There's been a lot of buzz about Yakuza in the West as of late, and for good reason. This series of beat-em-up adventures depicts the dramatic life of Kazuma Kiryu, an influential member of the Japanese yakuza, who dips his toes in and out of the organization over the course of several decades. It has been critically well-received since the first game in the series released on the PlayStation 2 back in 2006, and though five main Yakuza titles have been localized to date, it has been somewhat commercially unsuccessful in English-speaking territories.
But a Yakuza renaissance is about to begin: A prequel to the entire series, dubbed Yakuza 0, is about to release for PlayStation 4, with two more games on the way before the end of 2018. Reviews for Yakuza 0 have been extremely positive, with many critics (myself included) heralding it as a perfect entry point for newcomers - I've even heard it called a reborn Shenmue for the modern age. (Of course, there's a real Shenmue III on the way after all these years, but who knows if it will live up to its predecessors' legacy?) So what is it about this series - one that depicts organized crime in astonishing detail in a winding tale of life, death, betrayal, and indulgence - that separates it from, say, Grand Theft Auto? Easy: Yakuza actually has soul.
It would be easy to look at Yakuza and assume it's just a Grand Theft Auto clone set in Japan, but you'd be dead wrong. Yakuza is less about glamorizing wicked behavior and more about portraying realistic people caught up in dramatic circumstances. Even its side stories are more convincingly written than the main campaigns of its Western counterparts. More importantly, it knows when to take itself seriously and when to let loose - and oh, boy, does it ever let loose.
It's not uncommon in a Yakuza game to go from engaging in heated argument over turf to slamming some guy's head in a toilet while money flies out of his ears. One minute, you'll be brawling with teenage punks on a street corner, and the next, you'll be playing Space Harrier in an arcade or singing karaoke at some hole-in-the-wall dive bar. Yakuza strikes a delicate balance between being legitimately gripping and laugh-out-loud hilarious without ever being condescending to its audience.
Of course, there's solid gameplay at the core of Yakuza to hold everything together, too. Instead of running and gunning enemies down, you'll engage in street fights that are equal parts Shenmue and Streets of Rage. Your player character - of which there are many throughout the series, though Kazuma Kiryu remains the de facto protagonist - even levels up and learns new abilities as you progress, making Yakuza more of an RPG than it appears at first glance. Between character progression and the myriad side activities available, there's more to Yakuza than there appears at first glance, making it far more than the Eastern crime simulator it appears to be on the surface.
There's a certain charm to Yakuza that's difficult to convey, both to an audience weaned on Grand Theft Auto and to RPG fans who've previously given it a pass due to its apparent focus on gritty realism. But there's something in the series for nearly everyone, particularly fans of Japanese games and culture. Even if you've done what I did and ignored Yakuza up until this point, I implore you, give Yakuza 0 a try - now's the best time to become a fan.