Bidding a fond farewell to one of gaming’s great protagonists
We’ve written before in these pages of the importance of Kamurocho to the Yakuza games; of how much a fixed setting can lend to a long-running series in an era where so many open-world franchises put down new roots with each fresh instalment. But now, with Kazuma Kiryu gracing a Yakuza game’s box art for the final time, it’s time to give him his due. Kamurocho, loosely modelled on Tokyo’s Kabukicho redlight district, may be Yakuza’s beating heart. Kiryu, however, has always been its soul.
And heavens, he’s been through it over the years, battered and broken, cast out and imprisoned, and double-crossed so many times it’s a wonder he can still see straight. He’s been a toy-car racer, a real-estate dealer, an orphanage manager; he’s a batsman, a bowler, a phone-sex god and a legendary hostess-club flirt. Yakuza’s magic is in how it somehow manages to juxtapose the serious business of the high-stakes criminal underworld with the unseemly daftness of a Japanese red-light district. Across seven mainline games and the zombie spin-off Dead Souls, Kazuma Kiryu has beaten up bad guys, beaten sporting rivals, and beaten himself off. By seeing this mad world through his eyes for hundreds of hours across more than a decade, we have come to know him more deeply – sometimes a little too deeply, sure – than any videogame protagonist you can name.
Kiryu makes sense of Kamurocho, a place of absurd, dangerous contrast. Only rarely, when someone has foolishly put those he loves in danger, is he a willing participant in the violence; he doesn’t want to hurt people, just to teach them a lesson, to have them see the error of their ways (many street thugs have, by his hand, promised to clean up their act). While he’s thrown people off rooftops and plunged blades into countless bellies, the story insists he’s never actually killed. He is at once distant from Kamurocho, the only pure heart to be found in a land of blood and sin, and entirely, inextricably part of it. When the story takes us away from Tokyo – to Osaka, Naha, or Onomichi – he grounds it all, the familiar face in a foreign land.
Needless to say, we will miss him, and credit to Yakuza Studio for handling his sendoff with such grace. Even when Yakuza 6 isn’t specifically about Kiryu, it still is, in its way. Parenting is a recurring theme, the complex, tangled family lives of the mobsters with whom he butts heads mirroring his own relationship with Haruka – who, despite being watched over by Japan’s biggest-ever badass, has nonetheless been kidnapped, left comatose and otherwise constantly imperilled because of her association with him. Kiryu’s age, meanwhile, gives rise to a recurring subplot about technology’s forward march, our wrinkled hero struggling to make sense of a world that is changing at pace in ways that often make little sense, be that a view-hungry YouTuber or a smartphone AI assistant that becomes too smart for its own good.
That’s a theme that permeates the entire game, with Kiryu’s ageing form resplendent in the new Yakuza engine, another odd contrast in a game and a world that are full of them. A new protagonist, Kazuga Ichiban, was announced last year, and could barely look more different to his predecessor; mad-haired and wild-eyed, his clothing is a Kiryu palette swap, white shirt under red suit. So far, he’s only been confirmed to star in one game. The forthcoming Yakuza Online, in development for PC and mobile, will be free-to-play and supported by cosmetic microtransactions; we’ve walked the streets of the Tokyo redlight district in the dead of night hundreds of times, but that feels like a dangerous place indeed for this most honourable of series to be headed. Just as Kiryu spends his swan song struggling to adjust to modern technology, so must Sega – and the rest of us – come to terms with what Yakuza looks like when you take away its soul.
Yakuza Studio’s pride in its new engine is clear in the way Yakuza 6 sets a new series record for extreme Kiryu close-ups