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PaigeFTW: ‘Yakuza’ Is A Little Something Different

When you consider that my favorite parts of Persona all involve ludicrous Japanese high school life simulations (everyone loves a cultural festival), it’s kind of surprising that I’ve never talked about the Yakuza series, the definitive Japanese gangster life simulation.

With the recent release of Yakuza Kiwami, I thought it pertinent to dig up the one Yakuza game I do own, Yakuza 4, and take it for a spin.

It’s difficult to describe in a single sentence what kind of series this is. It’s a brawler. It’s an intricate melodrama of politics and power. There are extensive diversions, like hostess bar training, karaoke, pachinko, hanafuda, table tennis … basically, really important non-gangster stuff that will probably eat up more of your time than, you know, the actual gangster stuff.

It’s also very, very slow.

Four main characters, all with their own agendas and things to do, require time — time to amble around Kamurocho, time to thrash the random thugs who inexplicably want to pick fights, time to sit through year-long cutscenes, time to hunt down sparkly collectibles. You will need patience. It will be difficult if you’re most used to frenetic action games (like me). But stick with it, and you’ll find it rewarding even as a pure storytelling exercise. The yakuza film genre, which this series pays homage to, is a beloved one in Japan.  

It’s an intriguing mix of systems that you don’t often see these days. Most games find their niche and stick to it. But Yakuza tries to do a little bit of everything, and while it may not always succeed at it, it certainly is an experience like no other.

So, where does a budding Yakuza fan begin?

Actually, you can start with the newest game. Yakuza Kiwami (PS4) is a remake of the very first installment in the series. In retrospect, I probably should have played that instead of the fourth title.