Game Primers

So you want to get into The Like a Dragon Series: Mainline Series Overview

So you want to get into the Like a Dragon Series: Mainline Series Overview

The Yakuza/Like a Dragon series is kind of like potato chips: Once you play one, you’ll want to play them all! You’ll be stunned at how readily you’ll jump from one 60-hour epic game to the next without a second thought. And if you ever get tired of the critical path of any of them, well, there are always dozens of side activities to occupy yourself with in Kamurocho!


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An Overview of Every Mainline Yakuza/Like a Dragon Game

Most of the overviews below include YouTube videos by GC Vazquez (one of the authors of this primer). So if you want heavy spoilers and a deep analysis of the themes of each game (there might also be some singing — we do what we must for engagement), check out the videos!

Yakuza

Platforms: PS2, PS3, Wii U
Original Release: December 8th, 2005 (JP), September 5th, 2006 (NA)

Yakuza Kiwami

Platforms: PS3, PS4, PC, XB1
Original Release: January 21st, 2016 (JP), August 29th, 2017 (NA)
Our Reviews: PS4, PC

Yakuza Kiwami screenshot of two men's full back tattoos, one of a carp, and one am ornate dragon.
The Carp, The Dragon, A little girl, and ten billion yen.

The Tojo Clan is in crisis! Kazuma Kiryu, an up-and-coming member of the Dojima family, takes the blame for the murder of his patriarch, a crime actually committed by his best friend, Akira Nishikiyama. Returning to his home of Kamurocho, Tokyo after spending ten years in prison, Kiryu is shocked to discover his best friend is now a ruthless yakuza boss, and his love, Yumi, has been missing for years. Desperately navigating shifting loyalties and alliances to reunite with his beloved, Kiryu finds himself pulled into a vast yakuza conspiracy that will reshape the future of the Tojo Clan forever.

Yakuza, and by extension Yakuza Kiwami, is about as grounded a story as you will get in this series, with much of the narrative focusing on the Tojo Clan’s internal politics and how Haruka factors into the antagonists’ enigmatic schemes. In both games, you can expect a fairly typical crime drama full of suspense and political tensions. And maybe one underground colosseum. And a secret network of cameras and spies. Maybe.


Yakuza 2

Platforms: PS2, PS3, Wii U
Original Release: December 7th, 2006 (JP), September 9th, 2008 (NA)

Yakuza Kiwami 2

Platforms: PS4, PC, XB1
Original Release: December 7th, 2017 (JP), August 28th, 2018 (NA)
Our Reviews: PS4, PC

Yakuza Kiwami 2 screenshot looking at Kiryu's full back dragon tattoo as he sits up in a dimly-lit bedroom.
A survivor’s guilt. A dragon reborn.

The Tojo Clan is in crisis! After the events of the first game, the Dragon of Dojima, Kazuma Kiryu, has settled down to take care of his lost love Yumi’s daughter. But after the assassination of the fifth chairman of the Tojo, he is pulled into a cold war between the weakened remnants of his former clan and a powerful rival yakuza organization, the Omi Alliance. Desperate to find a way to defuse tensions before all-out war erupts, Kiryu finds himself in direct conflict with his counterpart in the Omi Alliance, Ryuji Goda, the Dragon of Kansai. Their struggle will turn friends into foes, test the strongest loyalties, and in the end, reshape the future of the Tojo Clan forever.

Yakuza 2 is widely considered one of the best entries in the series, and an incredible sequel to the original. All the pieces come together in a remarkably satisfying way, with the events of the previous game throwing Kiryu into a disarray of survivor’s guilt and remorse. His quest for absolution turns the turmoil between the criminal factions into an existential journey where characters he meets represent aspects of his identity. Yakuza 2 is a deep dive into our protagonist’s mind, giving the more ridiculous, over-the-top moments (such as Osaka Castle splitting in half to open the way for a bigger, golden Osaka Castle to rise from it) a more abstract quality than in other entries.

Kiwami 2 isn’t as faithful as its remake predecessor: a great deal of original content was cut, licensed music was removed—including a song essential to the best scene in the game—and Kaoru Sayama’s voice actor was replaced with someone new. Kiwami 2 was also made in the relatively new Dragon Engine, resulting in drastic changes to combat and gameplay. All of this means continuing the series from here into the slightly-more-dated Yakuza 3 can feel somewhat awkward, remastered or not. At any rate, Yakuza 2 is thoroughly engaging from start to finish, and essential to your time with the series.


Yakuza 3

Platforms: PS3, PS4, PC, XB1
Original Release: February 26th, 2009 (JP), March 9th, 2010 (NA)
Our Reviews: PS4

Yakuza 3 screenshot of two men approaching Kiryu, who is looking onward with determination.
An emotional rollercoaster of melodrama. Just… don’t look too closely at Kiryu’s face.

The Tojo Clan is in crisis! The Dragon of Dojima, Kazuma Kiryu, has fully retired from the yakuza world to run an orphanage in Okinawa, the southernmost island of Japan. Unfortunately, a billion-yen land deal has put his orphanage in the middle of a Tojo civil war. Fighting to protect the children in his care, Kiryu must return to Kamurocho to save his orphanage and, in doing so, reshape the future of the Tojo Clan forever.

One of the more empathetically gratifying Yakuza titles, Yakuza 3’s emotional core is the strongest of its peers and the main attraction for players looking for the raw passion touted by fans.

Yakuza 3 is when Kiryu goes from hardened ex-yakuza to endearing father (or as we like to call him, Yakuza Dad). Much of the game centers around his relationship with his orphan wards and the budding relationship he begins to form with Rikiya, a young yakuza captain who idolizes him.

It’s also here where Yakuza’s commentary on toxic masculinity reaches its peak. The antagonists of Yakuza 3 represent multiple aspects of problematic masculinity, with the final boss representing the dangers of bottled-up emotions under the weight of societal expectations. The importance of brotherhood and intimacy between men is celebrated as machismo, and the pecking order is blamed for the inevitable tragedies. This entry is also the more schmaltzy of the group, in the best way possible. Melodramatic climaxes will leave you laughing, cheering, and bawling your eyes out before asking, “How long is this cutscene…” then laughing some more.

Though Yakuza 3’s jump in console generation from PS2 to PS3 was a revolution of gameplay and immersion in 2009, it’s a little rougher when played today. Though it looks like more modern entries of the series, expect aspects of Kamurocho and the fighting system to feel comparatively undercooked. Otherwise, Yakuza 3 is more of the minigame-filled, wacky-substory-laden, hell-of-a-good-time.


Yakuza 4

Platforms: PS3, PS4, PC, XB1
Original Release: March 18th, 2010 (JP), March 15th, 2011 (NA)
Our Reviews: PS4

Side view close-up of the faces of the four male protagonists of Yakuza 4 looking up in the sky dramatically.
Yakuza 4 is Ryu Ga Gotoku‘s “Avengers” moment.

The Tojo Clan is in crisis! With Chairman Daigo Dojima weakened by recent events (basically, everything that happened in the previous three games), the Ueno Seiwa clan looks to take advantage by moving into Kamurocho. The plot unfolds through the stories of four different protagonists, each with their own chapters. Along with Kiryu is Akiyama, a loan shark with a heart of gold; Tanimura, a corrupt cop with a heart of gold; and Saejima, a convicted murderer on death row with a heart of gold. Together, they uncover a web of betrayal, murder, and tragedy that will reshape the future of the Tojo Clan forever.

Your mileage with Yakuza 4 entirely depends on your tolerance for plot contrivances. While the twists and turns would be enough to send a criminal investigator (or first-year creative-writing instructor) into a tailspin, it delivers on a grander scale.

Yakuza 4 is a fantastic examination of the intersection between organized crime and institutions of government, and how power structures manipulate people at the bottom to serve the ruling class. Its playable characters reside in different parts of the system. Each of their stories explores the extent of their agency in it and, ultimately, how they are powerless when acting alone against the injustices they wish to prevent.

Yakuza 4 introduces several gameplay changes, including a more flexible leveling system and unique fighting styles for each character. While the constantly shifting move-set might turn some people away, going from aggressive kick-focused combos to charge-based slams and knockdowns to skills centered around parries and counters keeps combat fresh and novel. Each protagonist also has a unique side activity, with substories focused on fleshing out their identities. All these gameplay, storytelling, and combat innovations set the stage for the modern iterations of the series yet to come.


Yakuza 5

Platforms: PS3, PS4, PC, XB1
Original Release: December 6th, 2012 (JP), December 8th, 2015 (NA)
Our Reviews: PS4

A man points a gun directly at the viewer as two other men (in a suit, and jacket) look on seriously.
Yakuza 5 is the largest Yakuza to date, and well worth the time investment.

The Tojo Clan is in crisis! The prospect of a new chairman of the Omi Alliance has driven Tojo Chairman Daigo Dojima to seek alliances with other yakuza families across Japan. But after he goes missing, Kiryu Kazuma (now a cab driver) is pulled back into the criminal underworld he so desperately tried to escape. Meanwhile, Kiryu’s adopted daughter, Haruka, is an up-and-coming idol in Sōtenbori, hiding her connection to her Yakuza Dad. Along with the perpetual prisoner Saejima, the moneylender with a heart of gold Akiyama, and a newcomer, the disgraced former pro baseball player Shinada, they will untangle a web of conspiracy that will reshape the future of the Tojo Clan forever.

It’s time for a massive step forward in the series. Yakuza 5 is arguably the prototype for what the series would become moving forward.

RGG Studio debuted a brand-new engine for this game, and it shows. There’s more content in Yakuza 5 than most people know what to do with! There is the astonishingly comprehensive theming about dreams and desires, the incredible depth of every character’s side quest, and the sheer size of the five cities featured. Yakuza 5 is the longest, the biggest, and the most ambitious of the series, and completionists will exhaust themselves trying to do everything in it.

This entry also features some of Yakuza’s most effective emotional pulls, with relatable story arcs from the cast focusing on the loss and inheritance of dreams. The cutscene direction is dramatically improved. The graphical improvements to the engine allow body language and silence to better communicate the emotion of characters, and the framing of scenes is much better than in previous games. With these changes, the storytelling and character relationships carry an undercurrent of subtlety that was difficult to convey up to this point in the Yakuza series.

While the hallmark of experience and care is at the front of Yakuza 5’s storytelling, the wild-and-out nature of the series is still strong: fighting a demonic bear, snowmobile rides through a snowstorm, and street racing in a taxi cab only make up the first ten hours of Yakuza 5, and there is so, so much more awaiting you. If you’ve ever dreamed of being an idol, that dream is about to be fulfilled!


Yakuza 0

Platforms: PS3, PS4, PC, XB1
Original Release: March 12th, 2015 (JP), January 24th, 2017 (NA)
Our Reviews: PS4, PC

Yakuza 0 screenshot of Kiryu dressed in a gleaming white suit on a disco dance floor reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever.
Come on, name a more iconic image from the 80s. I’ll wait…

The Tojo Clan is in crisis! The year is 1988. After Kazuma Kiryu, a low-level enforcer for the Dojima family, is framed for murder, he finds himself drawn into a fight over the sale of a tiny piece of land that will determine which yakuza family controls Kamurocho, Tokyo. Meanwhile, in Sōtenbori, Osaka, Goro Majima is the celebrated manager of the most popular cabaret club in town, The Grand. Unfortunately, all he wants is to be let back into the yakuza after being kicked out over a mistake he made a year earlier. Offered a chance to rejoin the Tojo Clan if he pulls off a successful assassination, Majima soon discovers there is more to his target than meets the eye. As the stories of these two men slowly start to converge, they uncover a conspiracy of betrayal, heartache, and family that will make them into yakuza legends and reshape the future of the Tojo Clan forever.

Yakuza 0 is the fan favorite of the series, and for good reason. A prequel set almost a decade before the events of the first title, 0 is a tightly-packed collection of the best features in the bunch.

The multiple fighting styles between several playable characters in 4 and 5 have been consolidated into two characters through the use of style-switching. This makes fighting in 0 much more engaging, as you can quickly adapt to new strategies with the push of a button. The special HEAT moves found here are incredibly brutal, stylish, and plentiful; there’s always some new hardcore finisher to discover in ’88 Kamurocho, and there’s always money to burn (literally).

Leaning into Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s, Yakuza 0 uses currency as a universal resource for leveling up, buying equipment, and engaging in side activities. It then makes this resource precious, throwing all kinds of threats at the player to take it away from them, including a giant man in a fedora. This is not a joke. He will take every last yen from you, and getting it back will challenge your skills beyond any boss previously featured in the series.

Yakuza 0 is also the first time in the mainline games when players take control of Majima, and RGG Studio completely knocks it out of the park. Majima is such a compelling character that he might as well be the protagonist of a story where Kiryu just sort of shows up from time to time. You’ll bear witness to his internal and external conflicts, taking him on the journey to becoming the Mad Dog of Shimano we recognize today.

As stated before, Yakuza 0 is a great entry point for new players, but it’s also one of the best-written entries. Its combination of financial stress and a narrative revolving around private property ownership and generating capital during Japan’s economic boom is a fantastic commentary on short-term capitalist ideologies and the many ways it disregards human life in the process. Regardless if you invest time in the rest, 0 is the “must-play” of the bunch. It doesn’t get any more Yakuza than this!


Yakuza 6: The Song of Life

Platforms: PS4, PC, XB1
Original Release: December 8th, 2016 (JP), April 17th, 2018 (NA)
Our Reviews: PS4, PC

Yakuza 6 screenshot of Kiryu standing in a convenience store near packaged lunches holding a toddler.
Yakuza 6 is a messy entry, and incredibly problematic in many central ways.

The Tojo Clan is in crisis! Due to sweeping new yakuza laws, the sixth chairman and all his lieutenants are arrested, leaving a power vacuum that every other organization in Kamurocho looks to fill. Meanwhile, after his own three-year stint in jail, Dragon of Dojima Kazuma Kiryu discovers his adopted daughter Haruka has gone missing. Returning to Kamurocho, Kiryu finds himself once again pulled into a yakuza conspiracy: one that Haruka and a mysterious one-year-old baby are at the center of. With the baby in tow, our Yakuza Dad embarks on a journey to discover what happened to Haruka since her disappearance, but the answers he will find may end up reshaping the future of the Tojo Clan forever.

Yakuza 6 is arguably the most complicated and divisive entry in the series to date, while also housing some of the best gameplay and side activities in the series’ history.

As the first title in the series to utilize the Dragon Engine, it takes advantage of newfound flexibility to give players fully fleshed-out gameplay demos under the guise of its traditional minigames. A light gun rail shooter with several levels and weapon selection. A functional baseball management game where you scout players (a la Final Fantasy X’s glorious Blitzball) and play against multiple teams. These are just two examples of the in-depth side activities Yakuza 6 uses to flex the power of its new engine, tantalizing the audience with the promise of future games adding and improving to the existing framework. Just be warned: Being simultaneously the first game to use a new engine meant for next-gen consoles and the last game featuring Kazuma Kiryu creates an awkward combination of new and old.

Yakuza 6 is difficult to recommend as an entry point and a strange experience for well-weathered players of the series. The Dragon of Dojima’s last hurrah is one with a comparatively limited array of HEAT moves and a fighting system not many are fond of; a bittersweet farewell. Unfortunately, Yakuza 6 also prominently features many of the issues plaguing the series: the mistreatment of women and non-Japanese people is aggressive here, including essentially fridging Haruka in her final (and arguably her most important) appearance.

But as the first Dragon Engine Yakuza, it still lays the foundation for future titles in the series and says goodbye to an inspirational father figure fans fondly adore. This goodbye is divisive and marred by a plethora of issues, so mileage will definitely vary on whether or not you walk away from Yakuza 6 in good spirits.


Yakuza: Like a Dragon

Platforms: PS4, PS5, XB1, XBSX, PC
Original Release: January 16th, 2020 (JP), November 10th, 2020 (NA)
Our Reviews: PS5, PC

Yakuza: Like a Dragon screenshot of a menu-driven turn-based battle between Ichiban, two Ramblin' Men, a Steamed Punk, and a Punkling (yes, these are real enemy names).
Beating someone into unconsciousness with an oversized “personal massager?” Yup, it’s a Yakuza game, alright!

The Tojo Clan has fallen! Eighteen years after being sent to jail for a murder he didn’t commit, ex-yakuza Ichiban Kasuga returns to Kamurocho to find the Omi Alliance in charge. Worse, his former Tojo Patriarch, Arakawa, is now their second-in-command! After being betrayed and shot by Arakawa, Ichiban finds himself exiled and homeless in Yokohama’s Isezaki Ijincho district. Determined to discover the truth of the Tojo Clan’s downfall, Ichi decides to become a hero, just like in his favorite RPG, Dragon Quest. Joined by a party of friends and allies, he will face urban dungeons, slimy enemies, and never-ending side quests to uncover the truth and, maybe, restore the Tojo Clan to its rightful place forever!

If you’re looking for a perfect jumping-on-point or want to convert classic JRPG fans to the series, then Yakuza: Like a Dragon is for you!

LaD is a fresh start for the series, starring new characters and primarily taking place in an entirely new location: Isezaki Ijincho, a fictional version of the real-world Isezakichō district in Yokohama. Unlike all other entries of Yakuza, Like a Dragon offers a turn-based battle system as you’d find in traditional JRPGs. When you run into enemies on the streets, your party enters into a menu-driven fight that looks more like Dragon Quest, but surprisingly, the overall feel is still decidedly Yakuza. The over-the-top HEAT actions in the series have been mapped onto “spells,” showing you hilarious and brutal cinematics when you engage an enemy. If you happen to run by a bicycle on your way to attack, the character will likely pick it up to bash your opponent into submission. It’s a deeply satisfying battle system that, while occasionally buggy, perfectly fits with the new story and characters while still running true to Yakuza’s sensibilities.

Even with these gameplay departures, LaD holds true to one of the most basic tenets of Yakuza: providing an incredible amount of side content to distract from the overall story! Who needs to uncover the truth of the Tojo Clan’s downfall when you have a karaoke bar, cinema, business-management minigame, and a full-blown cart racer (Not to mention, of course, mahjong)?

The game also takes significant steps in addressing long-standing criticisms of the series, in many ways pulling it into the 21st century (though it still has a ways to go). Ichiban is decidedly not Kiryu, and his less-conservative worldview will change how even the most experienced players view the series.

Like a Dragon is a departure, to be sure, but it still holds true to the spirit of the series while giving it a new start. And if you miss the brawler-style combat, well, there are always the spin-offs!


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Giancarlo Vazquez

Giancarlo Vazquez

Obsessed with the nuanced differences between battle mechanics, Giancarlo Vazquez spoke on them for so long he started writing about them. His writing eventually found itself on RPGFan.