With Lost Judgment looming on the horizon, Ryu Ga Gotoku is enjoying a great level of success. It is set to be the Japanese studio's first simultaneous worldwide release. In celebration of a healthy RGG, it's time to take a look back and rank the Yakuza games from worst to best.
The Rules: The Yakuza Kiwami remakes are replacing the PS2 originals as they're the most convenient way for anyone on modern platforms to experience those stories. The Japan-only games such as Ishin! and the PSP entries aren't included either. However, Judgment is in the running due to taking place in the same universe with the same structure and gameplay as the rest of the franchise.
9. Yakuza 3
In leaving Kamurocho to care for the Sunflower Orphanage he was brought up in by Kazama, we see more of Kiryu's good-natured soul. Despite the first game's events leading to his status as the Dragon of Dojima, he was never the ruthless criminal many of the series' characters have become after getting a taste of the underworld's socio-political grip on Japan. Yakuza 3 spends much of its runtime on the debt he owes to these children without a home. It's slow, but purposeful, carrying a lot of weight for those that found themselves attached to the last two to three games. This slow-burn approach makes it the least replayable entry.
As the first PS3-era Yakuza, there are also tons of growing pains. While less fiddly than the PS2 games, combat doesn't start to feel exciting until Yakuza 4. There's something about the lock-on targeting, animations, and general movement in encounters that makes the act of hitting dudes feel unsatisfying. Beyond the stiff combat, it lacks later entries' quality-of-life features, like more robust sub-story tracking, making it easier to remember where to go to progress a substory, or even just to discover them in the first place. Yakuza 3 is the most dated installment of the games playable on modern platforms.
8. Yakuza 6
Yakuza 6 is infamous as being the test bed for the Dragon Engine. During the move to a more ambitious engine that took advantage of the PlayStation 4 hardware to provide higher-fidelity visuals, animations, and seamless environments with few loading screens, Ryu Ga Gotoku had to make sacrifices within their limited resources and release schedule. For a sendoff to the Yakuza posterchild, the sparsity of content sticks out.
Yakuza has built its foundation on gripping narratives with loads of addictive and zany optional content that could triple the play time. Whether it's series staples like shoji and mahjong or game-specific distractions such as Cabaret management and pissing in high-tech urinals, RGG is no stranger to variety — something sorely lacking here.
This same disappointment comes across through its main story. While the ending is sure to strike a chord for long-time fans, much of the overarching mystery that connects Kiryu, Haruka, and Onomichi feels more like a side-story than the ultimate conclusion to Kiryu's arc. Yes, he is motivated to travel to Onomichi because of events directly related to Haruka, but the events that transpire within the seaport town lack the grandiosity a conclusion of this caliber should have.
Judgment is noteworthy for being the first Dragon Engine title to bring back the fighting styles lost in the transition to full-scale eighth-gen development. While there are only two styles, they're more meaningful than those found within 0 and Kiwami. In this sense, it's the engine's most accomplished real-time combat. Carrying the same weight behind its attacks as the other Dragon Engine titles without finding itself beholden by the single form Kiryu uses in Yakuza 6 and Kiwami 2 is the best compliment that can be bestowed.
In every other respect, it feels like a diet-Yakuza experience. The traditional substories are translated and split across cases and friendship events, neither of which are that enticing. Most of the optional content is too grounded for its own good, losing sight of the dichotomy that makes Yakuza work. The main story itself is gripping when it gets its hooks in, but takes too long to introduce the central conceit, with much slower build-up to revelations and plot twists. Coupled with half-hearted detective elements, Judgment feels like it's on the cusp of something it never quite reaches.
6. Yakuza Kiwami
As a full-blown remake, Yakuza Kiwami employs the quality-of-life features Yakuza 3 was missing while retaining the years of refinement to the core gameplay since. Yakuza 0's combat serves as the basis for Kiwami with only balancing tweaks to the fighting styles. Kiwami also tells a decent story, even if it's unremarkable in the IP's grand scheme. It's much simpler than later games, which is a double-edged sword. Its relative simplicity keeps its pacing in check, but it's lacking in hype moments.
You won't be punching tigers in the face or finding yourself embroiled in the center of a complex Yakuza web as a 16-year-old idol. Boss fights are also lacking, ranking among the series' most unbalanced bosses. Ultimately, Yakuza Kiwami is a relatively inoffensive game that neither excels at anything nor pulls any egregious sins. It's likely the one to lead to the least amount of discussion when pitting Yakuza fans together.
5. Yakuza 5
Yakuza 5 is perhaps the most captivating "jump the shark" moment in gaming. It takes the series' penchant for twisting storylines, complicated relations, and shocking revelations, ratcheting the absurdity tenfold. Whereas Yakuza 4 told a multi-layered narrative featuring four characters whose arcs intertwine in surprising ways, Yakuza 5 attempts the same with five characters spread across five cities with their own disparate arcs.
