What makes Sega’s Yakuza games the kings of the living, breathing open world? A pinch of love, a dash of passion, and the fascinating real-life counterpart Kabukicho.
As has been mentioned previously by the greatest showperson in games media, James Stephanie Sterling, open worlds in this generation of video games have gotten bigger and bigger, sacrificing substance for scope.
The recent explosion in popularity of Sega’s long-running Yakuza (Ryu ga Gotoku) franchise in the West, however, has demonstrated the importance of a compact open world, full to the brim with engaging missions, aesthetic details, and above all: charm. Buckets and buckets of charm.
Not too long ago, I spent my morning playing one of the best games in the series — Yakuza Kiwami 2 — and my afternoon shopping for books in Shinjuku’s Kinokuniya.
Whilst there I was struck by an overwhelming sense of deja vu as the digital world of Yakuza’s Kamurocho and Shinjuku’s historic little town-within-a-town, Kabukicho, blended eerily in my mind.
Above is a quick shot of Kabukicho’s iconic neon red signage, and below is our beloved Kiryu posing beneath Kamurocho’s alternative.
It’s more than likely that Kabukicho was chosen as the inspiration for the Yakuza series, in part, because of its recent history of active yakuza presence in the district, and also because of its overwhelming amount of clubs, bars, and restaurants.
Kabukicho breathes modern-day Tokyo. Chaotic and vibrant, it is overrun 24/7 by tourists, drunken salarymen, and Tokyo’s most niche and quirky denizens.
For our British readers, its closest brother in the UK would be London’s fabulous Camden Town.
Through painstaking attention to detail, meticulous recreation of streets and alleys, storefronts and subway exits, posters and shop signs, Sega have managed the nigh-impossible feat of translating the beating heart of the vivid and colourful Kabukicho into their beloved franchise.
And the love with which this has been accomplished shows in every nook and cranny.
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Even the subway exits and Japan’s famous anxiety-inducing superstore, Don Quijote, have been perfectly recreated by the team at Sega.
Since Yakuza Zero was heaped with praise by critics across the board last year, the franchise has become an obsession of mine.
Playing each new Yakuza game has brought me more unbridled joy and excitement than I’ve experienced from a video game series since I first tasted death in Dark Souls.
Yakuza is an important series. It is a labour of love and attention. It is also a lesson for so many American and European games developers who sadly continue to misunderstand what makes an ‘open world’ work.
A map cluttered with mindless busywork and useless collectibles; a world that spreads beyond the horizon but is lacking in anything engaging to do and memorable to see; these do not a great game make.
Kamurocho is not a vast landscape; it is a handful of city blocks. And in each one, a player can truly lose him or herself for hours.
Those hours might be spent completing strange, unique, and memorable side-quests.
They might be time that the player doesn’t even notice has passed because they were so busy simply marvelling at the little distractions that Sega has included.
Puddles that reflect the neon signs; stores and restaurants that can be entered and left seamlessly, with NPCs emotively yelling, ‘Irashaimase!’ every time Kiryu takes a seat or browses the shelves.
Since switching to a new and more beautiful engine, Kiryu even walks as default through the streets, encouraging the player to slow down and take it all in. ‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ asks Sega. Yes, Sega, it really is.
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