The Yakuza games are inspired by real films about the yakuza, or the Japanese mafia. The main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu—a stoic ex-yakuza with a heart of gold—is entrenched in the ongoing power struggles within the powerful Tojo Clan, and their rivals, the Omi Alliance. Between the serious, cinematic crime drama story, filled with memorable characters and emotional moments, you’ll find an endless array of mini-games and side activities, like singing karaoke, dining out at bars and restaurants, playing at SEGA arcades, and helping strange, hilarious people with strange, hilarious requests.
Here’s a spoiler-free overview of all currently-released Yakuza games, including where to play them and suggestions on which games to pick up first.
As a prequel to the rest of the series, Yakuza 0 features Kiryu’s life as a younger yakuza in 1980s Japan, showing how he earned his legendary title as the Dragon of Dojima. Kiryu’s longtime rival, the wonderfully crazy Goro Majima, also features as a second playable character. Kiryu’s gameplay is primarily focused in Kamurocho, a longtime Yakuza mainstay, while Majima is based in Sotenbori. Like most Yakuza games, the audio is only in Japanese, so you’ll have to read the English subtitles.
Yakuza 0’s beat ‘em up gameplay is incredibly fun, with distinct styles for both Kiryu and Majima. The crime drama story is extraordinary, filled with amazing characters and gripping twists and turns. There’s also a dizzying amount of side content, including a real-estate management simulator, another simulator for running a fancy cabaret club, and a rhythm mini-game with disco dancing. Yakuza 0 is a great place to start. But there are several references to later games, which you’ll miss out on as a new player. Yakuza 0 is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam on PC.
The first Yakuza released in 2005 for the PlayStation 2, telling Kiryu’s story as an ex-yakuza trapped in the underground world. Kiryu goes to prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and later returns to Kamurocho while the Tojo Clan is in shambles. Kiryu then meets a young, determined girl named Haruka Sawamura who is somehow connected to the ongoing drama, and goes on to protect her as a father-figure. Yakuza Kiwami is a remake of Yakuza, with updated graphics, a modernized combat system, and new content such as the Majima Everywhere system, where Kiryu finds Majima in random, comical locations throughout Kamurocho before fighting him in a boss-like battle.
For some, Yakuza Kiwami is a downgrade from Yakuza 0. Everything down to the cinematography is true to the original, which can feel dated. The combat is not as polished, though it is still a vast improvement from the first game. But you will still find a stirring story, great characters, and tons of side content. This is a solid place to start if you would like to play the series in order, while going back to Yakuza 0 later on to enjoy all the references. Yakuza Kiwami is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam on PC.
As a historical note, the original Yakuza on PlayStation 2 does have an English dub. But it is humorously bad, which led the developers to outright avoid English dubs for a number of years, sticking to English subtitles. The following releases in the franchise are all in Japanese with English subtitles only.
Yakuza Kiwami 2
Following the events of the first Yakuza game, Yakuza 2 released for the PlayStation 2 in 2006. Kiryu attempts to live out a normal life with Haruka, only to get thrust back into the yakuza world. He meets his match in the game’s powerful villain, Ryuji Goda of the Omi Alliance. The yakuza and the Korean mafia all clash with the police, leading to an emotional journey for Kiryu as he struggles to defeat Ryuji once and for all. Yakuza Kiwami 2, like Yakuza Kiwami, is a full remake of Yakuza 2, updated with a brand new Dragon Engine, plus new content, such as the return of cabaret club management, and a small side story wrapping up Majima’s experiences from Yakuza 0. Kamurocho and Sotenbori are also fully playable, both with their own unique content.
However, the remake cuts some content from the original Yakuza 2. Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza Kiwami 2 have updated soundtracks, but the newer versions lack the gritty underground feel from the originals. The Dragon Engine in Yakuza Kiwami 2 is not quite polished, resulting in some wonky combat mechanics. Despite these changes, this is still a remarkable entry, with the story as a particularly strong standout in the series. Yakuza Kiwami 2 is on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam on PC.
Set directly after Yakuza 2, Yakuza 3 released for the PlayStation 3 in 2009. Kiryu once again attempts to settle down with Haruka, running a beachside orphanage in sunny Okinawa. But the yakuza world pulls Kiryu right back in, this time when the Tojo Clan threatens to shut down his orphanage. Kiryu’s yakuza allies in Okinawa accompany him to Kamurocho, where he gets caught up in a head-spinning mystery with the Tojo Clan and the American CIA. Yakuza 3 features a good amount of laid-back content where you get to know the kids, help them with their troubles, and generally play Dad for them by day—while by night, Kiryu runs off to unravel the larger mystery with the yakuza.
