From the Archives: Yakuza’s Modern-Day Questing Makes a Fine JRPG

Sega’s Yakuza series is perhaps one of the most misunderstood franchises out there to people who haven’t played it.

Prior to its original release, it was assumed that the game would be a Japanese clone of Grand Theft Auto. Then people saw its real-time combat and started assuming it was a brawler.

It is neither of these things. It is, in fact, one of the most well-disguised JRPG series you’ll ever play.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.


Let’s look at the facts. While Yakuza obviously doesn’t take place in a vast, sprawling, hypercolour fantasy world populated by talking balls of fluff and big-eyed anime girls, there are plenty of established conventions that it does follow.

You’ll get into random battles as you wander around, allowing you to grind for experience. Special attacks become increasingly elaborate and ridiculous as the game progresses. And the main plotline is resolutely linear from start to end, with very few meaningful choices for the player to make throughout.

However, like any good JRPG, it’s possible to pretty much abandon that plotline for hours at a time — even if someone/the city/the world is in dire peril — and go off to complete a ton of side content.


And what side content. Throughout the Yakuza series you’ll be doing everything from attempting to romance cabaret girls to running your own club via handling a full-scale murder investigation. You’ll be chasing down criminals, teaching dogs new tricks and going shopping with a little girl. You’ll be spending hours trying to master an arcade machine, levelling up series protagonist Kazuma to learn new moves and taking candid photographs of bizarre happenings to inspire “revelations.” You’ll — you get the idea.

It is, of course, possible to run through all the Yakuza games from start to finish in less than 12 hours apiece, but while doing so will probably give you a more coherent sense of the very complex narrative, you miss out on one of the best things about the game: its incredibly authentic-feeling rendition of what life is like in modern Japan.

By taking time out to hang out with cabaret girls, sit in a “video booth,” visit the batting cage or go bowling, the player gets a real sense of being in Kazuma’s shoes. He becomes a whole person who does “human” things as well as exhibiting astonishing displays of superhuman strength. While he may spend a lot of his time in the story fighting for his life against gangsters, special agents, tigers and raging bulls, he’s also not above spending some time with the people he loves — most frequently, Haruka, the little girl whom he rescues in the first game and who grows up gradually over the course of its subsequent sequels.


While the game world is a big draw to the Yakuza series — particularly the fact that the player gets to see its iconic (and fictional, albeit based on the real locale of Kabuki-cho) setting of Kamuro-cho grow and change across all the games — it’s the characters that will make you want to stay. It would be less appealing to spend time in Kazuma’s shoes if he was a dumb, testosterone-fuelled asshole, for example, but thankfully, he’s not. In fact, Kazuma is one of the more memorable characters to come out of any video game in the last few years, effortlessly blending “cool,” “badass” and “sensitive” together into one awesome package that I’m not afraid to say I have a bit of a man-crush on.

But it’s not just Kazuma who is an interesting character, either. His psychotic “friend” Majima, whom he ends up fighting at least once in every game, is hilarious, and the calm demeanor of Detective Date complements Kazuma well. Haruka, too, could easily have ended up being an annoying child that you want to ditch as soon as possible, but she has been handled well enough that the player develops a genuine feeling of affection for her as her relationship with Kazuma develops. Even the “hostess” girls whom Kazuma chats to in the cabaret clubs have well-defined personalities and are interesting characters in their own right — despite being part of a sequence of events which some players won’t touch at all.

In short, the whole experience of the Yakuza series feels coherent, well thought out and highly immersive. Nothing feels “tacked on” for the sake of it, and it’s abundantly clear that the people who worked on the game have genuine affection for this setting and characters. Those who settle in to play the series for the long haul often end up feeling the same way.


It would be remiss of me not to mention that the series isn’t without a few issues, however. The fighting engine improves enormously over the course of the series but remains a little clunky at times, with punching the air rather than the enemy in front of you a persistent problem. The first game’s dub, while featuring decent quality English voice actors, is peppered with so many F-bombs that it actually becomes distracting. (Thankfully, from Yakuza 2 onwards, the team made the wise decision to retain the original Japanese voices and use subtitles.) The third game’s “chase battle” sequences are rubbish. Getting 100% on any of these games is an exercise in frustration unless you have a guide to hand and well over 50 hours to spare per game. And the complex web of relationships and “families” in the game is immensely confusing to newcomers — and particularly to those who don’t know the conventions of Japanese society, especially with regard to addressing people by their first and last names.


These issues aside, though, Yakuza is a high-quality — and highly unusual — JRPG that is well worth your time if you enjoy the structure and mechanics of the genre but feel like escaping from brightly-colored fantasy worlds for a while. It’s also further proof that the JRPG genre is anything but stale — its mechanics and structure can easily be picked up and transplanted into a non-conventional setting and still work well. (You can even still put swords in it.) Which, of course, begs the obvious question: why don’t we see this more often?

I can’t answer that. But I’d certainly be happy to see more developers tackle JRPGs in non-conventional settings in the future. How about it?

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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