Editorials

The Yakuza Series Made Me Fall In Love With Gaming Again

Video games are good again, and it's all because of Tak, Ichi, and Uncle Kaz.

January 28, 2021

I’ve been in the video game industry as a journalist for roughly four years, with a little over three of those years being with DualShockers. And throughout that time, I’ve played a lot of video games. Just with DualShockers alone, I’ve reviewed 54 games, and that isn’t counting the games I played “for fun.” With that being said, within these four-ish years in this industry, a part of me has fallen out of love with gaming.

Do I Even Like Video Games Anymore?

Aside from some incredible games from the past couple of years like The Messenger, Mortal Kombat 11, Skater XL, and The Last of Us 2, nothing has really changed my feelings on gaming. Instead, over time, most of the titles on offer have just gotten kind of stale. Even something like God of War, while unbelievably impressive, just didn’t hit me like it seemed to hit for other people.

I was also playing games I believed we would talk about during the inevitable Game of the Year discussion. Out of a sense of duty, I’d start playing things I typically wouldn’t have any interest in. Sure, it broadened my horizons a bit. However, there are just some high-profile games I know I won’t enjoy playing, even if it is considered great by most people. I’m talking games like Bloodborne, Persona 5, and Red Dead Redemption 2. I know they are probably great. They may even be widely considered the best game of their respective console generation. But I also know they are games I really won’t dig.

To sum it up, there were hardly any moments I really felt satisfied by a video game in recent years. I would play something, enjoy it at the moment, and then kind of forget about it. The experiences I was having just weren’t sticking with me.

Then I played Judgment.

Tak and the Power of Judgment

Takayuki Yagami’s wild adventure in Kamurocho was a breath of fresh air. There is so much to do in Judgment, and all of it is worth experiencing. The way Ryu Ga Gotoku manages to balance its melodramatic crime thriller tale with its comedic side missions can only be described as masterful. As wacky as it could be, it never felt like Judgment was pandering or trying to elicit a certain response from the audience. It always felt true to itself while telling one of the most intriguing video game tales I have ever played.

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Judgment reminded me why I loved video games. Before Judgment, my barometer for “what a good game should be” was The Last of Us. In a way, it kind of skewed what I really wanted from a game. The Last of Us is such a serious story with serious consequences. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson’s portrayals of Joel and Ellie in that first game are still some of the best video game performances of all time. The gameplay, while not the greatest by any means, pairs perfectly with Naughty Dog’s grim, post-apocalyptic tale while still maintaining a sort of “fun” factor. In my mind, it really is a masterpiece.

So, since The Last of Us released in 2013, I was playing video games chasing that stick. I wanted to experience something that made me care about its world as I did with The Last of Us. There might have been a few here and there, like Doom or What Remains of Edith Finch, but nothing truly compared.

However, after finishing Judgment, it rekindled that long lost flame. Not entirely, but there was a spark. I mean, in my 2019 Game of the Year list, I wrote, “Every single piece of content in Judgment is why I play video games,” and I believe that sentiment still rings true to this day.

After playing Judgment, and talking about it more with some of the staff here at DualShockers, it became clear that I needed to start the Yakuza franchise. I was essentially told it’s just like Judgment but better. Honestly, I was a bit skeptical. I didn’t think anything could top the ultimate “bromance” that was Tak and Kaito. But then I met Kiryu, Nishkiyama, and Majima.

Yakuza Lockdown

During the beginning of COVID lockdown in March, I decided to finally go through my ever-growing backlog of games. With Judgment still on my mind, I naturally gravitated towards Yakuza; specifically, Yakuza 0.

Yakuza 0 originally launched in 2015 in Japan, with the North American launch in 2017. With that information in mind, I wondered why people preferred this older game to Judgment. Looking back, I realize that line of thinking doesn’t make much sense, but it’s genuinely how I felt. And, as the story unfolds about a young yakuza named Kazuma Kiryu and “the Empty Lot,” I began to realize why Yakuza 0 was so beloved.

It has many of the same qualities as Judgment. There is an interesting plot set within the very familiar location of Kamurocho. You do spend time in Sotenbori, but the Kamurocho you know remains Kiryu’s main stomping grounds. The structure of both games, from its storytelling to its combat, is nearly identical. So, what makes Yakuza 0 so special?