Yakuza 5 treads soap opera territory levels of insanity, but by some divine miracle, it kind of works. No one would ever call its story a work of art, but its ability to converge these characters' individual stories is beyond commendable. In tapping into the suspension of disbelief typically reserved for its substories, no one can say Yakuza 5 is boring. If the series' hype factor was defined only by how many times dudes rip their shirts off, Yakuza 5 has every other game beat. This extreme excitement extends to gameplay as Yakuza 5 is the franchise's most content-rich and diverse installment. In a strange turn of events, Yakuza 5 feels like a better sendoff for Kiryu than Yakuza 6 did.
4. Yakuza 4
Regarding the release timeline, Yakuza 4 is the first truly exciting Yakuza game. Freed from the shackles of the awkward PS2 era, further improving the foundation laid by Yakuza 3, this fourth mainline installment is the first entry that feels modern. The multiple playable characters with distinct combat would go on to influence Yakuza 0 and Kiwami's fighting styles. Substories finally stop being a chore to keep track of and discover. The streets of Kamurocho are expanded for the first time with rooftop sections.
This is to say nothing of the captivating tale, which is a reigned-in Yakuza 5 that tells a more coherent interwoven narrative across its eclectic cast. In finding a better balance between suspension of disbelief and grounded moments, Yakuza 4 follows through on its ambition in a way Yakuza 5 doesn't quite hit. It's not as exciting, but it's a more considered, coherent experience.
3. Yakuza Kiwami 2
Yakuza Kiwami 2 finds itself in an interesting position. Its story doesn't go as off the rails as Yakuza 4, 5, or even 0, but it finds its strength in other respects. No villain in the series sticks out like Ryuji Goda. He's one of the only antagonists that feels like a formidable foe existing outside the confines of the games he's in, giving the Dragon of Dojima a run for his money in terms of status. There's also a romantic subplot, which is handled with grace. It isn't a subject matter Yakuza usually places much emphasis on — sure characters are in relationships or infatuated, but these emotions rarely become focal points in the same way as Kiryu and Sayama's unlikely romance.
The story's successes are equally propped up by excellent gameplay and content. Yakuza Kiwami 2's localization remains faithful to the PS2 original in ways that will leave anyone grinning. The legendary "I peacocked your mom" interaction remains, as do wonderful interpretation's of some of the best substories. The less said about the "Be My Baby" substory, the better.
2. Yakuza: Like a Dragon
As one of the most remarkable genre shifts in the industry, Yakuza: Like a Dragon successfully captures the Yakuza essence. Very little was lost in the transition from real-time brawler-infused fisticuffs to turn-based roleplaying. If anything, the new genre is a better fit for the franchise's signature wackiness.
Nanba, one of Ichiban's friends, refills his own health by materializing cardboard out of thin air, taking a quick snooze on the spot. Enemy types such as protesters have moves that involve making baseless accusations to inflict the silence status ailment. The amount of fun Like a Dragon has with its enemies retains a continual sense of creativity among one of RGG's best single-player experiences. Ichiban is much more emotive than Kiryu, making moment-to-moment interactions more active. He's also followed by a group of friends, adding a constant dynamic that makes even the slowest narrative bits more interesting.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon honors the franchise in every respect from combat's humorous underpinnnings to the substories to the addictive distractions that include can collecting and running a business. It's held back only by taking too long to introduce the deeper RPG systems. Players don't even get access to the job system, for example, until the fifth chapter of a 15-chapter story.
1. Yakuza 0
Yakuza 0 encapsulates what it means to be a Yakuza game. It doesn't do anything new aside from introducing several fighting styles, which draws clear inspirations from Yakuza 4 and 5's multi-character structure. It simply excels at everything that has come to define a signature Ryu Ga Gotoku experience.
The story is among the franchise's most captivating, finding the best balance between insane "there's no way" and "OH! That's clever" moments. Bouncing between Majima and Kiryu every two chapters, RGG ends every second chapter on a cliffhanger, leading to an utterly captivating sense of pacing. Other games revolving around a central mystery, including RGG's own Judgment, could learn a thing or two from Yakuza 0.
The hooks don't let up there, either. While some other entries may feature individual stories that are better, Yakuza 0 has the highest ratio of quality substories running the gamut from heartwarming to hilarious. In terms of citywide activities, the studio struck gold again. The disco minigame might even trounce the beloved karaoke. Other less expansive activities, such as phone sex, contextualize Kiryu in the most endearing way possible. The overzealous manner in which Kiryu picks up the phone only to respond with the borderline monotone delivery we expect of him provides the kind of tonal disconnect other serious dramas don't dare to encroach upon.
Yakuza 0 constantly surprises in how consistently funny and engaging it is. Lest we forget its best inclusion: Mr. Libido.
Which Yakuza game is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.