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.
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.
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.