I loved Yakuza 0, and I fairly enjoyed the first two remastered entries and the sixth installment, The Song of Life. I found Judgment, the spin-off in which you play as a detective, to be extremely entertaining. I haven’t played the latest, Like A Dragon, just yet, but my experiences with Kazuma Kiryu have educated me on what to expect from the dramatized underground of organized crime.
If I were just beginning the series, I’d feel comfortable starting off with the newest entry, as it’s really a standalone game, with likely sequels to come. If you are more interested in detective work, I will not dissuade you from jumping in with Judgment, either. Or, you could do what I did and start with the 1980s-set prequel.
In any case, as a beginner, you might like to know a little more about the newest Yakuza games before choosing where to dive in.
The Basics Of The Franchise
The Yakuza is the Japanese mafia, which very much exists in real life. While our fictional Yakuza surely operate in Tokyo, our protagonists have most often dealt in Kamurocho, a recreation of a real district within Tokyo.
The fictional rivals Tojo Clan and Omi Alliance are two of the most renowned organizations in the series. Kazuma Kiryu, who always seems to get roped back into criminal life despite his best intentions, is originally from the Dojima Family, a sub-group of the Tojo Clan. Meanwhile, Like A Dragon’s new protagonist, the frizzy-haired Ichiban Kasuga, is from the Arakawa Family, which is a sub-group of the Omi Alliance.
It’s not necessary for you to remember every name and face, or even the majority of plot details in previous games to enjoy the next. I know I haven’t retained much of this sort of information, but that’s never stopped me from enjoying every aspect of the franchise.
Going into these games, you might expect to play as a hitman or grunt trying to work his way up the ranks, but you’re usually just a good guy in over your head, winding up involved in schemes far above your position. These grand schemes might involve real estate, politics, or tycoons’ secret projects.
Of course, these elaborate plots won’t preclude you from fighting hundreds of bad guys out on the streets. If you opt for a good-old Kiryu story, you’ll fight with a variety of cartoonishly brutal styles. As Detective Takayuki Yagami, you can parkour off walls to accentuate your martial artist fighting style. Lastly, as Ichiban, you’ll fight in a turn-based system full of even more exciting, Kiryu-esque moves.
In any entry, you can expect a wide variety of entertaining side activities. I can recall driving taxis and serving noodles in Yakuza 5. In Yakuza 0, in which you play as Kiryu and the eye-patch-wearing Goro Majima, I spent hours investing the mini-games offered by the latter’s cabaret club and the former’s real estate business. In Judgment, I frequented the virtual reality board game circuit and secret casino.
You’ll never run out of things to do, that’s for sure. I certainly didn’t. In fact, Yakuza games are some of the only ones I revisit after finishing. There’s just so much content, certainly enough to lure a beginner like you into playing the whole series!
Which Game Is For You?
These three games, though all very recent, are also very different. As mentioned, each one features a different combat style and protagonist. Kiryu is fairly stoic, while Ichiban is more extroverted. Takayuki, or Tak for short, is grounded but cool; a 35-year-old martial artist in a leather jacket.
Even though Tak’s is the investigative detective entry, I find that all Yakuza narratives boil down to massive murder mysteries. Each one, however, might appeal to you for very specific reasons. For instance, if you’re a big WWII history enthusiast, you’ll love The Song of Life, which takes you to Hiroshima. Or, if you’re a cat-person, Judgment has plenty of the little critters. For you, perhaps it’s these kinds of specifics which will determine the game you buy.
As for the plots and themes of each, Kiryu’s last appearance is definitely a swan song which bears a sense of responsibility, while Like A Dragon is a new beginning, complete with a goofy, extroverted main character. Judgment lies somewhere in between, neither an ending to a new relationship nor a genesis—just a single memorable adventure.
It’s an interesting situation: a swan song and two new standalone titles in a series that previously made five sequels straight. You have the chance to begin almost anywhere; you could even begin with the Yakuza 0 prequel and play all nine games in chronological order. I originally went this route, but I’ve had no problems jumping around from the second game to Judgment or from that to the Song of Life.
It’s up to you on where to begin, but no matter where you start, I believe you’re likely to enjoy this incredibly unique franchise all the same. My pithy recommendations, for those of you torn between the three newest Yakuza games, are these:
If you like more mature and stoic characters like Ghost of Tsushima’s Jin Sakai or arcade combat, go for The Song Of Life. If you favor turn-based games and light-hearted protagonists, consider Like A Dragon. But if you prefer investigation mechanics like photography, scanning for evidence, and following suspects, give Judgment a try.