Kamurocho, is by its own right, a magical place that can go toe-to-toe with the Midgars and Mementos of the gaming world. Though not as explicitly ‘magical’ by all accounts, it treads the balance between urban fantasy and actual crime simulator that is as entertaining as it is exciting.
In anticipation of Yakuza: Like A Dragon’s release on November, if you’re itching for a Yakuza game that’s not like what’s available in the Kiwami remakes or the current iterations (Yakuza Zero and Yakuza 6: Song of Life), here are some variations to this subgenre of games.
Judgment – Yakuza, but With a Different Skin
Judgment thematically remains true to its core. However, the plausibility of their plot twists demand a lot of faith from their fanbase. The game promised us a side story that tackles the neutral ground in the crime-ridden world of Kamurocho. Yagami is a disgraced defense attorney turned private detective as he struggles with a tumultuous past and an impossible case that would not go away. When his former law firm hires him as an investigator to clear a Yakuza captain of being a suspect in a serial killer case, his past catches up with him as he digs deeper into the rabbit hole, spiraling deeper than he realizes.
The game starts out as an engaging crime thriller, it even has solid film noir conventions that hooked me right away. It felt like a scene out of Chinatown or even much more recently, Jessica Jones. Then we delve into the signature Ryu ga Gotoku minigames, half-baked detective mechanics, and superficial plot twists– and the promising hardboiled crime sim just turned into that long forgotten episode of Law and Order.
Everything feels much of the same. It is set two years after Yakuza 6: Song of Life and all the restaurants, arcades, and convenience stores are right there where you left them. The gym that Kiryu frequents is now a VR gambling den and drones are now the big thing the kids are into. Karaoke is out, but the batting center still remains, and you can still get easy money from mahjong (easy because you can reload it if you don’t win a lot of cash). Every thug in every corner still wants to kick your ass, but this time, cops will show up to break fights if your brawls last too long. Kiryu never had that problem, I wonder why Yagami does. There is a cameo from that Ohno mascot from Yakuza 6 and the bars still feature the greatest hits from yesteryear while you gain extra experience by consuming every item from their menu.
What makes it different from a regular Yakuza game? Quicktime chase events, suspect tailing and low-stakes evidence collection minigames. It does not have a Cabaret Club RTS, Base Defense MOBA or that Small Business Management side quest– but it has this Kickstarter-esque app that’s more of a needless expense rather than something fun to lose yourself on while avoiding the main storyline. Out of all the Ryu ga Gotoku games, this was probably the title that had me returning to the story as the minigames were not as inspired as the Yakuza ones.
I don’t expect the story line to any of the Yakuza games to be groundbreaking. In fact, Kiwami and Kiwami 2 felt like I was more into the side quests and Cabaret storyline (the Majima plot was better). Hell, even Yakuza Kiwami 2’s Base Defense story was more compelling than the actual plot. While Judgment started off strong, a series of convoluted misdirection set up a predictable mess of a climax. There were some good moments, but most of the major plot beats in the game felt like it could’ve been a DLC adventure for Kiryu or Majima to tackle.
My biggest issue for Judgment was its sheer implausibility. Yakuza got away with a lot of plot holes because of the fact that even if they’ve bypassed police scrutiny, it is because the events occurred within the underworld bubble. Cops don’t get involved because it’s Kamurocho, and that being established, we believe it to be true. The characters in Judgment aren’t Yakuza and they aren’t police. I’m no expert of the Japanese judicial system but through quick internet research, private investigators aren’t seen in a good light in Tokyo and seem to push the envelope in the legal grey area. Instead of just bending the law, the story attempts to make it serious, believable, and its characters “lawful good”. However, it just ends up relying on half-baked cop show tropes and courtroom drama cliches. They should’ve just made another Yakuza side story if that was the case.
Fist of the North Star Lost Paradise – Slow To Start, but Something Different
When I saw that the Ryu ga Gotoku studio created a Fist of the North Star game, I bought it without thinking. Fist of the North Star is something of a novelty that I keep falling for no matter my age or when I find it. It started with Sega’s arcade rhythm punching game in the arcade back in the day and it just oozed cheesiness. The anime aged terribly, but I would watch it either English dubbed or subtitled as a guilty pleasure. It’s akin to watching a Nicolas Cage film or Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. The Japanese dub takes itself way too seriously that it becomes unintentional comedy, while the English dub really leans into the cheese. It’s become more of a meme these days with the catchphrase Omae wa mou shindeiru (You’re already dead) being relatively known but not as overused as It’s Over 9,000!