“…how the story unfolds and how these two characters end up connecting is why this game has won the hearts of so many.”

It probably comes down to personal preference, but in terms of gameplay, it just feels a bit snappier. It’s a bit more varied too since you play as both Kiryu and Goro Majima. But more than its gameplay, how the story unfolds and how these two characters end up connecting is why this game has won the hearts of so many. Just to give an example that doesn’t spoil much, Majima’s interaction with Makoto at the end was so heartbreaking and so well executed. Moments like that really took the game over the top for me.

Also, like Judgment, Yakuza 0 utilized levity to the dire situation Kiryu was in. Perhaps that is underselling the game’s humor. They straight up introduce an old man dressed only in his skivvies named Mr. Libido. So, it gets about as wildly ridiculous as Judgment’s side quest line where you have to catch a renowned group of perverts.

Really, the differences are all a bit minor and probably all up to preference, but I feel Yakuza 0 does a bit more to reel the player in. There is never a moment where I felt like I knew what was going to happen. It all felt a bit mysterious, especially for someone who really hasn’t played any Yakuza game before this. It was all new territory, and I just wanted to know what happens to Kiryu and Majima.

So, I played Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza Kiwami 2. They may not be as great as Judgment or Yakuza 0 (although, I do love Kiwami 2 a whole lot). However, they still presented amazing stories with equally amazing gameplay. Okay, Yakuza Kiwami had some pretty weak gameplay, but Kiryu’s struggle with the yakuza and his “brother” Nishki made up for it.

I Made a Mistake. Forgive me Ichiban Kasuga.

Having played three Yakuza games back-to-back, I took a break from Kiryu’s wild adventures in Kamurocho. Not necessarily because I wanted to. I was reviewing games and needed to catch up on some of the new releases coming out, like Doom Eternal and Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Also, to be completely upfront, I didn’t have money to purchase the Yakuza Remastered Collection.

Let’s fast forward a bit to November. Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the seventh installment in the Yakuza franchise, releases for PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. As of this point, I am a die-hard Yakuza fan. So, with another entry now on digital store shelves, I was very stoked. I also felt a bit obligated to check it out before the DualShockers Game of the Year discussions for 2020 would commence since Judgment won the year prior.

“I’ll admit, I made a mistake. I should have never postponed my time with Yakuza: Like a Dragon to play Cyberpunk 2077. “

As such, I played the first four chapters of the game and really adored it. However, another big game was released at the beginning of December called Cyberpunk 2077. Like anyone interested in video games, I was really looking forward to exploring CD Projekt Red’s sci-fi cityscape. But we all know how that turned out.

I’ll admit, I made a mistake. I should have never postponed my time with Yakuza: Like a Dragon to play Cyberpunk 2077. I am currently still in the middle of my first playthrough, sitting at Chapter 11 with roughly 35 hours of playtime. Simply put, it’s unbelievable how well Ryu Ga Gotoku was able to both continue this series with a completely new cast of protagonists and integrate the facets of Yakuza’s action-based gameplay into a turn-based RPG. I can’t really conclude whether or not the story is as good as any of the other Yakuza games yet, but from what I played, it has the potential to be one of my favorites.

Aged Like Fine Wine

Despite absolutely enjoying my time with Yakuza: Like a Dragon, I had to put the brakes on my playthrough. But this time, it wasn’t for a bad game. It was for a trio of good games. Yes, I am talking about The Yakuza Remastered Collection, which is now available on Xbox One.

For those unaware, The Yakuza Remastered Collection includes remastered versions of Yakuza 3, 4, and 5. Unlike Yakuza Kiwami 1 and 2, these are the original releases of the games, just at a higher resolution and frame rate. Specifically, they run in 1080p resolution at 60 frames per second.

While these are the original versions of the games without the nice bells and whistles the Kiwami games offer, they are definitely worth checking out. In fact, my time with Yakuza 3 not only showed me that these games aged well, but solidified my love for this franchise.

Throughout my playthrough, I really only had one technical issue with the remaster. The animated cutscenes would regularly and noticeably stutter on occasion. While it hardly put a hamper on my experience, it is a bit odd that these cutscenes just weren’t as smooth as I thought they’d be.