Yakuza 3 is part of The Yakuza Remastered Collection, along with Yakuza 4 and Yakuza 5. These three games are remasters instead of remakes—no Kiwami in the titles—and mainly feature upgraded visuals and performance. The Yakuza 3 remaster also includes some content that had been cut from the original English release, making this the definitive version to play. However, the story in Yakuza 3 is among the weakest in the franchise, partly due to the absurd nature of the plot’s twists and surprises. The orphanage content is not for everyone, but it offers a fine change of pace. At its core, though, Yakuza 3 stays true to the series’ roots, packed with all the other great aspects you can expect from a Yakuza game. The Yakuza Remastered Collection is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam on PC.
After Yakuza 3, Yakuza 4 released for the PlayStation 3 in 2010. As ever, Kiryu gets tangled in drama with the Tojo Clan in Kamurocho, though this time, we don’t only see things from his eyes. Before the release of Yakuza 0, Yakuza 4 is the first game in the series with multiple playable protagonists. Aside from Kiryu, you also get to play as Shun Akiyama, a charming loan shark who knows his way around the yakuza, Taiga Saejima, a hardened ex-yakuza who escapes from prison, and Masayoshi Tanimura, a young police detective who doesn’t mind bending the rules every now and then. The plot revolves around the four characters, initially on their own, steadily joining forces together as their stories collide.
As part of The Yakuza Remastered Collection, the upgraded version of Yakuza 4 is true to the original. Like with Yakuza 3, Yakuza 4’s story suffers from some bad writing, with heavy-handed melodrama and “shocking” twists. Without the freshness of multiple protagonists, the rehashed story in Kamurocho could have easily grown stale by this point.
Yakuza 5 released for the PlayStation 3 in 2012. This time featuring a cast of five playable characters, with Kiryu, Akiyama, and Saejima making a return, alongside the newest character, Tatsuo Shinada, a broke journalist who was once a baseball star. Haruka is also a playable character, living her life as an idol—a Japanese pop star—with her own music rhythm game sequences instead of combat. Like Yakuza 4, Yakuza 5 follows everyone’s stories, this time spread out across five distinct cities in Japan. The Tojo Clan and Omi Alliance are once again locked in a power struggle, with Kiryu, Saejima, and Shinada swept up in the fray. Haruka gets caught up in trouble of her own as she deals with the darker side of the music business industry, while Akiyama does his best to protect her in Kiryu’s stead.
Yakuza 5 is a mammoth in the series, thanks to a colossal amount of content, easily totaling hundreds of hours of gameplay. Despite some ups and downs with the story, Yakuza 5 is a strong contender in the franchise. However, the PlayStation 3 version in English is digital-only. Once the PlayStation 3 store shuts down on July 2, The Yakuza Remastered Collection will be the only way to purchase the game in English.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is Kiryu’s final sendoff. The game released in 2016 to some controversy, namely due to the lack of recurring series characters in the story, and issues with Haruka behaving out-of-character. Yakuza 6 is also the first game in the Dragon Engine, and it shows. But the game does have plenty of positives, such as the prime setting in the sleepy seaside town of Onomichi in Hiroshima, and the usual plethora of side content. This is definitely best saved for last in order to better appreciate Kiryu’s ending. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam on PC.
Spinoffs and Other Releases
Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan! and Ryu ga Gotoku Ishin! are two samurai games set in the Edo and Bakumatsu periods, respectively, following Kiryu and other Yakuza characters as historical figures in Japan. These games do not currently have English releases, though SEGA is aware of how many overseas fans would love to play them. Yakuza: Dead Souls is a wacky zombie spinoff with the main series cast, shooting zombies together in the streets of Kamurocho. Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise is based on the Fist of the North Star series. Judgment follows private detective Takayuki Yagami in a legal thriller with a brand new cast of characters, set in Kamurocho.
Lastly, Yakuza: Like a Dragon takes place after Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. The new protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga, stars in a turn-based RPG inspired by the Dragon Quest series. Kasuga and his friends take up the Yakuza mantle, unraveling more mysteries of the Tojo Clan and Omi Alliance, as well as the Chinese and Korean mafias in Yokohama. To learn more about Yakuza: Like a Dragon, check out our review.