The fact of the matter is, I love the Ryu ga Gotoku system and you mix it with Fist of the North Star, it’s almost like a match made in cheeseball hell. The game starts off right away with the showdown with iconic rival Shin, Nanto Seiken successor who gave the iconic protagonist, Kenshiro, the iconic seven star scars and stole his fiance in the process. Even casual fans like myself fall deep into nostalgia with the showdown and the game leans into the cheesy Hokuto Shinken assassination strikes followed by the over-the-top ultra violence.
However, around five chapters into the game, it becomes a tutorial slog. Most Yakuza games are quite slow to start, but they usually have a story point to keep us going. Judgment started off really strong with a redemption arc and a serial killer mystery that piques the audience’s interest. Yakuza Zero probably has the best opening for any of the Yakuza games introducing the iconic characters Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. Fist of the North Star just slogs into tutorial territory, attempting to ease us into the post apocalyptic wasteland.
While the game is short (about eleven chapters, pretty much the same length as Judgment), the sandbox options surrounding the Wasteland feels half-complete and the novelty of making your enemies explode die down by the fifth chapter. It picks up with an entertaining bartender side mission and a half-realized Cabaret Club minigame (sadly perfectd in Yakuza Kiwami 2). While the exploration of the Wasteland seems to be a glorified fetch quest simulator, the designers could’ve done more with the actual world, but it’s really recycled Kamurocho copy-pasted into an uninspired desert world. My suggestion is, if you are a big Fist of the North Star fan and have plans to play Cyberpunk 2077, I suggest picking up the game now and finishing it before December 10th. Because by the time you’ve explored Night City and its own Wasteland, the world of Eden and post apocalyptic wasteland would look terribly incomplete.
The Yakuza Collection: The Best They Can Come Up Without Going Through More Dev
The first Yakuza game I’ve played was Yakuza 3 on the PS3. While I enjoyed the sandbox options the game had the offer, much of the lore has been lost as I’ve missed out on the first two games on the PS2. With everything that had to do with the crime genre being compared to Grand Theft Auto on the PS2, Yakuza was not exempt. If it was compared to Shenmue during the PS2 days before the brand fell by the wayside, I would’ve been more keen in picking it up. As a consummate sandbox enthusiast, I’ve also purchased Yakuza 4 and 5 on the PS3 waiting for the day to possibly play them. However, with all things, that too fell by the wayside.
It wasn’t until Yakuza Kiwami was offered for free on PS Plus that I’ve taken a new interest with the game and with that I perused all four PS4 properties right away (Yakuza Kiwami, Kiwami 2, Zero, Song of Life). When Judgment, Fist of the North Star, and Yakuza Collection also offered to satiate my fix, I picked the three titles up without question. And for the most part, while the remastered Yakuza 3, 4, and 5 were improved graphically, the gameplay and the story choices haven’t aged well.
Revisiting Yakuza 3 was a bit of a mistake straight after completing Yakuza 6: Song of Life. While Yakuza 2 Kiwami made significant improvements over Yakuza 6’s Kiwami system, Yakuza 6 still had some charm including the whole Hiroshima side story to keep the game going. Yakuza 3 pretty much ran out of nostalgia fuel quickly. By this time, all the basic offerings of Kamurocho have just been spent. I don’t want to play mahjong for easy money, I don’t want to play that damn baseball mini-game on any platform, I don’t want to go fishing, I don’t want to participate in races, I’m just done with mini-games. Combat has improved significantly over the years and returning to the rudimentary mechanics can be quite tedious. The story, while now that I have context with the lore, was almost copy-pasted in verbatim. While the remakes tried to make the story work by revising the script, as much as I enjoy Nagoshi’s campy screenplay, the melodrama does get old.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is coming out in November 10th in North America and it’s out already in Japan if you have a Japanese PSN account and are fluent with the language. While there are existing titles that you may be able to purchase on sale, maybe hold off on spending that hard earned cash and just waiting for the actual title. They are fun on their own right, but sometimes it’s best to delay gratification for a better reward.