The benefits of putting down roots
Since Kazuma Kiryu’s debut in 2005, Sega has released six mainline Yakuza games. Over the same time period, Ubisoft has shipped nine Assassin’s Creeds. Both have had their spinoffs – Yakuza Studio has also made the zombie-infested Dead Souls, two PSP games and a pair of historical works, subtitled
Kenzan and Ishin. But while Ubisoft’s flagship series travels the globe, darting through time and from one protagonist to the next, the mainline Yakuza games have been about one man, Kazuma Kiryu, and Kamurocho, the bit of Tokyo’s red-light district he calls home.
Yes, there have been frequent sojourns to Osaka’s Sotenbori district, as in Yakuza 0 and last year’s Yakuza 5; Kiryu has run an orphanage in Okinawa, and been a cabbie in Fukuoka. Nor do we spend our entire time in a Yakuza game looking over Kiryu’s muscled shoulders; here we have Majima running his cabaret club, last year there was Haruka with her pop-star ambitions, and other games have also let us play as a loan shark, a baseball player, a cop. But Kiryu and Kamurocho are the beating, bloody heart of the Yakuza series.
The benefits to this approach are obvious. As a character, we know Kiryu’s personality: his strengths, his weaknesses, his likely reaction to any given situation. We know his history, where he sits in the complex Tojo clan hierarchy, and how each double- or triple-cross impacts upon him and those around him. And we know how to play as him: his movesets were committed to muscle memory years ago.
So, too, were his movements. When low on health, we know where the nearest restaurant is, understanding that we should never eat the same thing twice, since restaurant menus count toward the completion stat. Stocking up on supplies before a big fight, we don’t need to open the map to find the nearest store, because we’ve been there hundreds of times before. Every street corner and town square has meaning; you’ll visit a food cart near the rooftop where you once learned fighting moves from a military veteran, chat with hobos in a park that, in years to come, will hold a door to an underground casino. There’s a pink objective marker on the screen-corner minimap, but we rarely actually need it.
So while Yakuza 0’ s dart back in time means it’s an ideal jumping-in point for newcomers, it provides a special thrill for long-time series fans. This is Kamurocho as you know it, but also not; an establishment might be the same, but look different – the modern-day games’ Club Sega are here named Sega High-Tech Land, for instance, and 2000s-era neon is replaced by strings of incandescent lightbulbs. The Millennium Tower, the scene of the explosive climax to the first Yakuza game, is an empty lot in 1988.
You don’t get any of that from Assassin’s Creed. It’s no coincidence that many consider Brotherhood to be the series’ high-water mark; Ubisoft brought back Ezio Auditore da Firenze, letting players spend more time fleshing out the story of the series’ rarest commodity – a likeable protagonist. Had Ubisoft followed the Yakuza model, fleshing out a single character – one whose adventures might have taken him elsewhere, but who would always call Florence home – the series would likely now be in a very different place. It wouldn’t, you’d think, be taking a year off because the demands of building a brand-new world, hero and story every 12 months without fail no longer feels sustainable.
Part of the Yakuza games’ appeal are the lessons it teaches. Every duffed-up urchin vows to change, troubled citizens see the errors of their ways, and as players we wish we could live as noble, as even-tempered, as honest a life as Kazuma Kiryu. Yet these games could also teach a thing or two to peers working on budgets that dwarf Yakuza Studio’s many times over. That stability is an asset, that you can move forward while seeming to stand still; that, while flights of fancy may delight, there’s truly no place like home.
It’s often said that the city is the star of an open-world game, but the Kamurocho arch is as iconic to fans as Kiryu himself