The Yakuza franchise’s journey to the West has been a long one, and we’ve gone from waiting years for Yakuza games to get localized, to same-year releases for the latest games from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio.
February 11 marks the physical release of the Yakuza Remastered Collection for the PS4, making the entire mainline Yakuza series finally playable on a single platform. From the breakthrough hit prequel Yakuza 0, to Kiryu’s final stand in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, the Yakuza franchise has established itself as one of SEGA’s top IP’s, with a solid following both in Japan and internationally.
With the Western release of Yakuza 7 (also known as Yakuza: Like a Dragon) sure to come this 2020, it must have been RGG Studio’s intention to make the entire Kiryu saga available to Western fans before finally moving on to the series’ new protagonist, Kasuga Ichiban.
There’s a time for looking forward to what’s coming next, and a time for reminiscing and looking back on the huge pile of yakuza henchmen you’ve beat up along the way. With the complete Kiryu saga now more accessible than ever, what better way is there to revisit each game than with a ranked listicle?
Here are all the Yakuza games, ranked.
Before we get into the rankings, an honorable mention is due for Yakuza and Yakuza 2, the first two games in the series released in 2006 and 2008 respectively for the PS2.
On the surface, the Yakuza games for the PS2 looked like Grand Theft Auto set in Japan, and they may have flown outside of most people’s radars because it was easy to dismiss them as second rate GTA copies. The actual games could not have been more different than GTA, and it didn’t take long for players to realize that Yakuza was its own thing.
Hard-hitting beat-’em-up gameplay, zany sidequests, and elaborately written plots have been part of the Yakuza formula since the first game. While the technological limitations of the PS2 may have kept Yakuza from reaching its full potential, the first two games show that the series has always had its unique personality and powerful storytelling.
Due to how unfair it would be to pit the PS2 generation Yakuza games against those released for the PS3 and PS4, I will instead refer to the Kiwami remakes for the rankings in this list. I would simply be remiss not to mention the original games because they were the ones that got me hooked on the Yakuza series, and it’s been a joy to see how big the series has grown since then.
Yakuza Kiwami is a remake of the original Yakuza (2006), upgrading the gameplay and visuals of the original with the same game engine used in Yakuza 0. For those who’ve played the original game, Kiwami feels like watching your favorite 240p YouTube video from 2006, now in widescreen 1080p. Kiwami is such a faithful recreation of its PS2 original that despite it being a remake, it can at times feel more like an HD reskin.
What’s unfortunate about Kiwami isn’t that it’s a bad game (I’m telling you now, Kiwami is a good game), but that it was preceded by Yakuza 0 and it used the same game engine. Yakuza 0 is a masterpiece, and following it with a remake that had a plot from the early 2000’s and essentially the same gameplay made Kiwami feel like an expansion to Yakuza 0 rather than the game that started the entire series.
Kiwami is nothing to complain about, and it was to be expected that a game written for the PS2 generation would have its shortcomings when being remade for a current-gen console that’s more than capable of fleshing out the original’s potential. If anything, the release of Kiwami was necessary for RGG Studio to move on to the new Dragon Engine, which was used in Yakuza 6, Kiwami 2, and the Yakuza spinoff Judgment.
Yakuza 3 came out for the PS3 in 2009, and one of its main features was a new setting in Okinawa. The story follows Kiryu as he leaves the Tojo Clan to start an orphanage in Okinawa, where he takes care of his adopted daughter Haruka and eight other orphans. His reputation as a yakuza puts his orphanage in danger of being torn down, and he returns to Tokyo to figure out who’s after him and his kids.
Being the first game to be released on the PS3, Yakuza 3 boasted an upgrade to the graphics as well as the combat system, with more weight to each punch and more Heat Actions and quick-time events. While the next-gen upgrades proved to draw the Yakuza games closer to their full potential, it was the multiple-setting element that felt like it required a little more fine-tuning. Having the story take place between Tokyo and Okinawa meant that Kiryu had to go between places in order to fulfill specific missions, and the Okinawa missions sometimes felt like a chore to play.
Despite the game’s flaws, the story remains gripping and features one of the saddest death scenes in the entire franchise. Yakuza 3 was a huge step forward for RGG Studio, and its imperfections would later on become points of improvement for future installments.
Yakuza 4 is another game that was released for the PS3 in 2011, and it’s the first Yakuza game in the franchise that featured playable characters other than Kiryu.
The three other playable characters are Akiyama the loan shark, Saejima the fresh-out-of-prison yakuza, and an uptight cop with a strong sense of justice named Tanimura. Each character has a unique fighting style, representing each of the Four Gods of the East: Kiryu being the Azure Dragon, Saejima the White Tiger, Akiyama the Vermillion Bird, and Tanimura the Black Tortoise.
The strength of Yakuza 4 lies in its varying fighting styles, which demanded a change in playstyle every time the player switched characters. This kept the game from feeling repetitive while also highlighting the personalities of each character through the way they fight.
Yakuza 4 has one of the most fulfilling endings in the franchise, having the four playable characters’ storylines intertwine and culminate in a long, four-part boss battle where each character must fight their own personal rivals. It’s a game that takes risks in sidelining the series’ main protagonist and interweaving four separate story arcs into one, and the payoff is extremely satisfying.
