May 2, 2017

Virtual Japan: Yakuza the Video Game

I am a huge gamer. When I came to Japan, I took my Resident Evil Xbox360 and took all my North American region games with me. The controller lands in my hands every night, and time flies away without my knowledge or my regrets.

There was one game series that I missed out on until I got it on my Playstation 4 earlier this year: the Yakuza series, or as it is originally called in Japan, Ryuu ga Gotoku, which translates to, 'As a Dragon'. This Sony exclusive franchise is one of the most popular Japanese series with several titles brought to the West gaining a cult following. So today, let me introduce what makes this game so special, especially for those who are living in Japan.
Virtual Japan: Yakuza the Video Game photo

The story follows the main protagonist, Kazuma Kiryuu, who is a Yakuza member but surprisingly warm-hearted and has a strong sense of justice. His relationship with his friends and his connection to his Yakuza gang change and evolve with each entry of the series. Without spoiling anything, the game is presented very much like a Yakuza TV drama, with about 15 chapters in each game and plenty of surprises and twists ready to surprise you. Don’t let this narrow your impression of the game, however, as it also has a very humourous side. More about that later.

Yakuza takes place in a 'fictional' area of Tokyo called Kamurachou, and by fictional, I mean that it is almost identical to the real like Kabukichou in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The attention to the details of almost every street and building is incredible. It is simply the best way to experience a part of Japan virtually that you can get right now. In fact, I visited the real life Kabukichou AFTER I finished one of the entries of the game, and boy, was I surprised by how well I could navigate the real life location without having even been here.

Virtual Japan: Yakuza the Video Game photo

If you don’t know much about Kabukichou, it is a rather shady part of Tokyo with the brightest nightlife. It isn’t the cleanest part of Japan by far, but for those seeking for certain services and entertainment, this is the place to go.

Back to the game. The gameplay is a combination of several styles. Overall, it is an open world adventure action game. You run around Kamurachou (and sometimes other real-life inspired locations, such as Osaka and Hiroshima) as Kiryuu to reach the next story point. At each critical moment, you are presented by a long and beautifully made extended cut scene that will keep you on the edge of your sofa.

During key moments of the story, you might (very often, actually) have to fight your way out of a situation or to defeat a boss. The fighting mode becomes a small arena brawl with one or more enemies surrounding you and you must finish the fight right then and there. You can imagine the fights in Assassin’s Creed or recent Batman games, but much less focus on counters and much more on using your fists. These fights will also happen randomly as enemies spot you on the street when you are running from point A to point B, which you can easily avoid if you are not in the mood for trading punches.

Virtual Japan: Yakuza the Video Game photo

Another main element of the game is the mini-games. These change throughout each iteration of Yakuza, but they are beyond what you would imagine from a game about gangsters. Mahjong, shogi, karaoke, fighting rings, darts, batting cage and cabaret (to talk to ladies, of course) are some of the staples in the series. Some more obscure activities include deep-sea fishing, disco dancing, chanting for someone as they sing karaoke, planting vegetables in your garden, body training, old school Sega arcade games (awesome for the retro gamers out there) and even….. babysitting? Yes, you read that right.

Remember when I mentioned humour earlier in the post? This game might be a serious crime drama at times, but it also finds plenty of opportunities to make you laugh. Besides the nonsensical mini-game collection you can play on the way to fight your next gang boss, there are also a ton of random encounters for side-missions you can take on to help random people on the street. From helping a boy get his stolen video game back to resolving some high-school romance, there are no reasons for Kiryuu the yakuza member to step in besides the ton of fun and humour there is to see.
Virtual Japan: Yakuza the Video Game photo

Overall, this game is a collection of fantastic elements ranging from serious to ridiculous. The attention to details is incredible, and I haven’t even mentioned the shopping and eating mechanics in the game where you can visit shops and restaurants that are really available in real life! But that might be for another time, and meanwhile, for those who have visited Kabukichou or want to experience Japan virtually before actually landing your feet there, Yakuza, which is up to the 6th main game with several spin-offs, is one not to miss for any gamer who is interested in Japan.