Developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio and published by Sega, the Yakuza franchise began on the PlayStation 2 and since then released titles on PS3, PSP, Wii U, PS4, Xbox One, PC and soon to be released next generation consoles PlayStation 5 & Xbox Series X|S.
At the helm of it all the series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi has been directly involved with all eight titles. Inspired by life events and wanting the player to overall, “have fun,” the Yakuza franchise generally blends into a well told, serious main story with a variety of preposterous side missions and mini games to blow off steam for hours on end. Players have to balance having the weight of the Tojo Clan on their shoulders while min-maxing your RC car to demolish children in a race.
I will do my best at avoiding any spoilers in this writeup, but do want to discuss a few characters that are paramount to the series. First is Kazuma Kiryu. Feared within the underworld, known also as the Dragon of Dojima, Kiryu is widely considered the main character of the series. While you grow in stature and age over time with Kiryu, I personally consider the series about Haruka Sawamura. Haruka is introduced in the first game, Yakuza, and now the remastered Yakuza Kiwami.
While Yakuza would once have been considered the entrypoint to the series, as time has passed this is no longer the case. For someone looking to visit the franchise for the first time, it’s best to play these games in number order. Released in 2015, Yakuza 0 is technically the first game and gives a phenomenal background to Kiryu as well as many other characters you will come across during your time playing Yakuza. All the titles ranked below from Yakuza 0 through 6 are available on the PlayStation 4. For users that are planning to play on PC or Xbox, currently Yakuza 0 through Kiwami 2 are available with no timetable on further titles currently.
Below is how I would rank each title in the series. As keeping up with above I will do my best to avoid spoilers while describing the general mechanics or aspects of the storytelling which led to where I placed each title.
These are ranked from worst to best, with the worst title still ranking above any good to great game you can find on the market.
Originally the first, even the remaster shows its age in ideas. I can’t highlight enough that the main story is fantastic and required for anyone that wants to get invested in Yakuza’s world and characters. Where Yakuza/Kiwami falls short of the other titles is its side content. As the series has grown over the last 15 years, so has its ideas and extra objectives, giving the player plenty of content to sink dozens of hours into. Yakuza/Kiwami lacks the same level of engaging side content. The general combat loop, however, is still a blast to play, although the upgrading mechanic is one of the more complex to navigate.
Easily the most charming in the series, Yakuza 3 will immerse you into a quieter life for Kiryu. You might ask, “Why would I want to trade beating enemies over the head with a bicycle for the initial hours?” but I assure you the reason will make you run to every corner of town willingly. I loved Yakuza 3 from start to finish but it also offers some of the least compelling reasons to return for additional playthroughs as, similar to the initial title, its main focus is the story and less about side content.
Yakuza 3 may also shock players when booting it up. Released on the PlayStation 3 originally and now playable on the PlayStation 4 as a remaster, it is the most dated game now in the series. Kiwami was remade using Yakuza 0’s settings, Kiwami 2 takes it even further being remade with Yakuza 6’s engine. Yakuza 3 is still perfectly playable and looks fine, just a dropoff from the beauty in Kiwami 2.
Yakuza Kiwami 2
Yakuza 2 and its remake Kiwami 2 present one of the greatest main villains in the series, Ryuji Goda. Known as “The Dragon of Kansai,” Goda mirrors Kiryu in a number of ways. However, the way they act to achieve success is wildly different. By this point you will have come to know Kiryu like the back of your hand, which lets the player fully analyze Goda’s actions further. The remake, Kiwami 2, is built on the Dragon Engine which was developed for the latest entry, Yakuza 6.
The Yakuza series has never been about cutting edge visuals, but the Dragon Engine brings newer titles significantly forward with beautiful graphics and animations. Visuals are not the only boost though as the overall level of immersion is greatly increased. Before the new engine, going into any street battle or shop would have a quick loading screen. This has been fully negated, as you can go straight into battle now (and even bring the fight into the stores!) without patiently waiting to jump into the action.
