Getting into a series with eight mainline entries and far too many spin-offs is never easy. Where do you start with something like Yakuza? Apparently - and expectedly - the first game released is a good bet, but so is the prequel 0, and so is the brand-new Like a Dragon. Three very different starting points. Luckily, I stuck with my gut and started at the (chronological) beginning with 0. If I hadn’t, I’m not sure I would’ve enjoyed Kiwami and the chapters that were to follow. It’s the perfect introduction to this world and its characters.
Yakuza Kiwami - itself a remake of the PS2 original - is confusing. You’re introduced to a bunch of random criminal overlords who immediately die, and a sworn brother who suddenly twists into a villain. That initial pre-prison Kazuma Kiryu prologue is so quick that you couldn’t possibly grasp how much the entire Tojo clan changed in the ten years our protagonist has been locked away. It’s rushed and lacks crucial background.
But with the context of 0, I knew who Sohei Dojima was, the tight bond Nishiki and Kiryu had, how different Majima had become, and how far the Tojo clan had fallen. Without that vital context, I’d have been playing catch-up for several chapters as I scrambled to figure out who was who and why these obscure figureheads that died at the beginning were so important. 0 tells that story, diving deeper into Kiryu’s past to explore his relationship with Nishiki while also giving Majima much more character. He’s not just this eccentric masochist but a tragic and abused figure, someone who was put through the wringer and had to come out of it laughing to cope. His turn at 0’s conclusion might have felt rushed, but because of it, Kiwami has so much more weight.
0 sets the stage for Kiwami and the other games to follow. The Tojo clan is in its prime and thriving so much so that the family heads are living lavish lives with little worry, scrambling for a plot of tiny land of all things. It feels much smaller in scale than the stories that come after but that makes the Tojo clan feel so much bigger. They’re settled, stronger than ever, and it’s all about the finer details. To see that grandiose Yakuza faction fall to disarray as we see it in Kiwami and Kiwami 2, where the clan is on its last legs, warring with its neighbours, and struggling to keep rank, makes the leap from Kiwami’s prologue to Kiryu’s release much more impactful. But it also makes Kiryu’s importance in the story feel that much more earned.
His absence hurts the clan. Nishiki doesn’t have someone to lean on and loses himself while there’s nobody to kick the family heads up the backside when they’re being idiots. Kiryu is clearly important, something that the clan realises by Kiwami 2, and 0 puts all of that into perspective. Kiryu becomes a civilian, gets a target on his back from the clan, and somehow survives, clears his name, and restores the Tojo clan back to its former glory. He fends off all odds and earns his reputation as the Dragon of Dojima, a legendary figure among yakuza - it’s shown, not told. Kiwami meanwhile doesn’t let us see that beyond giving us every ability and upgrade off the bat, which is much more game-y than the narrative-focused 0.
But beyond Kiryu and the Tojo clan’s fall, the empty plot that 0 focuses so narrowly on brings Kamurocho to life as its own character in its own right. It’s this dingy little town in 0 with drab streets, muddied allies, sketchy back lots, and little yakuza dens dotted about. For all the Tojo clan’s niceties, Kamurocho is hardly a gleaming gem to call home. But that plot and the renovation plan that people are literally dying over comes to fruition and suddenly Kamurocho booms. By Kiwami, it’s a bright neon city with a towering skyscraper in its heart and the streets cleaned up, and then history repeats itself with Majima’s own construction plans. Seeing that growth from the dreary little town to a renowned city parallels Kiryu’s own growth in character, something the jump from 0 to Kiwami highlights like no other Yakuza game.
I can’t imagine starting at Kiwami, meeting a bunch of random people that immediately die, thrown into a city I barely know, and I wouldn’t recommend that as a starting place for anyone. If you’re gonna try Yakuza, which you absolutely should, go for 0. Nishiki and Kiryu’s relationship is a beautiful gut-wrencher that deserved so much more time in the sun and thank god that they got it, Majima is in his prime and the best he’s ever been, given far more story to chew, and the foundation is laid for the Tojo clan’s long and ever-growing history.