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Ranking the Yakuzees

In the past year and a half, I have played all of the Yakuza games, thanks to them being released in the West (often in their New and Improved forms). Due to the games releasing so close to each other it's pretty much impossible to play and NOT compare them, so here's a list from my least favorite Yakuza titles to my favorites.

List items

  • Yakuza Kiwami manages an impressive feat of being mediocre both as a starting point and as a follow-up to excellent 0.

    If you're playing this game after 0, you'll notice that everything is worse. The substories suffer the most, with the majority being "Kiryu got conned, a fight ensues".

    The story is worse, and even if you don't have 0 as a reference point, it's not exactly easy to enjoy. The game throws names and concepts at you at incredible speed, yet somehow feels extremely slow-paced.

    It's a remake of a really old game, of course, so I can't blame it. It tries to add some new stuff in the form of new minigames, new substories, and a boss-centric system called Majima Everywhere. However, those are rarely THAT good. Majima Everywhere is possibly the best addition, but mainly due to its tone, as gameplay sees you fighting Majima over and over and over again, grinding out the meter.

    While Yakuza is known for its tonal shifts, this is the game that doesn't pull them off. Majima Everywhere system would work better in any other game but is stuck in the one where Majima is a much more serious and menacing character in the story.

    Also, be prepared for a few really transphobic moments.

    Kiwami might mean Extreme, but it's still Extremely Stuck in 2005.

  • If there's one word that perfectly describes Yakuza 3, it's "slow".

    There's a lot to like about this game. A more chill slice of life plot of Kiryu looking after his orphanage in Okinawa as he's being sucked back into the criminal underworld due to circumstances far beyond him is great!

    I would even argue that the first part of the game having low stakes and Kiryu desperately trying to decide what to do with his life mimics the player. Sure, Yakuza drama is far more exciting, but I can't deny I wanted to help all the kids with their problems, too.

    The game slowly opens up, and you realize that this wasn't a feature, however. The plot is slow, and out of all the games, it has the least things that happen in it. Things that happen are also quite strange. There are some delightfully weird cutscenes, but also plotlines that feel like they wouldn't be out of place in a 15th season of a sitcom.

    Gameplay-wise, this game is known as the one where the enemies block a lot, so that's hardly enjoyable. Substories mostly just lead to minigames, so there's not much there. A few of them also repeat too much for my taste.

    Plus, one of the more prominent minigames (managing a hostess club) relies so much on wasting your time by making you walk in slow circles before it allows you to enter the menu again, it's insane.

  • Yakuzas 4 and 5 both suffer from the mindset that bigger is better.

    The fourth game is divided into four parts each with its own main character. I should probably start here and say that one of them sucks. A robin-hood type corrupt cop, Tanimura, is not only a little tone-deaf but is also completely uninteresting and unfun.

    By the fourth game, it becomes clear that the developers know what they're doing. Minigames and substories are mostly really fun, and there's an added verticality to exploring Kamurocho.

    I will say that I'm not a fan of having multiple characters. Yakuzas are very free games, and here you have sets of games and substories you can only do as one character. The game starts to control the pacing of the gameplay more than its predecessors (and most of the successors), and only at the very end, you can freely choose which character you want to play as.

    For whatever reason, the host club management from Yakuza 3 returns, mostly unchanged, so may God have mercy on your soul if you want to grind that out.

    This game probably has the most infamous story in the Yakuza series, but I can't be mad at it. Dumb twists are at least memorable, which I can't say about...

  • The fifth game is divided into five parts each with its own main character. It also has five different locations to play at.

    Probably due to this, I can't remember a single thing that happened in the story. It involved Daigo Dojima, so I can assume it was as boring as he is. A man who is essentially the president of Yakuza whose clan isn't in shambles only thanks to a few very large men who show up to beat someone up every few years.

    This game is all about side content, and it doesn't disappoint. There's driving, hunting, dancing... Those games have entire stories, too (most way more entertaining than the actual story of Yakuza 5).

