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Who Needs Shenmue 3 When You Have Yakuza?

Diving into the Yakuza series for the first time, Mike finds more than he bargained for.

Opinion by Mike Williams, .

Last week, I sat down to play my first Yakuza game. I skipped the first because marketing pointed to it being an odd Japanese take on Grand Theft Auto. Since then, I haven't been avoiding the series on purpose, I've just always had something else to play. Even once I started doing this professionally, there was always someone chomping at the bit to play the game for review. Best to let them have it.

Kazuma did not sign up for this.

I kept hearing great things though, especially once Sega became committed to localizing the Yakuza games at a steady pace. We're in the middle of a run that started with Yakuza 5's Western release in 2015 and will end with Yakuza 6's launch in 2018. It's a good time to be a Yakuza fan and a good time to figure out why fans love Yakuza so much. So I decided to pull executive privilege and take Yakuza Kiwami for myself.

Some hours into the game, I'm still getting my legs under me. Kazuma Kiryu has been freed from prison ten years later for a murder he didn't commit. Now the Yakuza with a heart of gold and fists like goddamn iron is back in his old stomping grounds of Kamurocho. I'm enjoying myself, wandering around the city, dealing out harsh justice, and simply interacting with the citizens. And then it hits me.

"Hey, this is Shenmue," I tell myself. "Why didn't anyone else tell me this was Shenmue?"

Hold up, Shenmue fans. Give me a moment.

He signed up for this.

I know Shenmue is a deeper, more interactive experience. The trials and tribulations of Ryo Hazuki play out in a world that feels not unlike our own. You can interact with most objects and enter most buildings. Both Shenmue games feel like you're a hard-working part-time martial artist wandering through parts of Japan and Hong Kong. Shenmue's greatest strength is soaking in the Hazuki's mostly average day-to-day life. Sure, he's hunting for his father's killer, but a man's gotta live in the middle of all that.

The environment in Shenmue is detailed and thorough. The citizens have their own lives to lead, opening shops, heading to work and school, and generally getting on with it. There are real-time day and night cycles. Every character has their own voice, though some definitely work better than others. You have to work a real job each day to move forward in Shenmue and both games have a commitment to mundanity that borders on obsessive. As a technical achievement, Shenmue is impressive.

The problem is I feel like I love Shenmue for its sheer edifice, not necessarily for the game itself. The surprise and delight was in how detailed the world was, especially back in the Dreamcast era. Shenmue's environment was a painstaking creation of Yu Suzuki and his team at Sega, like the detailed cityscapes of French artist Deck Two or the hyper-realistic art of Sushant S Rane. Part of the majesty is the fact that it was done at all. Shenmue is Sega's monument to life.

When I want to play a game though, pound for pound Yakuza feels like a better experience. If Yakuza were to release today, we'd call it a "spiritual successor." Shenmue II released for Dreamcast in 2001 as one of the swansongs for that maligned system, with the first Yakuza launching on the far more successful PlayStation 2 in 2005. It's hard not to see the invisible line drawn between both games, with Yakuza leaving behind Shenmue's detail while still carrying forward the overall spirit.

Kamurocho isn't as detailed Yokosuka, but there's still a host of things to do within its glitzy confines. In-between navigating the complex interplay of yakuza clan politics, Kazuma can try his hand at romance, eat at the many restaurants, hit home runs in the batting cage, play some blackjack or pachinko, get a massage, or find hidden secrets. Like Shenmue, Yakuza leaves you in a city to do as you will, but there's a tongue-in-cheek level of humor and a sense of fun that permeates the latter series. The team behind Yakuza made cuts to the Shenmue formula, but filled in the holes with more enjoyment.

I remember Ryo Hazuki's quest for revenge against Lan Di, but to be honest, I didn't care. In contrast, Yakuza hits the ground running. Kazuma Kiryu may fit within the boilerplate "yakuza with honor" trope found in other Japanese media, but he's instantly compelling. His world flip flops between somber emotion and off-kilter weirdness with a deft hand. And outside of Kiryu, his supporting cast is a delight to interact with. I have no idea why he's even vaguely friends with Majima—I assume Yakuza 0 explains this—but Majima himself is a blast everytime he pops up.

The twists and turns of the story never rise above pulp action, but the pacing is great and I never found myself bored with what was going on. Every gangster that takes a shot at Kazuma has a unique hook. And how can you not love some of the side missions, like beating down a stalker or stopping a man from dining and dashing? There's this feeling that Sega started throwing things into the game just to see if they could get away with it. Yakuza Kiwami just oozes style and fun, and you can tell the development team had a blast making it.

Yakuza also has something that Shenmue never got: a chance to evolve. The first Yakuza eventually sold 1 million copies and landed a PlayStation 2 The Best release in Japan. The Yakuza team at Sega has had five mainline releases, five spin-off titles, and a movie to hone its narrative and mechanical chops. Sega has had a chance to cut what doesn't work, try out new ideas, and beef up aspects that needed a bit more love. Yakuza Kiwami is a remake of the very first game using the technology of the series' later entries, and it stands as a testament to the series' longevity.

