Gangster games kind of blur together to me. Escape prison/have dreams of money, then a guy says “do an illegal thing” and you shrug and do that illegal thing. Plus more illegal things because mreeehhhh. They’re always open world, feature someone who will betray you because the plot says they have to, there are drugs, mafiosos and everything just goes through the motions.
Yakuza though stands out for me though. Why? Because every fight ends with people spitting their broken teeth fragments out while sobbing for forgiveness into your leather shoes. Plus it’s intensely Japanese, which is refreshing in that not once does someone reference The Godfather.
I started with the third Yakuza game, so I have no idea if the first two fall more into the generalized open worldy GTA-em-up style of most gangster games, but I don’t care. I played 3 and 4 and those are what I’m going to talk about. But yes, it does the gangster game stuff. You have an open(ish) world, with side quests and other stuff to do. You’re a gangster and you do gangster stuff with gangster people.
But it’s not even close to most of the GTA-bred stock of gangster games. It has some of the same elements, but there’s a quirky RPG-ish bent to them I rather like.
Let’s start with the most basic of stuff. Yakuza games are (more or less) focused on Kazuma Kiryu, legendary Yakuza man who has apparently done quite a bit of stuff before the start of Yakuza 3/4 and decided he’s gotten too old for all this hilariousness. Each game focuses on some kind of overarching conspiracy business going on in the criminal world, and Kazuma has to wade in and stomp people’s faces in until things aren’t broken. Yakuza 4 broke up this trend a bit, instead distributing the story over 4 different characters, each approaching the story from a different direction. Either way though, the stories tend to feature a large number of very interconnected characters, to the point where 3 features a flowchart so you can see how everyone is related to everyone else.
Take the open-ish world. While GTAs tended to just toss you into some kind of city and go “here you are” Yakuza seems to have a more emotional attachment to its setting. It’s a lot smaller for one, which I think is to its credit, and the game expects you to spend a lot of time lingering around some of the same familiar haunts. It gives the city a more lived in feel rather than most GTA games having, well, areas. With stuff. Sidequests lack a giant flashing map icon, instead being things you have to hunt out. It’s a mixed bag, but it does lend itself to a greater sense of exploration to the game.
The big difference between Yakuza and Huge Larceny Car games is the combat. Where those western games enjoy jamming guns into the hands of every goon, thug and single mother in sight, Yakuza has everyone duking it out like they’re from a theme night of professional wrestling. And the combat is awesome. Rather than just grinding down on characters’ health with a few punches or kicks, there’s an absurd number of grabs, throws, holds, flying kicks and other weirdness. I mean, every character you control has some great maneuvers to employ. Kazuma has a more standard array of punches, kicks and throws, but characters like Saejima (a big huge brute in 4) has a huge variety of grabs and attacks that just slam people around.
So what? I hear you crying out. It’s just like any other beat em up. Not really. While there’s shades of it, the combat in Yakuza is a decently complicated beast. No complicated canceling or dash boost hyper slam combos or anything, but it’s not something you just pick up and mash X until everything stops moving. You have to work to get through combat, and that’s something I appreciate (up till the final fight in 4 which is about as stupidly hard as it gets). I like games that make me work for my end credit sequence.
Overall, I really love the Yakuza games. The stories are a bit overly dramatic, but they have just the right amount of twists and turns to keep things interesting for me. The characters are fun and have interesting personalities and angles that make them more than just cardboard cut outs flapping around in “drama.” And the combat. My word. The combat is weighty, has a great feel to it, and is so satisfying to suplex some jerk into the pavement after he says you look like a chump.
To cap things off: if you want a rather Japanese take on the western GTA em ups, Yakuza is an interesting choice. I just wouldn’t play it if you expect to go screaming down the street, leaning out of a drift-ready car with a katana in one hand and your anime body pillow in the other. Saints Row already has that market cornered.