a conspiracy involving 10 billion Yen and the entire Japanese underworld. It is these events that send Kazuma on his original adventure, and lead to everything that is to follow in subsequent games.