Woefully overlooked in the West for the better part of a decade, the Yakuza series now rightfully holds a place alongside some of video games’ most recognizable franchises. It’s easy to see why; Yakuza tells intriguing, drama-filled stories with the ever-engaging Japanese criminal underworld as a backdrop. Heartfelt, silly, and serious all at the same time, Yakuza games offer up unique experiences you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
While Sega and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio generally succeed in delivering a high standard of quality, not all Yakuza games hit the mark so well. If you’re jumping in for the first time and need a nudge in the right direction, we’ve pulled together a list of the best Yakuza games you can play right now.
With the series now boasting cult status with a devoted following in tow, we’ll invariably poke the ire of some fans with our choices, but know that these are by no means definitive. If we omitted your top pick, let us know in the comments section below.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon
The latest entry in the storied Yakuza franchise, Yakuza: Like a Dragon launched in 2020 to rave reviews, bagging a handful of awards in the process.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon casts the player as Ichiban Kasuga, a series newcomer, as he deals with the trials and tribulations of retiring to everyday life after an 18-year stint in prison. Set in Yokohama, another first for the series, Yakuza: Like a Dragon charts Ichiban’s journey to decipher a web of betrayal involving clan bosses and government officials, all while meeting a lovable cast of characters along the way.
In major deviation from Yakuza predecessors’ real-time beat-em-up gameplay, Like a Dragon introduces a turn-based RPG-style combat system, the fruit of an April Fools joke from developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio that, through popular support, turned into a reality. In action, it’s delightfully dynamic, not least because players can pull in environmental items to spice up confrontations. The JRPG aspects also shine through with the jobs system, which allows you to change your crew’s job titles to bag different playstyles.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is very much a game of change for the series and a gamble in many respects. Sega confidently moves the series in a new direction while retaining all the charm and personality Yakuza is known for, making Like a Dragon a must-play for series’ fans.
Before Yakuza 0, the series was relatively niche in the West, only played by the most dedicated fans of Japan’s illustrious video game output. Yakuza 0 changed that completely, introducing hordes of fans to the series and paving the road for Yakuza’s growing popularity beyond Japan’s borders. Much of its appeal centered on accessibility thanks to its self-contained story and as an ideal entry point into the series for newcomers.
Yakuza 0 tracks the younger years of series regulars Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima through glitz and neon of late 80s Tokyo and Osaka, supplemented by two thrilling intertwined narrative threads serving as a prequel to the rest of the series.
Fan regulars will delight in meeting characters from the series and diving into Kiryu’s origins, while first-timers won’t be overwhelmed by the complexity of a long-running series. Free to roam the streets, there’s no shortage of mini-games, laugh-out-loud side-quests, and impromptu bust-ups approachable using different fighting styles.
Yakuza’s eccentric idiosyncrasies permeate the experience, and the game oozes charm, swaying between brutal combat and sinister underworld dealings to genuinely poignant human moments. Absurd and dramatic in equal measures, Yakuza 0 is the consummate Yakuza experience.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life delivers a fitting conclusion to Kazuma Kiryu’s decade-spanning saga. A bittersweet moment for long-time fans, but one that opened up the series to explore pastures new, as we saw with the superb Like a Dragon.
Kiryu’s plans for a quiet post-prison life are thrown into turmoil. With Haruka in a coma after a hit-and-run accident, he sets off on a tumultuous journey sided by her son Haruto to hunt down those responsible. More dramatic than previous entries, Yakuza 6’s tone feels more solemn and earnest, a story of revenge intertwined with the usual helping of crime clan shenanigans. Don’t worry; there’s, of course, the usual bevy of mini-games and substories to delight series fans.
Before Like a Dragon, Yakuza had never looked as good. Yakuza 6 portrays Kamurocho in its most glorious rendition yet, brimming with details and gorgeous lighting thanks to the Dragon Engine. The new setting of Onomichi adds some freshness to formula, seamlessly explorable with no loading screens when entering buildings.
For Yakuza 6, RGG opted to simplify the combat with only a single fighting style, making it more accessible to newcomers. Additionally, the game leans into the RPG elements that truly came to the fore with successor Like a Dragon, with Kiryu’s progression coming through with a host of skills and stats.
Yakuza Kiwami 2
While the original Kiwami applied the remake treatment to the first Yakuza with great results, Yakuza Kiwami 2 excelled at deftly porting the celebrated Yakuza 2 to modern platforms.
While a remake, Yakuza Kiwami 2 doesn’t rely on a cursory facelift alone – although the shift to the gorgeous Dragon engine certainly paid off- injecting a host of novelties not seen in the original, including improved cutscenes, fresh story beats, beautifully cinematic combat specials, and the chance to strut around Kamurocho and Sotenbori as Goro Majima.
