A Guide to Getting Started with the Yakuza Series

A Guide to Getting Started with the Yakuza Series

Want to get started with the Yakuza series, but not sure where you should start? Here's a primer and a few options to ease you in.

The Yakuza Remastered Collection’s release marks an auspicious moment for the series. For the first time ever, you can now play the entire series from start to finish on the PS4. That alone is reason enough to grab a PS4 in my eyes, even as the console generation comes to a close. Western markets took a while to warm to the series, but increasingly more are starting to be drawn to these legendary games. There’s never been a better time to get started with the Yakuza franchise.

Personally, I arrived late to the Yakuza games, only getting started with the series about three years ago. It only took a small taste before the hunger set in, though, and I’ve since played through every mainline game to completion. Few series are as underrated as this one, even as those ratings continue to increase.

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The question remains for those getting started with the Yakuza series, however: where should you begin? These are very story-driven games, featuring a continuing narrative and persistent character arcs. As such, the typical response of “start with the latest and see if you like it” won’t necessarily work here.

This narrows down the answer to one of a few options. Let’s go over their pros and cons, and by the end, a newcomer to the series should be able to make an educated decision on where to start with the Yakuza games.

I must preface this with a disclaimer: all these statements are based on my experience with the PS4 releases. I can’t speak to the quality of the PC ports where applicable. If you plan to use a different platform, I’d encourage researching the condition of the port first to help figure out which platform is right for you.

Finally, this is about where to start. This is not about if you should play the Yakuza games, because that answer is an instant, resounding, unflinching YES. Even the weakest title in the franchise features a pretty good story, fun combat, and lots of entertaining gameplay to hook you in. If you’re still looking for specifics on “why,” allow me to direct you to the video that spurred me to keep going with the series.

Allow me to be your guide into this wild world, and I strongly suspect you’ll find yourself having a blast. I’ll include a TL;DR at the end for brevity’s sake, as well. Let’s begin!

Yakuza Kiwami (If You Want to Start From the Beginning)

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Pros:

  • Starts you at the beginning
  • Great introduction to Kiryu’s story
  • Has the excellent combat system from Yakuza 0
  • Mostly faithful to the original game

Cons:

  • Some minor alterations to the plot are shoehorned in, as is a slightly goofier tone
  • Tweaks 0‘s combat, but not positively
  • Adherence to the original is faithful to a fault for some boss fights
  • The hardest of the games listed

The remake of the first game is the obvious choice for beginning your Yakuza experience. Great pains were taken to match the story, cinematic direction, pacing and setpiece encounters of the original release. As such, it still feels very authentic when placed side-by-side its PS2 progenitor. Throw in the combat, mini-games, and general game design improvements from Yakuza 0 and beyond, and you’ve got a very good starting point. Kiwami is a fun game with a story that should be more than enough to draw you in to the rest of the series. Here’s our full review from when the game first launched in 2017.

This comes with caveats, however. Some boss encounters in the original suffered tremendously from frustrating enemies and patterns. It’s not particularly fun to have a room full of enemies shooting you or tossing grenades your way, especially at the climax of major story points. Despite the fact that encounter design in the series has improved drastically, Kiwami remains authentic, which means those rougher fights are preserved.

As for the story, I think it’s paced just a little off. There’s a lot of big twists and reveals in the latter quarter of the game compared to the rest. It was enough to keep me going, but I do think it could’ve been balanced better. The inclusion of the Majima Everywhere system, on the other hand, really breaks the existing story. Scenes featuring Majima from the original game are incredibly memorable, leading to why he became such a fan favorite in the first place. In order to make them line up more with Majima’s heavier activity in Kiwami, the development team had to shoehorn in a couple scenes that don’t really work that well, leaving the whole thing feeling weaker.

Despite these complaints, Yakuza Kiwami is still a solid place to start the series. If you aren’t completely sold on experiencing the series, some of the little irritants might dampen your drive to continue. But for those who have strong interest and some knowledge of Yakuza going in, this is a fine choice.

(Note: Kiwami means “Extreme” in Japanese)

Yakuza 0 (If You Want to Start With the Best)

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Pros:

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  • Easily one of the best games in the franchise
  • Great introduction to Majima, as well as establishing what makes Kiryu great later
  • Content-rich, even if it’s the only one you end up playing

Cons:

  • New players miss the interesting references to future games

Yakuza 0 is arguably one of (if not the) strongest titles in the franchise, and my personal favorite. I have very little to criticize here about the game itself, honestly. The combat is excellent, with a variety of styles across two very different playable characters. The writing is exceptional, the story is engaging and well-executed, the side stories are absolutely hilarious, and a wealth of content abounds for those willing to seek it out. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this is one of my favorite games of all time. But don’t just take my word for it.

So with that glowing praise out of the way, should you start playing the series with Yakuza 0? For the vast majority of people, I would absolutely say yes. Familiarity with the characters and world isn’t a requirement, as it’s a prequel to the original game. We learn what we need to immediately from the outset, with crucial backstory given as the game progresses. Kiryu and Majima spend the narrative growing as characters into what they would later become. Between that and the general quality of the game, it’s almost a no-brainer to suggest it as the starting point.

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Here’s the caveat, then: Yakuza 0 is loaded with little nods, references, and easter eggs that call forward to what will happen in the later games. These largely make sense and work nicely in the moment, but a lot of the impact or recognition will be lost on those that are new to the series. This isn’t too much of an issue and doesn’t weaken the delivery of the story, so there’s no fear of that. Still, that emotional recognition and glimpses of what is to come — or what could have been, in at least one case — means that the game has that little extra punch for recurring Yakuza players. Even just playing through Kiwami will help the connection to a couple of core moments and characters in 0.

