Yakuza (JP: Ryū ga Gotoku (龍が如く)) – PS2 (2005), PS3, WiiU (2012, 2013, JP only HD Remaster)

This entry is part 1 of 9 in the series Yakuza / Like A Dragon

In the early 2000s, Sega developer Toshihiro Nagoshi had an idea for a game. He had been working on arcade hits and cult favorites for the company for years, including a stint as director for the Super Monkey Ball series. He had to fight for it, even sneaking in a reel during a meeting with a then CEO, but eventually got to get a team he was leading to bring an idea he had to life. That idea was Ryu ga Gotoku, or Like A Dragon, localized as Yakuza initially for the west. It was to be something aimed specifically at adult Japanese men, taking inspiration from crime dramas, and most likely some Shenmue DNA from Nagoshi’s time on the first game in its final six months of development. An RPG and beat-em-up hybrid, with a world to explore, but one very familiar to the target audience.

The end result was a juggernaut for Sega, and while it took a very long time for the series to really break through in the west, it was a huge hit in its home country from game one. Yakuza is one of the corner stones of the house that Sonic saved, and it has a more complicated history then you would think. Controversy over the politics of the studio and staff behind it, the recent departure of Nagoshi and several key team members, the complicated history of localization, and so much more weave a complicated tapestry, almost as complicated as the life of Kazuma Kiryu, Ichiban Kasuga, and their various allies.

It’s kind of surprising looking back, because while the first Yakuza was definitely something special conceptually, it has not aged gracefully – or even was all that up to standards from the start. This game released ten months after Devil May Cry 3, and it plays like something from before the first DMC‘s release. The writing, ideas, and sheer spirit of the game carries it entirely, because the actual core game part is extremely rough. That includes tech issues, like absurdly long load times for fights (something you’ll be doing a lot), alongside some very clunky controls and game feel. It’s a good thing that the writing team, including famed crime drama novelist Hase Seishu, knew just how to hook players in and get them to tolerate those short comings.

Kazuma Kiryu, an orphan turned into the Dragon of Dojima of the Tojo Clan’s Dojima family, is having a nice wrap-up to his 1995, planning to go steady with his long time friend Yumi. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes, as his boss ends up picking up Yumi and forcing himself on her, and his best friend Nishikiyama rushed off to save her before Kiryu arrived. In his panic, Nishikiyama killed the patriarch, and Kiryu quickly takes Nishiki’s place as the suspect to protect his friends. He ends up behind bars and spends ten years there, as the world around him wildly changes, and the Tojo Clan he served for so long cuts him loose.

Upon release, Kiryu finds the Tojo Clan have gone mad with the theft of 10 billion yen, alongside the assassination of the third chairman. On top of that, Yumi has vanished off the face of the Earth, while Nishikiyama has become a bitter and cruel ladder climber. Also, their shared father figure and fellow family head, Shintaro Kazama, gets shot, with Nishiki seemingly glad to see this turn. Needless to say, things are bad, and Kiryu gets even more motivation to figure things out upon meeting a little girl named Haruka, who might be related to Yumi in some way – oh, and a LOT of bad people are after her. This includes the Osaka based Omi Alliance, the Snake Flower Triad from Yokohama, and even the Mad Dog of Shimano, fellow Tojo member Goro Majima of the Shimano family (though he’s more interested in fighting Kiryu). It’s up to Kiryu to smash through the plans of the countless schemers around him, get to the eye of the storm, and figure out just what future awaits him as his past crumbles around him.

The first Yakuza has a solid enough tale, with really interesting pacing and structure that we’ll see vanish once we hit the seventh console gen. It’s due to the limitations of the PS2 having the team dial back their cinematic ambitions, resulting in cutscenes that are generally more compact and to the point compared to later entries, where body language and lingering shots are a larger part of the story telling language. This means that a lot of information is conveyed in a compact manner, which keeps the story moving at an extremely fast pace. This leaves room for odd digressions that have no real main plot importance, but do flesh out the world, like helping an information broker with some family drama. It gives the game a ton of personality, and makes most characters memorable in some way.

The plot of this entry gets a bit convoluted initially, as Kiryu is pinballed around the various plots and players, but once things start getting explained, its easy to follow. This structure does also give an advantage of giving a lot of plot hooks. Nishikiyama’s complete 180 is a very strong initial hook, but the story requires him and Kiryu not to encounter each other much. So, Haruka’s mystery and the interruptions of factions like the Snake Flower Triad help give new questions that the audience wants answered. Majima, one of the franchise breakout characters, even pulls a lot of weight in just three appearances, using him as a rival character that lets us see more sides of Kiryu, due to how weirdly friendly their encounters become by the end.

The one thing kneecapping the original game for western audiences in the narrative was the extremely subpar dub and localization. It’s very much a product of the time, where everyone was trying to capitalize on Grand Theft Auto‘s dominance and street trends, resulting in an overuse of curse words, and overly aggressive and crass writing. The casting was mostly spot on, with the likes of Mark Hamill doing a spin on his Joker voice with Majima, Roger Jackson playing Kazama (renamed Fuma so western audiences didn’t mix up his name and Kiryu’s first name), and even Micheal Madsen as the villainous Shimano (a role he seems to have greatly enjoyed). The direction…was less spot on. Most lines feel very stiff, or the delivery off for the intended emotional effect. Darryl Kurylo sounds particularly dull as Kiryu, but does redeem himself when they started doing dubs for the series again in Ichiban’s first adventure.

