-by Todd Keffer II-
2017 was going to be an interesting year for me in terms of video games. I had decided that my backlog of games had finally hit an apex that needed to be addressed. What could be a better, surefire, totally-gonna-work way to tackle it than by making it my New Year’s resolution to not buy any games in 2017.
Just like every other person on the planet who made some sort of drunken New Year’s commitment, I broke mine when Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was released. Then, since I had already broken my resolution, I decided to say, “Fuck it,” and keep buying video games afterwards. In that three month span, however, two things happened: I finally downloaded Yakuza 4 onto my PS3 and Giant Bomb: East Coast Crew were doing a new series called “Beast in the East” (where they playthrough Yakuza 0).
It was by watching their adventures that I felt the push to pick up the controller for Yakuza 4, a game that I think I started two or three times, but had never gotten past Shun Akiyama (the first main protagonist out of 4). After beating the fourth protagonist, I immediately bought both Yakuza 0 and Kiwam (translates to “extreme”) and put over 50 hours in each game.
For those unaware of the series, Yakuza (known as “Ryū ga Gotoku” [Like A Dragon] in Japan) is a Playstation-exclusive franchise that revolves around the protagonist Kazuma Kiryu and his life in and out of the Japanese mafia.
Over the years, Sega (the game’s publisher) came to understand that the American target demographic of this series wanted the full experience that oversea fans were having. Eventually, Sega decided to only sub the dialog and tweak a couple of things for North American releases. In other words, the Yakuza series is Japanese as fuck.
Kamurocho, the main location (where all seven mainline games takes place), is based off of Tokyo’s Kabukichō district. All the sub stories and mini games typically revolve around the life and culture there in Tokyo. The way characters speak to each other, the formalities, and how they generally carry themselves, are all tied to how real Yakuza act with one another or to citizens. Even if a bunch of the details are exaggerated or made up, the foundation is still built on the culture and history that Western audiences do not see depicted very often. Over the years, American media companies tend to just remake Asian region hits to cater to American audiences (Internal Affairs:The Departed, Ju-On Grudge: The Grudge, Ringu: The Ring, DeathNote [manga]: DeathNote [Netflix movie], and many, many more.)
During my time with Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami (a remake of the original PS2 game), and Yakuza 4, I was able to experience a world that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Whether it was the neon orange glow of Japan in an economic boom during the 1980’s that’s present in Yakuza 0 or the slick mid 2000’s feel that most of the games stuck to, I was truly immersed in a world that I didn’t fully understand, but was excited to discover.
The stories of Yakuza are centered around the inner politics of the Tojo Clan and the power struggles within. It’s a slow burn that takes a lot of different twists and turns as the story progresses to its usually awesome/ridiculous conclusion. The series tends to break these moments with their light hearted, goofy side stories and a combat system similar to the Batman Arkham games (if not as fluid and a lot more brutal than anything Batman would ever do – Youtube “Yakuza Heat Actions” to see what I mean).
While Yakuza does have its flaws (reusing animations from game to game, recycling the same side events for two different characters, mini games based purely on luck, ect) the series now proudly stands as an example that artistic vision and great storytelling can connect to people outside of its original country, despite how unfamiliar they maybe with the culture or history.
If anything, these games gets people more interested in the world around them and encourages them to explore media from different countries. For those interested, I would highly recommend starting with Yakuza 0, since it sets up the events for every game after it and lets you play as the greatest character in the series: Goro Majima. If you’re not sure about spending around $50 on a game you may not like, Kiwami is also a good place to start, since it uses Yakuza 0’s game engine and is priced at $30 brand new. Otherwise, sit back, relax, sip on a glass of scotch, and enjoy this Yakuza political drama unfold in front of you, Kiryu-chun.