The first game to be released with RGG Studio’s Dragon Engine, Yakuza 6 (subtitled The Song of Life) is the final game in the Kiryu saga, seeing the iconic protagonist way past his prime and finally feeling the damage he’d sustained in the past five games.
Yakuza 6 follows the story of Kiryu as his adopted daughter Haruka disappears, only to later be found in a coma and with an infant son named Haruto. In Kiryu’s attempt to find out what happened to Haruka and who’s behind the accident that put her in a coma, he stumbles upon a conspiracy buried deep in Japan’s underground, and ends up having to take one final stand in order to protect his family.
RGG Studio spared no expense in creating their swan song for Kiryu, with an all-star cast including yakuza film legend Takeshi Kitano, as well as seasoned actors Shun Oguri, Maki Youko, and Tatsuya Fujiwara. Even compared to the high profile actors the franchise is known for including in their games, Yakuza 6 is a step above in star power.
Yakuza 6 is both a celebration of how far the series has come and a moving tribute to the long and complicated parent-child relationship that Kiryu and Haruka have shared. The Song of Life is a series of crescendos and a fitting sendoff for the Dragon of Dojima.
The final Yakuza game of the PS3 generation, Yakuza 5 is a combination of all the Yakuza games that preceded it, and it showed how much care the development team put into improving every new entry in the series, taking twice the usual development time for a Yakuza game.
In Yakuza 5, there are five playable characters, including your adopted daughter Haruka. Kiryu, Akiyama, and Saejima return alongside a new character named Shinada. The game also takes place across five different settings corresponding to each character, doubling down on the variety of not only the combat but also the exploration. The game is actually so huge that it’s twice as long as some Yakuza games, and a completionist run can take up to a hundred hours.
Despite the large cast and multiple settings, Yakuza 5 succeeds in fleshing out each character’s story arc and tying all the events together, leading up to an ending in which, like Yakuza 4’s ending, involves multiple boss fights with each character having a rival that they must face. As you take down each boss one by one, everything comes together in such an exhilarating and satisfying way.
Yakuza 5’s release for the PS4 is worth celebrating because it’s one of the best games in the series. Some fans would even put it at the top of their list, and I can understand why: it’s a storytelling feat unlike anything RGG Studio has done before.
While the first Kiwami game simply met expectations, neither falling short of, nor exceeding them, Kiwami 2 is so much more than fans expected it to be.
The story remains the same as the original, revolving around conflict between the Tokyo and Osaka clans, at the center of which stand Kiryu and main antagonist Ryuji Goda, also known as the “Dragon of Kansai”.
Running on the Dragon Engine, Kiwami 2 featured the same great combat gameplay of Yakuza 6, but fine-tuned to perfection with even more Heat Actions and environmental attacks. The game also featured several minigames including fan favorites Cabaret Club Grand Prix and Clan Creator, as well as a short but sweet Majima story mode, which provides some closure for his story arc in Yakuza 0.
Everything that proved to be lackluster in the first Kiwami game, as well as the yet-unrefined Dragon Engine as it first appeared in Yakuza 6, were all addressed by RGG Studio in the creation of Kiwami 2. It’s chock full of content, its recreation of the original game’s story was faithful yet expanded, and its combat is the best the series has seen since Yakuza 0. Kiwami 2 is a sterling example of how video game remakes should be.
If I could recommend just one Yakuza game to the uninitiated, it would have to be Yakuza 0. It’s the game that introduced the Yakuza series to new fans everywhere, and it even found its place in the PS4’s Greatest Hits line of games.
Yakuza 0 is both an accessible starting point for new players, and a treat for long-time fans because it’s the first game in which fan-favorite Goro Majima is playable. The story is split equally between Kiryu and Majima, showing how they fought their way up the ranks of the Tojo Clan to become the Dragon of Dojima and the Mad Dog of Shimano, respectively.
Combat in Yakuza 0 is a fresh experience because both Kiryu and Majima have three different fighting styles that the player can switch between on the go, allowing for different play styles and different approaches depending on your battle encounter.
Another key element in Yakuza 0 is the addition of minigames specific to Kiryu and Majima’s storylines: Real Estate Royale, and Cabaret Club Czar. One is a property management minigame, while the other is a hostess club simulator. It’s not uncommon that players get sidetracked for hours just playing these minigames, and I myself have spent way too much time trying to get 100% completion on them.
Addictive gameplay aside, Yakuza 0’s greatest strength is in its beautifully paced plot and perfectly executed cutscenes. The 17-minute cutscene introducing Majima as the manager of the Cabaret Grand is a masterclass in video game cutscenes, and it cemented Yakuza 0’s place as my number one Yakuza game.
A riveting plot, a fresh take on the Yakuza combat system, and tons of extra content make every minute of Yakuza 0 a fun ride. It’s the definitive Yakuza experience.
So that was all the Yakuza games, ranked from good to best. There isn’t a bad Yakuza game, it’s just that some are better than the others. If you have your own Yakuza power ranking list, feel free to share it with us in the comments!
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