A couple years ago, I got drawn into Kazuma Kiryu’s world, the world of Yakuza games, being completely enamored by charismatic characters and the allure of rowdy city streets. The series’ pitch-perfect blend of gripping melodrama and absurdist humor is as consistent as kindhearted tough-guy Kazuma Kiryu getting suckered into his former gang’s illicit business. With Yakuza 5 Remastered out now, alongside the whole Yakuza Remastered Collection, the entire saga is now playable on PlayStation 4. Each entry was memorable in its own right, but Yakuza 5’s opening chapter is the one that will forever be burnt into my memory.
On a calm winter night in Fukuoka, about 700 miles from his home turf of Kamurocho in Tokyo, Kiryu’s chaotic life is shown to have seemingly settled down again. He’s a cab driver assuming a new identity under a different name, appearing to have put decades of his life involved in the yakuza in the past, for real this time. But it’s not just that Kiryu had to move far away to leave the criminal underworld behind, he had to leave everything behind: the kids at his orphanage who relied on him, the people who truly had his back, and even his adoptive daughter Haruka. All of it.
The very first scene shows some familiar yakuza business brewing in Fukuoka with Tojo Clan chairman Daigo Dojima involved, the man Kiryu mentored to take care of the gang. It just so happens that Kiryu picks up Daigo in his cab, followed by cryptic exchanges between the two. In true melodramatic fashion, Daigo acknowledges he knows it’s Kiryu driving, and refers to his undefined drop-off as a metaphor for Daigo having to run the clan himself.
This opening also shows the series at its most cinematic, with the opening credits and a bittersweet tune over your introduction to Kiryu’s mundane life behind the wheel. He talks about his past life in vague terms to those around him in Fukuoka, yet they all understand and respect him. Though none of it is explicitly stated, it’s immediately understood where he’s at in his life.
The gameplay in the first chapter also leans heavily into that narrative core. You don’t necessarily need to go around beating the crap out of goons unless they really deserve it. You go out on a night of drinking with your carefree boss, work at a ramen stand, take people around town in your cab, and transfer funds to your orphanage at the corner store ATM. The kids send heartfelt messages after giving back, and as sad as it is, Kiryu is convinced that his presence only puts them in danger, especially with Haruka growing into a successful pop idol.
At least for the opening hours, you experience both the solace of Kiryu living a normal life and the pain that comes from being detached from those he loves. It’s not like he hasn’t tried something like this before–Yakuza 3 also has Kiryu trying to build a life outside of the seedy streets of Kamurocho, running an orphanage near a small beachfront town. However, gang life and the violence and drama attached to it followed him regardless.
After five whole games of him rarely turning a blind eye to injustice in the street, taking care of those in need, raising Haruka and other kids as his own, Kiryu shows the reluctance of cutting himself off. To the surprise of absolutely no one who plays these games, trouble finds Kiryu and ropes him back into the Tojo Clan’s messy drama, but you see that it’s the hardest he’s fought against the idea of coming back.
That’s just scratching the surface of Yakuza 5–it’s the longest entry in the series, spanning five playable characters across five different locations. You’ll play as Haruka who overcomes the struggles of working as a pop idol through rhythm-game mechanics, and continue the trials and tribulations of Taiga Saejima who has his own gripping arc in snow-covered Hokkaido. Yakuza is one of those series where you’ll want to play them all in sequential order to get the full picture, which you can now do, all on the PS4.