Post Script

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

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