Despite starting on the mean streets of Tokyo in the 90s, Yakuza has become a sensation all around the world over the past few years. The series is as popular as a boozy Friday night down your local karaoke joint. It’s as touching as a heart-to-heart with your best mate, over the beaten body of a double-crossing crime boss. It’s got as much cinematic clout as anything Martin Scorsese has crapped out over the past few decades.
Yakuza, then, is essential. I don’t think you can call yourself a serious Enjoyer Of Games™ if you haven’t at least tried out the series. You’ll come for the timeless streets of Kamurocho, and you’ll stay for the madcap side missions involving dominatrixes, adult babies, and fledgling gang members that just need a little help with their personal style. You’ll be enticed by the crunchy, ultraviolet combat, and stick around for the often-better-than-cinema cutscenes that show mighty clan leaders at their lowest ebb. You’ll come to try it, and stay for a long time. Promise.
This week, we saw that Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami, and Yakuza Kiwami 2 are making their rapturous return to Xbox Game Pass for console and PC. The trio of games – the start of the series, at least chronologically – were removed from Game Pass for various reasons towards the end of last year. This left the rest of the saga – that’s Yakuza 3, 4, 5, 6, and Like A Dragon – sitting there, twiddling their collective thumbs, an end without a beginning. People would ask “where do I start with Yakuza, then?” after hearing me pop off about how good Like A Dragon’s weird pivot to turn-based RPG is. And what was I to do, tell them to buy Yakuza 0? Pfft, good luck.
After some assumed behind-the-scenes wrangling, the intro to the series is back. And what a trilogy of games it is! For me, Yakuza 0 is the best – by a long way – thanks to the way it weaves the stories of series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu with deuteragonist Goro Majima so effortlessly. Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the events in the rest of the series, and as such, it’s a great entry point for anyone wanting to explore this deceptively deep and soulful series. Whether you’re playing through genuinely heart-wrenching interactions with the raving derelicts of the city’s down-and-out, or smirking at the moonwalking high-jinks of one “Miracle Johnson” (yes, really), Yakuza 0 is as happy being daft as it is being sublime. It’s sardonic, it’s intelligent, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously – as an entry into Yakuza, you couldn’t ask for more.
Yakuza Kiwami, meanwhile, is a retread of the very first game in the series. Because the PS2 version of the title was showing its age, the fine minds at RGG Studio took it upon themselves to rebuild the game in the lovely Dragon Engine. Coming in hot with new features, spangly visuals, and a much better combat system, the game shows just how much our tastes and attitudes towards action titles have changed since 2005. Plus, some of the localisation has been improved and overhauled compared to the original game, to boot. Kiwami is perhaps the best game for characterising the fictional Tokyo district of Kamurocho, then – and as any Yakuza recruit will tell you, that’s one of the best things in the whole damn series.
Perhaps Kiwami’s best feature, though, is how it reframes Majima. Throughout the course of the game, Kiryu’s erstwhile rival shifts and grows from a cold-blooded, under-developed rival to a key character in his own right. Not quite sure how to manifest his brotherly love for Kiryu, Majima ends up being a total goofball – a knowing snuff to a fuse that could so easily have blown up in a flurry of toxic masculinity and tired tropes about how men bond.
Finally, there’s Kiwami 2. This time, Sega and RGG Studio opted for more than a simple remake – the developer and publisher combo pumped the game full with more sub-stories (a key tenet of the series, by this point), enhanced cutscenes, better-looking environments, and that revisited combat system. If you’re anything like me, though, you’ll be putting more time into the playable Virtua Fighter 2.1 arcade cabinets than anything else.
Once again, though, Majima steals the show in the main game. The preposterous and frankly unhinged “Majima Everywhere” feature really finds its feet in Kiwami 2, and the oddball antics the eyepatched antihero gets up to are always amusing – even 50 hours into the experience. Find him in bins, sewers, and God knows where else. It’s Benny Hill via Goodfellas, somehow. It works better than you’d think.
So, there you have it. The first three Yakuza games, available to play right now at no extra cost if you have an Xbox Game Pass subscription. You’ve got no excuse not to at least try them out – who knows, if you like them and want something else in the future, you might even end up in the Lost Judgment series. Because, from here on out, Yakuza is a Dragon Quest-inspired turn-based series. Yes, really.