Friday, December 24, 2021

The Best Games I Played in 2021: Yakuza Edition

What can I say, this game speaks to me

Every year, I like to set myself little cultural projects. Things I can whittle away at over the course of 12 months like watching 52 films directed by women, or watching more films from India, so that I can force myself to experience new things and step outside of my comfort zone.

This year, I decided that my project would be to play through all of the main games in the Yakuza series. Produced by Sega, the sprawling and long-running series of action-adventure/RPG games encompasses over a dozen titles at this point if you include spin-offs, some of which can only be played (legally) on consoles that are no longer available. So for this, I played through the seven games focused on the story of Kazuma Kiryu, a sentient slab of muscles with an extremely well-developed sense of morality who starts out as a mid-level Yakuza enforcer in the first game, rises to become head of the powerful Tojo Clan, then walks away from it and spends the rest of the series trying to escape from his criminal past with extremely limited success. It's an epic saga that covers 30 years of Kiryu's life, and features some of the best long-form storytelling the medium of video games has ever attempted.

It is also an extremely ridiculous, melodramatic run of games that features over the top characters, wild action, more shirtless rooftops fights than you could possibly imagine, and a dizzying array of side-quests and minigames that add up to a frankly exhausting amount of videogame. The balance the series strikes between how silly its story is and how deeply it cares for its characters makes for an intoxicating mix, and while I started playing them because I'd heard they were unbelievably fun and engrossing, I very quickly found myself being invested in the story and character of Kiryu, and the series' prolonged interest in exploring the inner life (and outer violence) of a man approaching middle-age, reckoning with all the pain he has caused and trying to build something better for the next generation.

I also fell in love with Kamurocho, a fictional entertainment district in Tokyo which provides the main setting for much of the series. Not only is it a very fun place to run around, get into fights, and sample minigames that range from simple (darts and pool) to intricate (slot car racing and running a cabaret club) to extremely seedy ("massages" and softcore video booths), but it feels like a living, breathing city where things change every time you start a new game. Some of this reflects technological advances over the course of the series, but it also underpins one of the recurring themes of the series; the battle between an older way of doing things rooted in loyalty and the messiness of humanity, and a newer, heartless and more corporate way of living. 

It's such a central idea to the games that there is a series-long subplot about how Kamurocho's one big public park, which serves as a home for the city's unhoused population, gets turned into a mall, forcing the people who previously lived there to eke out an even more meagre existence in the sewers. Not to throw all video games under the bus, since there are plenty of games out there that tackle big and complicated issues in innovative ways, but it is rare to see a series of this scale and prominence so interested in fundamental issues that shape modern life.

All that being said, the series is not without its flaws. Probably the biggest mark against it is the strain of transphobia which runs throughout, and while the games get better at handling their trans characters as they go along (to the extent that one of the most egregious substories from the third game was removed entirely when it was re-released as part of the remastered collection of 3, 4 and 5) at best it manages to be awkward at including them. This is not to say that all the violent crooks in this series of crime games should have good politics, far from it; many of the characters in the games are racist against Koreans and the Chinese, in fact their racism is central to the plots of at least two of the games, but there is always a sense that the Korean and Chinese characters in the game are people, whereas the trans characters in the game are, with very few exceptions, depicted as little more than jokes, and that runs counter to the warmth that can be found throughout the rest of the series.

Since these games are all pretty long and involved, and it took me pretty much the whole year to work through them, I thought I would do a whole list ranking them separate from my best games list, rather than have that list consist of seven Yakuza games and Inscryption. So with all that out of the way, here is my ranking of the mainline Yakuza games.

7. Yakuza 3 (2009)

It feels unfair to put Yakuza 3 at the bottom considering that it's one of the more important games in terms of the emotional arc of the series. After spending two games mostly confined to the criminal milieus of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, the third one is the only game in the series that spends a significant amount of time depicting Kiryu's quiet life running an orphanage in Okinawa and trying to go legit, with the first few hours largely being a Good Dad Simulator in which he tries to help all his charges with their various problems. There's a vivid poignancy to a man whose entire body is sculpted for violence trying to make sure his kids are okay, but this also forms one of the core tenets of Kiryu's character for the rest of the series; his desire to leave his criminal life behind and start over as a civilian, and the stubborn refusal of the past to leave him alone. Without the firm grounding that this game gives to Kiryu's motivations, the later games wouldn't have nearly the resonance that they achieve.