As such, my recommendation to start here is “Yes, but…”. If you are brand new to the series and don’t know what to expect, and want to start on the strongest footing? Play Yakuza 0 first. If you’re only looking for a single game to play without committing to the series? Play Yakuza 0 first. Even slightly unsure where you stand? Just play Yakuza 0 first.

But! If you are a little more familiar with the series or have dabbled in a later game and want to start fresh? Consider starting with Kiwami, and come back to 0 afterwards. If you’re already committed to playing the whole series and don’t mind dealing with a few irritants, start with Kiwami and come back to 0 afterwards.

Yakuza 0 is absolutely amazing, but it’s just that little bit more amazing if you come in armed with the foreknowledge to appreciate the nods it has to the series’ future.

Judgment (If You Want to Start With Something Different)

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Pros:

  • Not actually a Yakuza game
  • A strong stand-alone story and game
  • Introduces the setting and gameplay systems of Yakuza without relying on previous knowledge

Cons:

  • Not actually a Yakuza game
  • Combat is a little weaker than the mainline games

It would be remiss of me to write this article without covering all the potential access points one might have to the Yakuza series, which happens to include Judgment (known as Judge Eyes in Japan). Since DualShockers gave Judgment our 2019 Game of the Year Award, those reading this may very well want to know where that factors in.

Judgment is an excellent game, and completely deserving of the accolades given to it (and I should know, since I pushed hard for it to win the staff vote). Most of what I said about the qualities of Yakuza 0 are echoed for Judgment. This is some of the Yakuza team’s finest writing, with excellent presentation and a wealth of content. It’s a fantastic, self-contained story set in the same general locale as the Yakuza titles. My only nitpick would be that I personally prefer the combat flow in 0 more. Your attacks in Judgment tend to have longer and stiffer animations and wind-up, even with attack speed upgrades. That among other things made me less enthused by the overall flow of combat. Still, that does not make Judgment a lackluster experience by any stretch.

So, why have I listed Judgment not being a Yakuza game as both a pro and con? Well, this article is about getting started with the Yakuza series, after all. Playing through Judgment in its entirety grants almost no knowledge of the Yakuza story, aside from a general sense of geography and a veiled reference or two. Many of the hallmarks in writing and characters exist in both, but it’s not exactly a great primer. If you’re still looking to get into Yakuza, Judgment isn’t truly helpful in that front regardless of if you play it first or not.

With that said, it isn’t completely useless, or I wouldn’t deign to include it here. Mechanically and in gameplay terms, Judgment plays very much like a Yakuza game. It has the same wealth and diversity of content or distractions. The same cinematic flair and detailing is retained. It has the same flashy and over the top brawler combat. Familiarity with Yakuza gameplay going into Judgment will help you feel right at home, and vice versa. There is definitely some merit to beginning your journey here, and Judgment is absolutely a game that you should play regardless. It’s also the only one with an English dub since the original release, which can make it a little more accessible for some.

To summarize, then: Judgment is a good primer for the gameplay mechanics of Yakuza. Should you want to play a solid standalone game to completion and test the waters on if the gameplay is right for you, Judgment fits the bill. But for starting with the Yakuza series explicitly, this is not the ideal choice.

Yakuza [PS2] (If You REALLY Want to Start from the Beginning)

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Pros:

  • No better place to start than the truest beginning
  • Still holds up pretty well
  • Different enough in style and tone to not be made completely redundant by Kiwami
  • English dub with Mark Hamill as Majima

Cons:

  • Some irritating boss fights and encounter design
  • Older, clunkier, and harder to get into for those not dedicated
  • Only available on the PS2
  • English dub is pretty awful (aside from Mark Hamill as Majima)

It’d be remiss of me not to speak of the truest place to get started with Yakuza, which is the first game on PlayStation 2. This one is only for the dedicated, but it is still a completely valid choice. And hey, what better place is there to start than the very beginning in every sense of the word?

The original Yakuza is still a strong game, otherwise it wouldn’t have propelled the series as far as it did (even if Yakuza 2 did the real heavy lifting on that front). Concessions made for Kiwami aren’t present here, so the story remains unaltered and flows a little better. The original Yakuza has weathered the test of time decently, and is still quite playable for those with a PS2 to run it. It’s not a bad experience at all…but as your first Yakuza game in 2020? Well, we’ve come a long way in terms of game design and presentation.

Yakuza on the PS2 is the only game in the series to feature an English dub outside of Judgment. Now granted, it’s a pretty awful dub that completely misses the mark in tone for a lot of characters and moments. But it does feature Mark Hamill as Goro Majima, and he absolutely kills it in that role. If there’s anything that the original offers which the others don’t, it’s Hamill’s Majima scenes. For everything else? This is a negative point.

All those other negatives about design and boss fights that I brought up for Kiwami are obviously the case here. It’s rough, unpolished, and still finding its feet. But for all that…Yakuza remains pretty good. If you’re the kind of person who likes to dive deep into a series history and see where it all began, then you might even consider starting here.

TL;DR

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To briefly summarize: if you’re going in blind to the series, start with Yakuza 0. If you only want to play a single Yakuza title at first, go for Yakuza 0. If you know a little bit about it or have dabbled in the series and want to start at the beginning, start with Yakuza Kiwami. If you’re just looking for an excellent stand-alone game to try series’ staples on for size, start with Judgment. But if you’re truly dedicated to the experience, try the PS2 Yakuza release to see just how far the series has come.

And that’s about it. Now get out there and play some Yakuza! Then you can join me in waiting impatiently for the English release of Yakuza 7…which, coincidentally, might be a good starting place also. I’ll be sure to let you know.

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