The Yakuza games are not titles that I have much of a history with myself, but many of my friends love them. Stian from Corrupt Save Files in particular has been adamant about me giving them a proper shot. While I did play through Yakuza 0 before, I really should have started at the actual beginning: 2005’s Yakuza for the Playstation 2.

As a game, Yakuza is quite the unique blend of styles and genres. They are something of a spiritual successor to Sega’s Shenmue series, though foregoing the martial arts setting in favor of crunchy street brawling. Players assume the role of Kazuma Kiryu. A rising star in the Dojima family, which is a subsidiary of the greater Tojo Clan that governs the local criminal circuit. That is, until disaster strikes.

One day the head of the Dojima family attempts to have his way with Kazuma’s childhood friend Yumi. Kazuma and his lifelong friend Akira Nishikiyama rush to the family office, where Akira pulls a gun and kills Dojima. An act that would spell the end of his career as well as his life. To save his friend, Kazuma takes the blame instead. He is expelled from the clan and locked away in prison for 10 years. By the time he emerges, he finds everything he left behind has been plunged into chaos. And things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get any better.

Getting back to the gameplay for a moment, Yakuza mixes a lot of ideas into one. It is a semi-open world mystery sandbox game with quests in it, backed up by a robust 3D brawler system. Let’s dissect that for a moment.

Taking place in the city of Kamurocho, you are free to go most anywhere you want. You can wander the streets, go into shops, and play mini-games at all sorts of entertainment centers. You can also meet characters who have side-quests to offer or just pick fights with local thugs. Plenty of fun activities to distract you from actually progressing the main story at all.

When you get into a fight, the game shifts to a 3D arena where you can brawl it out with whoever is bothering you. You initially have a fairly standard combo system available to you, but your options expand quickly from there. You end up being able to shift between 3 different styles of combat with unique benefits each, all of which have their own unique moves to pull off. You can mix these as you please or specialize in the one you prefer the most.

These fights are definitely where Yakuza shines. The action is so visceral that it’s hard to believe your enemies will walk away from these battles without permanent disabilities. Some of the beatdowns you give these guys are borderline unsurvivable. You slam and stomp on their heads, break bones, and can even pick up objects around the arena to use as weapons. Kazuma will just pick up a bicycle and hit somebody with it so hard that it breaks apart. You can pick up dirty needles in alleyways and stab people with it or grab a kettle and pour boiling water over them. Even if the encounter rate is perhaps a bit too high, the action is so cathartic that it never gets old.

Kamurocho is also such a nice setting to explore. The city is lively and atmospheric, with random people wandering around everywhere and chatting. Its streets soon began to feel familiar, though never safe. Thugs and Yakuza patrol everywhere, looking to kill or at least rob poor Kazuma. Kamurocho feels like home, but not a safe one in the least. I actually found myself wanting to take a breather from it all. In most sandbox games, side-activities are something I do purely for the reward. In Yakuza, I genuinely sought them out for a fun change of pace. The batting cage was a personal favorite of mine.

I also fell in love with this game’s story. It is a crime drama through and through. Kazuma is mainly concerned with finding out what happened to his friends. Where Yumi has gone and why Akira has become so power-hungry. This soon gets him tied up in a greater scheme, as the Tojo Clan’s entire bank account is robbed empty. When it then turns out that a young orphan girl might hold the key to this missing wealth, the entire criminal world descends upon her. Kazuma takes it upon himself to protect this girl, once again making himself an enemy of his former family.

The drama and plot twists are intense, which kept me hooked on the plot from start to finish. Its characters are also fascinating people with real depth to them. Akira was a favorite of mine. A schemer determined to climb the ranks of the family, even as it pits him against people he deeply respects. A man willing to gamble so much on a bid for power, even as it risks turning him into a villain. For contrast, I also really liked Haruka. She is an adorable little kid and you are encouraged to take her out into Kamurocho to play side-activities with. It really endears her to the player, making it all the more personal when she is put into danger.

Really, my only complaints with Yakuza are minor annoyances. The amount of money needed to progress the upgrade tree makes some big leaps, forcing you to do some serious grinding or progress the story first. It’s also somewhat arbitrary what stores sell what items and the game doesn’t have much variety in mission objectives. Especially in the side-quests, it’s a shame that you usually just end up doing a quick fight or two and that’s it.

Yakuza is a unique experience in gaming. No game is quite like it, nor will you find any other game with a story like Yakuza‘s. It is no Shenmue rip-off nor is it Japanese GTA. If you are up for a game this unconventional, then I fully recommend giving Yakuza a shot. You can get the original for the Playstation 2 or pick up Yakuza Kiwami for modern systems.

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