However, while the first two games were rebuilt from the ground up with modern graphics and controls, the current version of Yakuza 3 available as part of the Remastered collection is pretty much just the PS3 original with nicer textures and a better frame rate, and as such the combat is clunkier and less satisfying than the rest of the series, weighed down as it is by decade-old game design and the limitations of its era. Since combat plays such a big part of the experience of playing these games, it ultimately makes the game much more of a slog to play through than any of the others. If they ever did a full remake, it'd probably become an incredible game, whereas now it's merely quite good, but frustrating.

6. Yakuza 4 (2010)

The first game in the series to introduce multiple playable characters suffers a little bit for its ambition. While the individual characters - in addition to Kiryu the series introduces kindhearted lender and hostess club owner Akiyama, physically imposing Yakuza hitman Saejima, and seemingly corrupt, but actually kind policeman Tanimura - are all very compelling, and giving them all distinct styles of combat, mini-games and storylines keeps things fresh, the pacing of the game overall is extremely lumpy. Just as you're making progress with a character, the action will switch to another one, and that stop-start rhythm never totally works. It all coalesces nicely at the end when all four heroes are brought together and get to fight each of their respective nemeses, but it's an uneven experience broken up by bursts of greatness.

It also features hands down the worst section of any of the games, an incredibly boring speedboat chase that is very easy yet takes absolutely ages to complete. There are a few ill-advised vehicle sections sprinkled throughout the Yakuza series, but this one is far and away the most painful to play through.

5. Yakuza Kiwami (2016)

A from the ground up remake of the first game, which originally came out on the PS2 in 2005, Yakuza Kiwami has the simplest and most straightforward story of the series, starting with Kiryu taking the fall for a murder committed by his best friend Nishikiyama, his return to Kamurocho after ten years in jail, and his subsequent embroilment in a power struggle for control of his former organization, the Tojo Clan. That comparative simplicity (in addition to dozens of side stories, the plot also involves the disappearance of Yumi, Kiryu's childhood friend and love of his life, and a hunt for a missing 10 billion Yen) lends the game a breakneck pace that the more sprawling games that followed often struggle to maintain, but by that same token it feels a little emptier than its successors, with fewer of the weird and idiosyncratic tangents that make the other games such a joy to get lost in. It's the best entry point for the series, since the newer engine and controls make it a smooth and intuitive experience (and it is literally the starting point for the whole saga), but having played through the entire series it does feel more like an appetizer than a main course.

4. Yakuza 5 (2012)

In some ways, Yakuza 5 is just Yakuza 4 blown up to an even bigger scale, since it lets you control five characters this time (the returning cast of Kiryu, Akiyama, and Saejima, with the addition of Kiryu's adoptive daughter Haruka and disgraced baseball star Shinada) spread over five distinct and bustling locations, and juggles five separate plotlines that gradually intersect. While that does magnify the flaws of the previous game - it also bounces somewhat awkwardly between its various threads, some of those plotlines are a real slog to get through (it took me about a month to work up the enthusiasm to get through the first Kiryu and Saejima chapters, after which I burned through the rest of the game in about a week) and the plot is labyrinthine and opaque even for a series that revels in convolution - it triumphs where Yakuza 4 stumbles because it has a more emotionally resonant story. 

Specifically, the game starts with Kiryu working anonymously as a taxi driver, far from the Morning Glory Orphanage, having decided that his criminal past would harm Haruka's chance of pursuing a career in music as an idol. Having spent the three previous games establishing what Haruka means to Kiryu, having him decide the best thing for her is to essentially disappear is heartbreaking, and the long road the game takes to their eventual reunion is among the more moving things the series achieves. 

Also, since the Haruka sections don't feature any violence, instead consisting of rhythm games based around her singing and dancing, the game has a greater ebb and flow than the others, which makes the sheer length and sprawl of it feel a little more even than the similarly long, but exhausting fourth game. On top of all that, you get into multiple fist fights with a bear, which has to count for something.

