2023 has been the year of Yakuza for me; as I rekindle my adoration for the Yakuza franchise once again by pickup up Yakuza 5 and plowing through all of Yakuza 6 and then playing a good chunk of Like A Dragon (Yakuza 7 technically) and then playing a couple hours of Inshin (the remake of the PS2 Spin off Yakuza game). I knew developers Ryu Ga Gotoku were making a sequel to the Like A Dragon game, but I didn’t know they were also making a new side game that continued Kiryu’s story.
With Yakuza 6, Kiryu basically goes into hiding to protect the kids of the Morning Glory orphanage that was started in Yakuza 3, along with Haruka and her son Haruto. It kinda seemed like Kiryu was riding off in the sunset, and I made peace with that, and tried to enjoy Like A Dragon for what it was. I wasn’t really thrilled with the combat changing into RPG style, but it’s not a bad thing, just not something I personally enjoy. When I came across a new Like A Dragon Gaiden game on Gamepass, I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Since Gaiden means “Side Story” in Japanese, I figured it wouldn’t be spoiling anything if I played this without finishing up the main Like A Dragon game from 2020.
Boy was I kinda wrong. But, I’m glad I did, because I ended up getting to play the real Yakuza 7 instead, a game that continues Kiryu Kazuma’s story, after he makes a pact with his new overseers to fake his death in order to protect the orphans. Living life now as “Joryu”, he does odd jobs here and there for the company keeping him “dead”. Kiryu/Joryu seems a bit disappointed, but ok with the life he now lives as it means protection for the kids. One man’s life for a bunch of kids' freedom…. Fair trade.
Things kick off as a simple trade goes horribly wrong, and Kiryu gets noticed. Everyone starts calling him out on it, and he plays dumb (because he is forced to) the entire game, correcting everyone “I have no clue who this Kiryu fella is, I’m Joryu, totally different guy”. It gets a bit annoying from time to time, because he never just owns up to it, even when the jig is up multiple times throughout the story.
With the Yakuza games, I don’t dive too deep into the mini-games, but for whatever reason, I ended up going the distance with the “Pocket Racing” mini slot car racing game. Maybe it was the fact that I ended up being reminded of my childhood, building pinebox derby cars with my dad in cub scouts, but I got deeply addicted to it. It probably helped that it was a quick “in and out” type of game that can be played in short bursts. Since that is the only type of time I had this week while playing the game.
The game is smaller in scope compared to the other games, and revisiting the same city as in other Yakuza games can get cumbersome. When I started the series, it initially made me question why people like these games that seem to have “lazy” designs to the levels, just copy and pasting the same city over and over again. But the real enjoyment with Yakuza games always comes with the phenomenal story, that spans decades, and follows up on so many different characters. Why this game was called “Gaiden” is beyond me, as it’s just as big as any other game out there (probably way more), and the fact that Ryu Ga Gotoku pumps these games out on a continual basis is unbelievable.
Somehow, the quality, not only in story telling but in graphics continues to improve is just a feat that needs to be spotlighted, on how to make good games. Yes, the game's actual mechanics do not change significantly throughout the series, but again, the story is the main focal point, along with all the interesting characters, and side stories along the way. I found myself continually pausing progress in the main story, to drop a few hours at a time just doing side quests, playing mini-games (which are actually fun) and random combat encounters. I’d actually seek out fight after fight, just to rake in more money, to build up my power to make myself more dangerous in a fight.
For the majority of the side stories I did complete, I had a great time with them. A large chunk of them were finding random people, and recruiting them to a self-made team to fight alongside me in the Castle’s Coliseum. A “to the death” fighting arena, built on a cargo ship, complete with a Japanese castle located at the top, hence the name “The Castle”. I’ve never been fond of the fighting arena mini-games, where it just feels like filler, and I do know that a lot of people, when the demo came out, couldn’t get enough of it. I, on the other hand, just don’t care for it, and it seemed like a waste of time when I could be getting more of Kiryu’s story.
The rag doll physics of the Dragon engine always produce some of the most fun looking end battle scenes, as people flop and slide all over the place. Ending with a slow motion uppercut, and seeing the bad guys flip and slam their heads into pavement never gets old. A side story that came up had me fighting a group of deviants that were hurting cats for fun. Knocking the main guy into the air, over a railing into the river all with that signature “just a bit off” style of rag doll actually made me laugh out loud because of how absurd it all was.
The ending, which continues to build and build seeming like it’ll never end, is a staple of the series, and even with some of the twists that can be seen coming up, it doesn’t end up being disappointing or boring. Thanks to the perfectly voice acted Japanese talent, these characters are believable as real humans, even if they appear invincible. One of the ending scenes is so emotional, I just had to stop and catch my breath for a moment afterwards. Anyone who says games aren’t art, are just plain wrong at this point. The emotional weight of seeing this character get some form of catharsis, is just as cathartic for the player too.
I didn’t think this year could cram two full Yakuza games into it, and with an early 2024 release of Like A Dragon: Infinite Wealth coming up too, it seems crazy that there are this many games coming out. But as long as the quality stays up, I’ll continue to play them. I might not be completely into Ichiban’s character as much as Kiryu, but I love this series and all it does. I’m so happy that I wasn’t aware of this game at all beforehand, as it feels like an early Christmas present!