Easily the most ambitious game in the series, Yakuza 5 has the most playable characters and cities to explore in any single title. Unlike the first title, Yakuza, which nails the main story and misses on the side content, Yakuza 5 is the opposite. Each character has exclusive side missions as well as exclusive mini games that cater around a central issue or current situation in their life. The main story is still interesting and ties together in the end but throughout the game at times I forgot what the main purpose of it all was as I focused on fleshing out each individual character. One of the big positives of the increased main character roster is the side characters. For every excellent character the series focuses on, they create equally interesting sidekicks to balance them out.
The first title to originally offer multiple playable characters, Yakuza 4 introduces a number of key figures to the franchise. One thing Yakuza 4 does better than Yakuza 5 is in tying the overall plot together on why these characters are involved and moving towards a common goal. WIth the introduction of multiple characters also comes a variety of fight styles that are unique to each character. These styles feel significantly different from one another which makes the action of beating up a few thugs on the street a joyous occasion from start to finish.
This post is about the Yakuza series and ranking 0-6, so why is there a game not called Yakuza on my list? Maybe you already know Judgement doesn’t include any characters from the Yakuza franchise which could confuse you even further in the selection.
The reason I include Judgement is because it contains one of the biggest mainstays in the series, the city itself, Kamurocho. As you fight tooth and nail to survive and grow throughout the series, so does Kamurocho. You will see the people and buildings grow and change over time, with Yakuza 0 set in the 1980’s and Yakuza 6 ending in 2016. You may know exactly where to go when an NPC directs you to West Park, but West Park like all the other districts will change and so will its inhabitants.
Judgement is set in Kamurocho and has you playing the role of a private detective. The main story of Judgement is the strongest told through a single game in the series. Each act ties together perfectly and the arc feels relatable to something you would hear on the news today about corruption and power. There is still a variety of mini games included, some of which, like drone racing, are my favorite in the series.
Like a Dragon takes unprecedented risk by changing the core structure of Yakuza’s gameplay, while also implementing an entirely new cast of characters and setting. Its not often you see a well known series take so many risks in one title, but Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon excels and pushes the series to new heights in some ways. Gone is the beat-em up action, with turn based combat the new focus.
With a new down to earth protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga is surrounded by lovable characters that are looking for answers in the ever changing political climate of Yokohama. While Kriyu’s story tends to tie back into the Tojo Clan, Kasuga just wants to know why his previous family has abandoned him, and why he was left for dead in an unfamiliar city.
Created as the end of Kazama Kiryu’s storyline, the series pulls back from playing as multiple players in Yakuza 4 & 5, to just one. Yakuza 6 does introduce us to multiple cities though, with a majority of the game being played in the city of Onomichi, which brings the charm of Yakuza 3 but elevated further by playing out the side missions. Yakuza 6 has a strong supporting cast bringing its voice acting and main story together as one of the best I have ever played in any game.
Finally we get to number one, my favorite entry in the series and also technically the starting point for the story, Yakuza 0. The main story is told across two playable characters. This fleshes out the backstory further of one of Yakuza fans’ favorite, Goro Majima, while taking place in the late 1980’s. Japan was going through its bubble period, where stock and real estate prices were overly inflated, so cash was being thrown around freely and Yakuza 0 lets you partake in the madness. Side content includes competing over ownership of districts, earning millions of yen only to throw it away at bars, singing karaoke, and boogie-ing it out on the dance floor. HowLongToBeat has the main story set around 31 hours, with 65 hours for main content & extra. At 100+ hours, I was still checking into my favorite joints to let the good times roll.
The Yakuza series delivers exceptional storytelling with entertaining gameplay. If you have not tried the series yet, I hope this post helps nudge you into doing so. The newest entry Yakuza 7 is a fresh start for the series with a new cast of characters as well as changing the gameplay style from action brawler to turn based RPG. Once finished I will add that to the list.
12/23/2020 Post edited with the latest title, Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon