The only JRPG I’d played before last year was Tales of Berseria and the odd Pokemon, and while I loved them, it wasn’t enough to make me dive headfirst into the genre. But in 2022, I finally got into Yakuza and powered through seven games in only a few months—not only was I hooked on Kiryu, Kamurocho, the Tojo clan, and all the rooftop finales you could ever want, it also enticed me to finally beat two Final Fantasy games, buy Shenmue, and try Kingdom Hearts. I even have Persona 3 and Xenoblade lined up on my backlog.
A lot of JRPGs have incredibly long runtimes, but you can get through a Yakuza game in around 20 to 30 hours. That’s always been a hurdle for me when it comes to the genre, because I know I’ll get burnt out and it’ll leave a bad aftertaste in my mouth. Take Persona 5’s gargantuan, 100-hour runtime—I played the intro, but as soon as I found out I was going to be stuck playing this one game for that long, I bowed out. For newcomers to the genre, something breezy is the perfect way to find your feet, as it’s not too harsh a commitment. Maybe you’ll like it, maybe you won’t, but you won’t have to stick around for 39 Godfather-worths of game.
Yakuza is even shorter if you stick to the main story, and you won’t become underleveled or fall to the wayside because you didn’t spend time doing side content. That’s because its combat is built on the back of fighting games like Virtua Fighter and Shenmue which makes it inherently familiar and approachable to newcomers and old-timers. While it’s not a side-on view, as you’re thrown into small 3D spaces like most JRPGs, it shares its foundation. There are combos—complex and simple—and blocking, building up your heat (which plays a lot like Mortal Kombat’s X-Ray ability), with environmental hazards ready for you to lob at enemies. You’ll be able to pull off some impressive chain attacks if you know what you’re doing, but if you haven’t played a fighter, the old adage applies—button mash.
However, the side content is worth digging into, as it sheds light on what makes JRPGs so great. They tell gut wrenching stories that’ll bring you to tears, with character drama that puts most other genres to shame, but they also aren’t afraid to be silly. You’ll find a gang of Yakuza wearing diapers and being coddled, sing karaoke with your sworn brother, and get dragged into the filming of a show, masquerading as a producer. It’s a nice bit of levity between the heavier moments that Yakuza manages to balance so effortlessly.
Yakuza also sticks with its characters, something series like Tales of, Persona, and Final Fantasy don’t. They’re anthologies that have a new cast and world each game, barring spin-offs and individual sequels. It works, giving each one more room to experiment and come up with new and unique ideas, but Yakuza following one story makes it much easier to get into, since you’ll be able to learn the ins and outs of JRPGs with familiar faces through the series. Over time, you grow incredibly familiar with not only Kiryu, Majima, and Date, but Kamurocho itself.
Before I played, I’d heard over and over that the city was its own character, and I thought that sounded like a load of pretentious bullshit. But they were right. Seeing Kamurocho grow over the games is a huge part of the charm, seeing how you—Kiryu—and the story impact the world time and time again.
Getting familiar with Yakuza’s smaller world only makes it easier to pick up a new entry in the series. By Kiwami, it’ll be like a second home, and by the third, fourth, and fifth games, you’ll barely need the minimap. And as a new tower crops up, building sites level whole sections you once knew, and things begin to modernise, you get to watch Kiryu grow from a naive kid to a hardened dad who knows how to steer the ship in a way nobody else does. But if you only fancy playing the one, each game wraps up neatly enough. There’s no obligation to stick with it—no commitment.
If you haven’t played a JRPG, you need to. The genre has been home to some of the most heartfelt stories in games for decades now, with Yakuza being one of the best in that already incredibly strong line-up. And while 100 hour long mechanic-heavy adventures can be off-putting, Yakuza is far more simple, making it a great way to ease yourself into those more complex games. Go with 0, go with Kiwami, or go with Like a Dragon—it doesn’t matter, just pick up a Yakuza and see if JRPGs are for you.
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