Side content for story comes in the form of substories, little side shenanigans the team came up with that would become a series staple that give a big bunch of experience. Said stories are unfortunately pretty bare this first go around, mostly Kiryu dealing with a lot of scammers – which, in all fairness, was a bit of cultural commentary for the game’s setting. Kamurocho, the series main location, is the fictionalized version of real life Tokyo red light district Kabukicho, which was affected by a still ongoing financial decline caused by the 80s mortgage bubble popping. So, scammy stunts like portrayed in the game were sort of all over the place, and were used here as a bit of commentary on the state of the area.

Otherwise, Kamurocho was mainly a pleasing hub area that better sold the idea of a living city than most of its contemporaries, helped by possibly the only justifiable use of in-game advertisements via real brands and stores existing within the world. Rather than a GTA style sandbox simulation, Yakuza‘s world is designed more like a a town in a RPG (though with random encounters), framed in fixed camera angles. People go about doing their thing, and you can go in various locations to eat food, buy and sell items, and even take part in a scattering of minigames, like bowling and hitting the batting cages.

This gave the game variety, and while the larger side activities the series would be known for were not yet here, there was something charming to just taking a break from the violent story for some rounds of blackjack, or to enjoy some coffee at a local cafe. There was also talking with hostesses in a sort of light dating sim minigame, but that’s mostly a money sink via expensive gifts. Despite that, it was a major, exotic draw for the series early on, and would be a central pillar for the franchise. For reference, hostesses and hosts are people you can pay at clubs for conversation and flirting, with the goal here being able to build enough affection from a hostess to ask them out on dates.

What’s fun is you could get experience not just from fights, but from a lot of these extra activities. This doesn’t lead to a traditional level up, though, but lets you fill an experience bar. Once you have enough bars collected, you can pump them into one of three fields. Body improves general performance and max health, technique will unlock new moves to use in combat, and soul relates to your heat and heat moves. It’s a solid enough system, but nothing too wild. The lack of knowing what unlocks later in the field as you boost it up makes it impossible to make any sort of choice to make a build, so it’s really just a way to dress up general progress. You can also get more moves from a martial artist named Sotaro Komaki via his training, including the difficult to use but devastating to pull off tiger drop, a favorite of high level players in later games.

But then there’s the beat-em-up battle system. The series has a level of stiffness to it until after 4, but the original is extremely rough at points. It should be simple. You have a very basic lock-on function to keep yourself focused on an enemy, a light attack button and a heavy to use a finisher at the end of a combo, a basic grab, and most combat based around positioning and picking your moves carefully. Problem is, Kiryu moves very stiffly, and once he gets moving, it’s hard to get him to stop – and enemies will punish you with it. Attacking the empty air is not uncommon.

This will be the flow for several games, but the first Yakuza locks off a key piece of the move set for half of the game – side stepping. Until Kiryu gets taught this basic technique, you have almost no options for dodging or positioning beyond basic movement, which is functional but incredibly unsatisfying. This also makes locking on feel horrible, as you slow down to focus on a single enemy, and all the other guys will probably get behind you in that time to smack you around. This also being the game with the stiffest movement does not help matters at all.

Not even using weapons helps that much, as they have very limited durability and break after only a few hits. Weapons ended up being such an odd and rarely used feature that a lot of modern games in the series (and sister series Judgment) did away with them (outside whatever you can grab during a brawl, like a garbage can or bike). At least defensive equipment is always useful and welcome in every entry. The heat meter, acting as a sort of power-up mode you gain via getting momentum in a fight, also failed to impress since it only allowed your high damage moves to come out if you were doing well in combat, difficult in this messy system. A few battles also threw in some light QTEs as well, which would be greatly expanded upon in later games.

It should be mentioned that the Amon fights, the 100% completion bonus bosses made to test your skills to the limit, started right here in game one. The ideal method to beat down Jo Amon, according to old FAQs, is a complicated exploit with a specific weapon, because trying to fight a purposefully nearly broken boss in this battle system is a nightmare. He has a phase with guns, which are already bad to fight in later entries, so imagine what it’s like in the worst controlling entry.

The presentation is stellar for the era and the development and budget restraints. There’s a real cinematic quality to these games the first game managed to tap into with a solid first attempt, with loads of well staged cutscenes and focus on conversations between characters to let the acting shine. The original Japanese audio is a treat, especially Takaya Kuroda and Hidenari Ugaki already nailing down Kiryu and Majima. Everyone understood the assignment and did not half ass it. Even the score is memorable, using a lot more then contemporary sounds and some memorizing harsh guitar. Scarlet Scar is the major stand out, and Receive You would end up being a great foundation for many series motifs and Majima fight themes.

The original got love in Japan with some HD updates for the PlayStation 3 and Wii U we never got in the west. Instead, we had to wait until the full remake Yakuza Kiwami, which we will be covering in great detail after Yakuza 0, due to it basically being an expansion for it. There were also a film adaptation directed by Travis Touchdown’s favorite director Takashi Miike, who was also the executive director for a prologue film about Kiryu, Nishikiyama, and Yumi growing up. The film series is most famous for a scene where Majima peeks out from behind a wall, but with his eyepatch side, which is peak Majima and justifies the existence of these films.

Yakuza: Like A Dragon (2007 film)

Yakuza: Like A Dragon (2007 film)

The localization, that poor combat, and some very bad loading times really hindered the series’ reach until 2017, where it finally found its footing and became Sega’s major tent pole. However, that would mean we have a sort of decade long “dark” period, where what entries we did get mostly trickled in years later, often as digital only releases, and forget getting dubs. This would start up with the late released Yakuza 2, completely dubless, and the entry that really proved that this series was something truly special.

Screenshots gathered via captures of longplay by NintendoComplete

Series NavigationYakuza 2 >>

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