Series regular Kazuma Kiryu jumps back into the fray following the assassination of a clan figurehead, pulling out all the diplomatic stops to avoid a war between the Omi and Tojo clans and matching the story of the original with all its ridiculous but ever charming plot twists and absurdity. The Majima Saga, though, adds plenty to draw in those who’ve played the original and to help newcomers make a little more sense of Yakuza’s often wacky world.
Thanks to the Dragon Engine, combat plays more like Yakuza 6: The Song of Life than the original, making for fluid, streamlined gameplay, and there’s no shortage of delightful mini-games to pepper the experience ranging from golf, mahjong, and karaoke, to Virtual-On arcade cabinets.
Fleshed out and painstakingly pieced together, Yakuza 5 may have taken a little longer to arrive, but it was worth the extra time in the oven.
Bigger and bolder than any previous Yakuza and dipping generously into the foundations laid down by predecessors, Yakuza 5 merits a spot alongside the best in the series. Even by Yakuza standards, the scope is ambitious, but Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio delivers on every front. In keeping with its naming conventions, Yakuza 5 features five characters, all given their own almost self-contained story, and five dense locations to explore.
Of the characters, we see regulars Kazuma Kiryu, Shun Akiyama, and Taiga Saejima, but the real delight is Haruka Sawamura. The game follows Haruka’s journey to train as a J-pop idol in the hope of winning Osaka’s Princess League, throwing players into all manner of theme-appropriate situations, including rhythm-based mini-games, interviews, and handshake meets with fans.
This diversity in characters and setting also extends to the variety of gameplay with as many different combat styles, droves of mini-games, plenty of engaging substories, and even the chance to duke it out with a bear. Each character’s lifestyle is reflected in the activities, allowing you to jump in as a taxi driver, dip into some testing wilderness training, or play some good old baseball.
While technically not a Yakuza game but a spin-off, Judgment is too good not to mention. After all, it weaves its sleuthing narrative through the very same gritty, goon-filled streets of Kamurocho and is canonically set in the same universe as the mainline games. Darker in tone and atmosphere than mainline games, Judgment retains Yakuza’s unique heart and throws in stacks of zany humor to level out its grime narrative.
Designed as a standalone story, Judgment swaps underworld yakuza dealings for a tale involving Takayuki Yagami, a former defense attorney in crisis tasked with investigating a string of gruesome murders where the victims’ eyes have been extracted from their corpses.
Borrowing roughly the same combat system as Yakuza 0 with several fighting styles, Judgment also features detective-themed activities such as tailing, parkour sequences, crime scene investigation, lock picking, disguises, and suspect chases.
While these may not be as fleshed out as many would have liked, they are bolstered by a story full of mystery that keeps you hooked throughout. Alongside the main story, there are, of course, side quests styled as mini detective cases and mini-games aplenty, notably drone racing and stacks of arcade cabinets.
The three preceding Yakuza games focused exclusively on Kiryu’s story to find its footing and iterate on gameplay and mechanics. With Yakuza 4, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio ushered in a major upheaval with not one but four playable characters.
The three new characters are a highlight; the laid-back but ever kind loanshark Shun Akiyama, crooked cop Masayoshi Tanimura, and mercurial former thug Taiga Saejima. With a broad set of activities and fighting styles for each character, along with the usual spread of side stories and mini-games, there’s no shortage of things to keep you busy in Yakuza 4.
What Yakuza 4’s disjointed and somewhat superficial story lacked in cohesiveness, it made up for it in charm through its compelling characters and, what was at the time the most expansive depiction of Kamurocho yet with rooftops, backstreets, and underground areas such as the city’s sewer system and parking lots open for exploration.
Yakuza 4 may not shine quite as brightly as other entries in the series. Still, the four-way narrative is a refreshing change of pace, and Yakuza fans will greatly appreciate the introduction of the lovable Shun Akiyama.
Yakuza Kiwami is a remake of the original Yakuza released on PlayStation 2 way back in 2005, polished and reskinned for PC, Xbox One, PS3, and PS4.
It masterfully captures the essence of the original. It keeps the tone and Kiryu’s story of life after a stint in prison intact while adding in some modern flourish through updated visuals and audio thanks to the Dragon Engine. Alongside, the combat gameplay benefits from a much-needed refresh to match the style of Yakuza 0, and the story’s been respectfully fleshed out in places to add flavor and depth, including shedding light on Akira Nishikiyama’s path to ruthless yakuza boss during Kiryu prison sentence.
If only all remakes exuded the same quality and attention to detail as Yakuza Kiwami. As it stands, Yakuza Kiwami is the definitive way to play the game that started it all and a must-play for those who’ve beaten all the most recent Yakuza entries.