3. Yakuza Kiwami 2 (2017)

If Yakuza Kiwami feels like a warm up for later games, Kiwami 2 is the series firing on all cylinders. Refining the combat from the first game and, thanks to it not coming out on PS3 and having to account for the limitations of that older hardware, taking full advantage of the PS4's capabilities, it just feels bigger and fuller. Kamurocho and Sotenbori, the two primary settings, are richer and more detailed, the action is more complicated and exciting, and there is such a thrum of energy and possibility coursing through the whole game. More importantly than the purely mechanical improvements, the story in Kiwami 2 really starts to approach the ridiculous, melodramatic heights of the series - it's a game where you have to fight your way up a pagoda, which is hidden underground before rising up when Kiryu arrives, only for you to reach the top and have to fight two tigers to the death, and that happens like one-third of the way into the game. It also introduces Daigo Dojima, a young man who reluctantly becomes the new Tojo Clan leader and one of the series' most important recurring characters, and boasts one of the series most compelling villains, Ryuji Goda, a sort of anti-Kiryu who is given much more depth and pathos than most antithetical game characters.

2. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (2016)

I've written about how emotional the Yakuza games are several times so far, and while all the other games are very big and expressive, with cutscenes and plots that hinge on dramatic, often ridiculous moments, the series reaches its apotheosis with the final installment to feature Kiryu as the main character. It starts pummeling the heartstrings right out the gate, beginning with Kiryu going to prison immediately after being reunited with Haruka at the end of the previous game, it then jumps ahead a few years and reveals in rapid succession that while Kiryu was away Haruka 1. Disappeared 2. Had a baby, thereby making Kiryu effectively a grandfather and 3. Got hit by a car in a hit-and-run that may have sinister underpinnings, landing her in a coma which she may never wake up from. 

It's an extremely fraught place to start, one exacerbated by the crime story part of the plot, which again finds the Tojo Clan under siege amidst a general sense of everything having spiraled out of control while Kiryu was in prison. It never really lets up, and that high emotional tenor makes for an exhilarating and cathartic finale, particularly the final fight, which pits Kiryu against one of the series' most loathsome antagonists, who it is a singular pleasure to beat to a bloody pulp for all the misery he inflicted upon Haruka.

Plus, in addition to all that, it's got some of the most refined combat and minigames the series has to offer, some great substories to explore, and a major role for legendary Japanese multi-hypenate "Beat" Takeshi Kitano. Truly, a game for all seasons.

1. Yakuza 0 (2015)

It's pretty much a toss-up for the number one between this and Yakuza 6, since there's more or less total parity between them in terms of how good they look and how great they feel to play, and 6 would seem to have the edge thanks to how well it sticks the landing by ending Kiryu's story. But by dint of being a prequel set in 1988, the sheer novelty of 0's setting really makes it stand out.

While still taking place in Kamurocho, the backdrop of the gaudy peak of Japan's economic miracle really makes it feel like a different place, and fundamentally changes the player's relationship with money (which was generally pretty scarce in the other games) by making it something that literally flies out of people as you dropkick them through the streets of Tokyo, and by making money the game's equivalent of XP, since you have to spend it on new upgrades and abilities for Kiryu. Making the excess of the era a mechanic is a cute melding of text and subtext, but it also makes combat more innately satisfying, since seeing the amount of Yen you have shoot up every time you do a particularly flashy move or take enemies out quickly is just so much more satisfying than more abstract rewards like XP.

The game also distinguishes itself by letting you play as Goro Majima, Kiryu's sometimes rival, sometimes ally who crops up in most of the other games and is generally seen as a lunatic who can barely be controlled by his Tojo Clan bosses. Majima is a really fun character in the other games because he's such a wildcard, and his obsession with Kiryu (always expressed by an exuberant scream of "Kiryu-chan!" when he sees him) is one the series' best long-running relationships. However, by getting to see him as a young man exiled from his clan and forced to work a mostly legitimate job running a cabaret club, reframes him as a much more nuanced and tragic figure, and while his half of the story is less fleshed out than Kiryu's, it's a wildly successful re-examination of a character who otherwise is very one-note.

What really sets the game apart for me, though, is how sad it feels if you play the series in release order, with this as the penultimate entry. Several of the characters featured in the game wind up dead in the other games, and there's a real melancholy in getting to see them again, especially knowing that one of Kiryu's closest allies in this game winds up being his bitterest enemy in the first Yakuza. As fun and giddy as the game is, it is also pointedly framed as a peak for Kiryu, before everything starts to fall apart, never to be put back together again, and it's hard not to feel some poignancy seeing him at the start of a journey that is stranger and sadder than he could imagine, even as he's doing things like this to random thugs in the street.