    Yakuza 5 is an impressive game that suffers from the same issues as Yakuza 4: you're not allowed to do the story as much as you want knowing that you'll be able to do side content at any time (until the very end) and one of the characters being absolutely useless.

    This is also a game that clearly wanted to show its power, so most of the time there aren't bosses so much as extremely large crowds of people, which is far less interesting. However, it's also a game where you punch a bear so I'd say we're even.

  • My main complaint about this game is, frankly, that it has a subtitle. From 0 to 5 names of the games were all very simple and good, and suddenly we have this.

    Yakuza 6 feels in many respects like a better-executed Yakuza 3. For example, you have two locations, one being a remote town of Onomichi with its small-town Yakuza. The main objective of the story again feels a lot more personal, even if there's yet another Yakuza war looming on the horizon. And, thankfully, it's a good story, so none of it feels long-winded or too stupid, which most of the titles previously listed were guilty of.

    I won't touch on side content because there are only so many ways you can say "it's good", but there's one thing I felt was getting stale: baseball. Someone in the team clearly loves baseball. I'm fairly sure baseball is the only minigame to be featured in all of the games via batting cages, but also to have two big questlines in both Yakuza 5 and 6.

    Not only does it feel like "been there, done that", but the baseball line in Yakuza 6 is also way more involved, including a mini-simulator of sorts.

    The reason I'm bringing this up is simple: nowhere in the games are the rules for baseball stated. It's forgivable in most titles, but as a European, I have no idea what this sport is, so this was a big letdown.

    As this was the first game in the Dragon engine, however, it does feel a little underdeveloped at parts. Some districts of Kamurocho are literally closed, and battle system feels a bit more restrictive than other games.

  • I feel like between Yakuza 5 and Yakuza 6 there's an invisible line where the games get very good.

    I can't complain about Kiwami 2. All the positives I've listed about other games apply here, too. It might not be as sprawling as Yakuza 5, but it was a way more memorable experience for me.

    There's not much I can say about Kiwami 2 that games that come after it on this list don't do better, except maybe for one: Majima rules and is absolutely a star of the show here, much like he was in 0.

    As the next game of Dragon engine, it also improves on everything Yakuza 6 most likely didn't have time with.

  • Yakuza 0 is just great. Pretty much everything it does, it does well.

    Sidestories are some of the most memorable in the series, the main plot is great and filled with amazing characters, and the decision to make multiple protagonists in multiple cities finally gets the treatment that's way more enjoyable by cycling between them every few chapters.

    The game does a beautiful job of introducing you to the world, and on the way through its story it has only a few little hiccups: the beginning few hours are way too restrictive, and Kiryu's story sometimes drags a tiny bit compared to Majima's rollercoaster of emotion.

  • If there was a problem with Kiryu, it's that he was a loner. Obviously, the way to improve on that is to add a party.

    Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a magical experience. Not only does it tell the best story of the series, but also has some of the absolute coolest characters I've seen.

    Being an RPG doesn't slow this game down one bit. The battle system does have one little issue with its weird positioning gimmick, but frankly, that's such a minor detail, I was able to grasp and ignore it almost immediately.

    Ichiban Kasuga, the new protagonist, is pretty much the opposite of Kiryu, down to his color scheme: a hopeless somewhat bumbling optimist, and perhaps one of the few video game heroes where you can actually understand why people are attracted to him.

    New minigames and new map are great, along with weird sidestories and in-battle animations being absolutely incredible.

    In a way, Like a Dragon feels like a sequel to EarthBound. It's a parody that still has a wonderful story to tell.

    EarthBound introduced the world to RPGs being set in the modern mostly ordinary world, but that's old news nowadays. Like a Dragon takes this premise a step further and feels fresh due to its cast being, well, mostly old fuck-ups.

    Like a Dragon also solidifies what I was noticing throughout playing this series: it's pretty clear that writers only get better with each game. From 3 onwards, they were all written by Masayoshi Yokoyama, and each game has been a step up in terms of story, even if 5 might be middling due to not having any of 3 and 4's absolutely hilarious dumb bullshit.

    I can't wait for the future adventure of this raggedy old gamer!