Like any remaster of a game from over 10 years ago, there are some design flaws that have since been rectified with the newer entries. While I think the combat is better than Yakuza Kiwami — which is my least favorite from a gameplay standpoint — I do think it lacks the combat variety Judgment and Yakuza 0 present. Also, I felt the presentation was not as eye-catching as newer entries, especially Judgment. Though, that’s to be expected considering these are updated PS3 games.

All-in-all, I think the qualms I have are trivial. In fact, I’d say it only feels like a small step back from the most recent releases. Yes, Judgment and Yakuza Kiwami 2 look and play better, but I still had as much fun with The Yakuza Remastered Collection as those entries.

Much of that notion is due to how well Ryu Ga Gotoku tells Kiryu’s tale. Seeing him go from “the Dragon of Dojima” to “Uncle Kaz” is pretty hilarious. But it also allows you to empathize with him in an odd way. The same can be said for “The Mad Dog” Goro Majima. Seeing his arc from Yakuza 0 to the beginning of this collection is so bizarre, yet so engaging.

“there has yet to be a moment that truly disappoints.”

I thought this facet would not be as strong in the games featured in The Yakuza Remastered Collection. With the oldest game being over 10 years old, I assumed it wouldn’t have the same charm as the most recent entries. But I was so wrong. It may show its age at points, but there has yet to be a moment that truly disappoints.

I thought my foray into The Yakuza Remastered Collection would be the moment I would be underwhelmed by a Yakuza game. After all, these are older games that completely missed me the first time around, but it did the exact opposite. Seeing Uncle Kaz in action only solidified my love for the Yakuza series. Now, I’m even more excited to see how Kiryu’s saga finishes.

Thank You, Yakuza. I Actually Like Playing Video Games Again.

I started playing Judgment and Yakuza games at the end of 2019. Since then, my views of what I look for in a video game has changed significantly. It reinvigorated my love for the medium and I look forward to taking the time not only to finish Kiryu’s story but continue Ichiban’s adventure into the world of Yakuza. But why this insane perspective shift? Why did my barometer for greatness switch from The Last of Us to the Yakuza series? I think there are a lot of factors, but there are two that stand out.

The first factor is oversaturation. Since The Last of Us, there have been so many games that attempt to ground themselves in reality, even when set somewhere fantastical. An almost overwhelming number of triple-A releases within the past eight years have this seriousness and grittiness to them. While some of them expertly tell a story with phenomenal gameplay, I hardly cared for the characters as much as I did Joel and Ellie.

The second is age. When The Last of Us released, I was 22 years old and favored a good story over good gameplay. Not to say The Last of Us has bad gameplay — although I wouldn’t argue with anyone that wants to say that — but I thought a well-told story correlated to a quality product. Now, at the ripe old age of 29 (almost 30), I know that is far from the truth. Now, I don’t necessarily believe one needs to be better than the other. In a way, I feel like they are one and the same. A game’s storytelling is intrinsically tied to its gameplay and vice versa.

“Video games are awesome and I look forward to every single adventure I may set upon. However, instead of looking for some specific emotion that one specific game elicited, maybe I try to enjoy what is in front of me.”

The Yakuza series and Judgment are essentially the antitheses of these factors. Yakuza perfectly balances reality and fantasy within the confines of an entertainment/ redlight district in Japan. Yes, you’re running around a realistic location, but you’re also fighting tigers with your bare fists. Speaking of fighting tigers with your bare fists, Ryu Ga Gotoku is also not afraid to get goofy within what is actually an incredibly dramatic tale. Every entry I have played has struck this chord in varying degrees, leaving me with some of the most satisfying experiences I have had with video games.

In a time when I was pretty down on video games as a medium, Takayuki Yagami, Kiryu Kazuma, and Ichiban Kasuga came to knock some sense into me. Video games are awesome, and I look forward to every single adventure I may set upon. However, instead of looking for some specific emotion that one specific game elicited, maybe I’ll try to enjoy what is in front of me.

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Michael Ruiz
@TheMichaelRuiz

Michael Ruiz is a Senior Staff Writer at DualShockers. He likes video games. He likes wrestling. He likes beer. He likes music.

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