Shenmue 3 is coming eventually. To answer the question asked in the headline: around 69,320 fervent fans. Those fans offered up a total of $6 million on Kickstarter to build the PlayStation 4 and PC release. I'm interested to see if the latest entry in the series can live up to the originals' level of detail, especially given that detail cost Sega around $47 million back in 1999. My interest remains more intellectual than emotional though: I want to see Shenmue 3 built, I want to see if it can be done, I want to see how folks today react to it. But after around half of Yakuza Kiwami, when it's time to play something for fun, I'm going to be picking up the controller on a Yakuza game.

Hey Sega. Bring the Yakuza games to PC. Thanks. Love, Mike.

Hey Shenmue fans. I still love you like a brother. Let's be friends.

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Comments 15

  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #1 NiceGuyNeon 2 months ago
    If these games hit PC I'd probably be all over them. As it stands, it looks like a curiosity I won't ever experience because I don't intend on purchasing a PlayStation. I really dug Shenmue II (I played it on Xbox not Dreamcast) but it had its problems and major lulls. I've only heard good things about Yakuza since it started. But again, no PC version, no purchase on my end.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #2 riderkicker 2 months ago
    It's about time. Best game series by Sega, sorry not sorry Sonic. Each game is full of twists and turns that would entertain soap opera and comic book fans alike. I love beating the crap out of street punks one minute and handing out tissues to a man in need the second. I think two is the Pinnacle of the series, and can't wait for the Ultimate version of that. But each one is unique in its own ways even if all are very similar.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #3 Roto13 2 months ago
    I think the modest success of Yakuza in the west is one of the reasons Sega never bothered to make Shenmue 3.
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #4 Godots17thCup 2 months ago
    I'm so glad that Yakuza finally (finally!) seems to be catching on with people; not just because it means we'll all get to keep playing them in English, but now there are actually new fans for us long-time diehards to share our enthusiasm with!

    The series combination of hard-boiled earnestness and complete batshit lunacy will never not be endearing to me. Secret CIA twins, underground hobo intelligence networks, characters constantly getting shot while monologuing by some dude who was standing, like, 10 feet away just off-screen howdidnoonenoticethem!?, everything Majima - most of it is played completely straight, because Yakuza is the best. That's not even getting into the wealth of deliberately goofy side-stories, and sub- & mini-games that are often far more well-crafted than they probably have any right to be.

    And I feel like the core brawler gameplay has been rock solid ever since 2 managed to refine and greatly expand what you could do in battle. Discovering a new way to improvise with the items, combos and environment you have on hand while caving in some goober's face is always satisfying.
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  • Avatar for usagi704 #5 usagi704 2 months ago
    I've been a Yakuza fan since the beginning and I've been able to get a number of people to try one and they all became fans themselves. It's been great to see the series getting a lot more love more recently.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #6 chaoticBeat 2 months ago
    @NiceGuyNeon *Persona 5 whispers sweet temptations in your ear*
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #7 NiceGuyNeon 2 months ago
    @chaoticBeat I'M HOLDING OUT FOR A SWITCH RELEASE (but yes, it's totally whispering sweet temptations especially since I think 4 is my fave RPG)
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #8 VotesForCows 2 months ago
    Glad you're enjoying it - its a wonderful series. I think the best bit about it is how often the bad guys realise the error of their ways after you beat the crap out of them. I think in Yakuza 0 you beat up a terrible dad while on a lengthy mission to recover a new video game stolen from this son, and he promises to be a better dad in future.

    @Godots17thCup Sounds like you'll know - is it Yakuza Kiwami or Yakuza 6 that's been made with new a new engine?Edited August 2017 by VotesForCows
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #9 Godots17thCup 2 months ago
    @VotesForCows Yakuza 6 marks the debut of the series' new "Dragon Engine", which should be used for the series going forward.
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  • Avatar for garion333 #10 garion333 2 months ago
    Welcome to the fold.

    The GTA comparison was always wrong and it's nice people are finally figuring it out.Edited August 2017 by garion333
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #11 VotesForCows 2 months ago
    @Godots17thCup Excellent, thanks. I dip into about every second game, so that'll be my next one!
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  • Avatar for Lonecow #12 Lonecow 2 months ago
    I thought the same thing about Yakuza. I was actually really hoping they would eventually just tie up Ryo's story in the Yakuza games before they announced a 3rd Shenmue.Edited August 2017 by Lonecow
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  • Avatar for orient #13 orient 2 months ago
    I will always prefer the Shenmue games to Yakuza because, while there are similarities, Shenmue is a contemplative exploration and investigation game. Yakuza is a cracking skulls and follow-the-map-marker game. They're completely different at their core. I love Yakuza but Shenmue is something wholly unique.
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  • Avatar for swamped #14 swamped 2 months ago
    You know what other game was Shenmue? Sleeping Dogs.
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  • Avatar for wifikillapk #15 wifikillapk A month ago
    That sounds okay. Will try it first.
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