Kazuma Kiryu, putting the boot in... boot, snakeskin shoe, whatever.
Let us tell you about a first-time drinking experience in Kamurocho, Tokyo. It started normally enough with a bit of light shopping, followed by a small lunch. Later came a ten-man brawl; some steady boozing in a hostess bar; and finally an energy drink-fueled, shirtless battle to the death on top of a skyscraper.
This is just a regular day in the life of Kazuma Kiryu, the player-controlled star of SEGA's Yakuza franchise. While it's not as well known in the West, the Yakuza games are big business for their makers in Japan, with six games in the main series, five spin-offs, a TV show, and a movie from Takashi Miike, legendary director of Audition and other cult classics. The games are full of high melodrama, ultra-violence, and slapstick comedy, and they're the closest you'll get to walking the streets of Tokyo without getting on a plane.
The big man himself, Uncle Kaz
You're probably wondering why we're talking about Yakuza now, when the last game released in the West, zombie spin-off Yakuza: Dead Souls, came out over three years ago. Well, it's because the 2012-released Yakuza 5 is finally making its way to Europe and the States, coming out for the PlayStation 3, through PSN, sometime in the next few weeks. (At least, that's the latest.) As the founding members of the UK Yakuza Fan Club we, the Bit Socket boys, reckon we're the right people to get you up to date and ready to get fired into Yakuza 5. Which you should do, because these games are great.
First up, let's have a look at the story so far, while trying to avoid any major spoilers. Take notes though, there's a test at the end.
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In the original Yakuza, Kazuma Kiryu is released from prison after serving ten years for a murder that his best friend Nishiki had committed while defending Yumi, his fiancé. Getting back into the world, he's no longer the Dragon of the Dojima Family, but a man approaching middle age, with few allies and a faded reputation. Over the course of the game, the streets of Kamurocho are once again littered with bodies, broken bikes, and revenge.
But Kazuma isn't all about his fists. He's a man seeking an escape from his past and redemption. He becomes a surrogate father to Haruka, a young girl who may hold the key to finding the Tojo Clan's ten billion stolen yen. Haruka's father is a corrupt politician who wants to wield his influence over the yakuza and politics in Tokyo to gain more power. He'll stop at nothing to gain it, even attempting to kill his own daughter if it leads him to his goal.
Kazuma and Haruka
One year later, in the sequel, Kazuma is drafted in by the Tojo Clan, his old crime family, to stop an upcoming war with the Omi Alliance from Kansai. The Tojo Clan was left in tatters after the events of the year before, so Kazuma enlists series favorite Mad-Dog Majima and Daigo Dojima to pull the Clan together.
Yakuza 3 finds Kazuma living peacefully in Okinawa, running an orphanage with the help of Haruka. A dispute over the land his orphanage sits on escalates, incorporating rival yakuza and political opponents. Kazuma is dragged back to Tokyo when an attempt is made to assassinate Daigo, and the existence of a clandestine US black-ops group led by Kazuma's adopted father comes to light.
The final core game released in the West so far, Yakuza 4, takes place in 2010 and is the first game to feature multiple playable characters. The Tojo Clan slowly rebuilds itself, and Kamurocho seems to enjoy a long period of peace and normality. We follow the lives of Akiyama, a money lender; Saejima, an escaped death row convict; and Tanimura, a police officer. A dispute between smaller families of local yakuza and the presence of a mysterious girl out for revenge start to expose a conspiracy that links the yakuza and the Tokyo establishment, and only the legendary Kazuma Kiryu can fix the situation in his inimitable style. Which usually involves breaking some jaws.
And that brings us up to Yakuza 5, which again delves into the workings of the yakuza and brings us back into a world that has grown and developed as the series and technology has progressed. Every main entry takes place in Kamurocho, with other cities featuring from time to time. Returning to the same place and seeing how it has changed, and how the characters have grown, is part of the appeal. The Yakuza games are like a long-running melodramatic TV series, with characters you can't wait to see again with each new entry.
Speaking of characters, while Yakuza 5 introduces a few new faces to the series, there's a few returning sorts who have featured before.
Akiyama, in the (virtual) flesh
Shun Akiyama, introduced in Yakuza 4, is a fan favorite. A moneylender whose easy smile hides his world-weary brow, he likes to have a bit of fun around town and his fighting style is full of acrobatic kicks and flips. He acted as the first new playable character in the series in Yakuza 4, showing the new depth that SEGA could bring to the games' combat.
Up next is a real beast of a man, Taiga Saejima, framed for the murder of 18 members of a rival gang (he shot them, but with rubber bullets... it's a long story) and a jail escapee at the start of Yakuza 4. As you'd expect from a larger character, his moves aren't as quick as those of Kazuma or Akiyama, but he makes up for it in brute strength and gorgeous long hair.
Yakuza 5 marks the first time that Haruka, the girl Kazuma has sworn to protect, is available as a playable character. Moved away from the orphanage in Okinawa, she's now pursuing her own ambition of becoming an idol, but it looks like there might be shady goings on behind the scenes of her management. Fun fact: Haruka doesn't engage in fights, but she will be able to participate in dance battles.
"Mad Dog" Majima is pretty much the greatest video game character ever
Finally, we come to Goro Majima, the Mad Dog of the Shimano Family, and the single best video game character ever. He's a mad, one-eyed sadist who steals every scene he's in, and is probably the only reason you should play Yakuza: Dead Souls. He's constantly challenging Kazuma to a fight, but he's loyal and always respects those who don't hold back. Sadly he didn't become a playable character in the main series until Yakuza 0, released in 2015 in Japan but sadly unlikely to appear in the West anytime soon.
The Yakuza series has had a hard time making an impact in the West, which is why half the games have never made it here. Yakuza 5's imminent release in English-language regions is a miracle given how little known the games are beyond their homeland. It's a real shame, because the combination of free-roaming gameplay, hilariously violent combat and brilliantly written characters really deserves a bigger following. But together, we can fix that.
If our synopsis has piqued your interest in the series, then now's the perfect time to jump on board with it. The episodic-style plot and growing universe over the games' chronology makes playing from the first Yakuza onwards a great prospect for those with enough time and curiosity, but Yakuza 3 or 4 are both perfect starting points if you don't want to fully commit yourself. Both benefit from smoother combat and hundreds more moves that the upgrade from PlayStation 2 to PS3 brought to the series, as well as a fully 3D camera to view the incredibly detailed locations.
Of all the Yakuza series' mini-games, karaoke is the favorite
Or you could just start with Yakuza 5 when it comes out. It's been available for three years in Japan and is considered the best game in the series. It's easy to see why, with five cities to explore, five playable characters, a revamped fighting system and brand new mini-games, including brilliant taxi races on the Japanese highways and an excursion to the snowy north to hunt bears. It's also the antithesis of the Ubisoft-style template for open worlds that has become so stale nowadays, with each location small enough to not be overwhelming and yet still full to the gills with stuff to do, instead of being expansive but containing trinket-like tokens and collectibles to mop up for no real reason.
As for the future of the series, it's hard to tell what that'll be in the West. If Yakuza 5 sells well there's hope that we'll continue to see the series released here, but we have a lot of catching up to do. Yakuza 0 has been out in Japan for almost a year, and 2016 brings both a full-on remake of the first chapter and a sixth game starring none other than Takeshi Kitano. We might never see those games here, but at least we've got five incredible ones to enjoy, five chapters in the surreal life of the hardest bastard in all of Japan.
Seriously, you need to see this man in all his glory.
Yakuza 5 is released for PlayStation 3 in "quarter four" of 2015, which we'll take to mean in a few weeks, please SEGA.
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