The Yakuza series is finally being embraced by gamers around the world, which is probably why you're here looking for the best Yakuza games. After staying in the shadows as something of a niche curiosity for much of its life, the on-going Japanese franchise erupted into mainstream consciousness back in 2018 when Yakuza 0’s phenomenal localisation allowed a whole new generation of gamers to pick up the story of Kazuma Kiryu and see what all the (well-deserved) fuss is about.
Each game is filled to the brim with pop culture references and injected with a gameplay loop that’ll have you hooked from the moment you pick up the pad. The entire series is finished off with production values that’ll have you nodding quietly in admiration, whether you’re picking up one of the older titles in the series or one of the more modern remasters.
You’ll come for the high-stakes drama that underpins each of the game’s stories, and you’ll stay for the amazingly intricate urban locales each title introduces you to. The series has come a long way since it was first introduced to western audiences in 2006, and we’re here to rundown the worst to the best Yakuza games in the series.
9. Yakuza: Dead Souls (2012)
Many may know the Yakuza series for Kiryu – the strong, stoic pacifist is the very definition of a Byronic hero, after all – but most people would say the series’ second-most iconic feature is the setting of Kamurocho. Inspired by the Shinjuku suburb of Kabukicho. Yakuza as a series manages to make the place feel like a virtual home from home for players that have followed the games loyally since the beginning.
So perhaps it was only a matter of time until SEGA decided that a non-canon spin-off that filled the lovely little suburb with zombies was a good idea. Yakuza: Dead Souls is happy to swap out Kiryu’s melee mastery for machine guns and assault rifles – but that’s about as different as it gets from the mainline games. The city is still teeming with eccentric goofballs and surprisingly personal stories… they’re just not as memorable as anything else in the series.
8. Yakuza 3 (2009)
The first game in the series to arrive on the PlayStation 3, Yakuza 3 really showed off just what developer RGG Studio could do with all that new processing power. The minigames increased in number, the city grew in scope and in depth, and the story ramped up even more. Where the serious side of the game got more dramatic, the silly side got even sillier. If you ever want to play a game where the inspiration for fighting moves comes from writing a blog on your mobile phone, Yakuza 3 is for you.
Sadly, the game’s transition from Japan to Western shores saw a fair amount of content cut thanks to cultural differences: SEGA thought that a Japanese history quiz and a minigame set in a hostess club didn’t marry too well with sensibilities on our shores. Maybe the publisher was right, too, but the end result leaves Yakuza 3 feeling a little declawed and strangely structured in the West.
7. Judgment (2019)
It may not be a Yakuza game in name, but Judgment is a canonical part of the Yakuza series – and it’s even set in the same district that most of the Yakuza-based action takes place in, Kamurocho. You’re put in the shoes of lawyer-turned-detective Takayuki Yagami as he investigates a series of gruesome crimes taking place in the bustling town. You run into yakuza and thugs during your investigation, too, tying the Judgement and Yakuza game worlds together quite nicely.
The investigation mechanics may be shallow and some of the tailing missions may be frustrating, but Judgement does have its charms. Between a genuine sense of intrigue thrown up by the main plot and some pretty solid combat sections, it’s hard to dislike this hyperactive spin-off. The decent writing overshadows any gameplay complaints you may experience.
6. Yakuza 4 (2011)
Now that the series had had time to establish itself and find its feet, it was time to go big: the previous trilogy of games had laid the foundations for a story that was at once camp and serious, and iterations on the fighting mechanics and combat had landed somewhere that wasn’t too unwieldy. Yakuza was ready to bring out the big guns.
In Yakuza 4, RGG Studio shifted the focus off Kiryu alone and placed your firmly in the shoes of three other protagonists, too: an oddly selfless loan shark called Shun Akiyama, an ill-tempered ex-con called Taiga Saejima, and a dirty cop called Masayoshi Tanimura. Though the game’s tone and story can get a bit confused thanks to its split focus, if you persevere, you can absolutely unearth some of that trademark Yakuza heart in the middle of all this narrative bloat.
5. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (2018)
The conclusion of Kiryu’s story perhaps comes with the most serious and depressing setup. After playing as your erstwhile protagonist’s daughter, Haruka, in previous games, The Song of Life very quickly subjects you to a grim hit-and-run incident that sees Haruka shunted into a coma. Kiryu, now taking care of his grandson Haruto, is out for revenge.
The gameplay in Yakuza 6 is something of a departure from previous titles: Kiryu’s various fighting styles are merged into one seamless set of melee moves, and the developers opted to travel in a more RPG-inspired route when it comes to progression and character development. This, perhaps, set the scene for the upcoming Yakuza: Like a Dragon – a game that’ll move to turn-based combat instead of the series’ traditional real-time action.
4. Yakuza Kiwami (2016)
Yakuza Kiwami is a retread of the very first game in the series, rebuilt in the Dragon Engine and retouched here and there to make it more playable (and relevant) on modern tech. The questionable fighting mechanics in the original game have been updated so they’re more in line with modern titles, and some of the localisation has been improved, to boot. As a result, what was originally an endearing-but-flawed crime drama becomes an engaging and ludicrous tour of Kamurocho.
Majima evolves from a cold-blooded, under-developed rival that exists only as a rival force to Kiryu and becomes a lovable character in his own right; driven by both his love of combat and his (confusing) love of Kiryu. This is a game full of heart, and you can see how it spawned the enduring Yakuza phenomenon that followed.
3. Yakuza Kiwami 2 (2018)
Rebuilt in the Yakuza 6 engine and made more accessible to players wanting to get caught up on Kiryu’s full story, Yakuza Kiwami 2 isn’t content to simply retread old ground. Instead, SEGA and RGG Studio pumped the game full with more sub-stories, a whole new Majima section and more bonus features, to boot. If you’re planning to jump into the series with Yakuza 0, the preposterous “Majima Everywhere” feature in both Kiwami and Kiwami 2 will educate and entertain you in equal measure.
If you’ve played Yakuza 2 before, Kiwami 2 is absolutely still worth a play: enhanced cutscenes, better-looking environments and more fluid combat make this a bigger, badder and bolder experience than the PS2 classic. Come for all the upgrades, stay for the playable Virtua Fighter 2.1 arcade cabinets.
2. Yakuza 5 (2012)
Yakuza 5 benefits from everything that came before it: every single Yakuza title that was developed en-route to Yakuza 5 contributed something to this stunner of a game. Perhaps as a nod to the eponymous number, you have five mind-boggling cities to explore and five characters to control as you unpick the game’s surprisingly intimate storyline with more freedom than you’ve ever had in a Yakuza game before.
The best moments in the game speak for themselves, really: you can fight a bear, you can look behind the curtain of what it really means to be a famous idol, or you can take up a job as a down-and-out taxi driver to really get a glimpse at Japan’s urban underbelly. And you can pretty much do it all in your own time. The dream!
1. Yakuza 0 (2016)
We’re ending where it all began. Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the events in the rest of the series, and it’s actually a great entry point for anyone wanting to start exploring what the series is all about. Played from the perspective of both mainstay protagonist Kiryu and his erstwhile rival Goro Majima, you could ask for no better introduction into the world and tone of Yakuza as a whole than in this campy, emotional and dramatic 80s romp.
From genuinely heart-wrenching interactions with the city’s down and out vagabonds to some properly funny send-ups of 80s icons (we’re looking at you, “Miracle Johnson”), Yakuza 0 shifts from the absurd to the sublime with deft ease. Perhaps the most celebratory, joyful and sardonic of all the Yakuza games, this absolute delight of a title is even available to sample on Xbox Games Pass. There’s no excuse not to dive in right now.