Earlier today, SEGA announced the seventh installment of their flagship Yakuza series. This new game, featuring a completely different protagonist, is also a massive shift in direction for the franchise. Yakuza 7 will not be an action game like its predecessors, but instead a turn based RPG. Understandably, reactions to this change in direction have been mixed. Some fans are willing to give the developers the benefit of the doubt, while others are concerned that it has strayed too far from what makes the series good to begin with.

A look at Yakuza 7’s combat

I am not very familiar with the Yakuza series, but I know someone who is. My friend, let’s call him “Joe”, is a very passionate fan. He is not only well versed in the Yakuza series, but plenty of other gaming related subjects as well. These include Visual Novels, Survival Horror, Point and Click Adventure and Action games. What draws me to him are his passionate opinions and insight into these varied subjects. So when I heard the news of Yakuza’s new direction, I knew I had to ask him about it.

DISCLAIMER: This conversation has been edited to correct grammar mistakes and other issues that could make it harder to read.

Alright, so why don’t you introduce yourself first. What’s your relationship with the Yakuza series? Like, how did you get into it and why? What was so appealing about it from the beginning and what has made you stick with it all this time?

Yo. I’m a local hack who really loves video games. My relationship with Yakuza has been both loving and messy at the same time, but I have no issues.

It all started when I was a kid just picking games randomly for the PS2. Yakuza 1 was one of them. I didn’t get that far into the game outside of doing sub-stories and it fairly confused me back then. Jump cut immediately to 2012, when Yakuza Dead Souls came out. I played the Japanese demo and I simply found the game amusing to check out, but never went farther than that again.

Then, I watched that HyperBitHero Video, where he actually shines all the positives of the games more clearly. I ended up buying all the games and even got Yakuza 5 at full price once it finally released after so long.

To those unaware, HyperBitHero is a fairly prolific Youtube channel. For a time, he uploaded analytical commentary videos where he shone a spotlight on underappreciated games and anime. These include the Yakuza series, NieR and Gravity Rush. He is particularly well known for the videos where he deconstructs and analyzes gaming’s most well known villains. His comparison between Devil May Cry 3’s Vergil and DmC: Devil May Cry’s character of the same name earned him plenty of favor. Though he doesn’t upload much nowadays, Bit still harbors a loyal fanbase.

I love the series thanks to the cast, gameplay, and all the little details they add on each game. The dialogue, with constant callbacks that reward those who play since the start, including the samurai spin-offs, is like having a dedicated team building a series from their heart and referencing like that nostalgic thing you did years prior.

Its a lot like the Ace Attorney series in a way. Like, a lot of people tend to just brush it off as just “Oh, its just a bunch of goofy shenanigans and this is totally unrealistic”, but at the core of that appeal we have a really solid cast of characters and drama that just make the whole thing work really well.

You even feel like you’ve developed a history with the setting itself and it’s locations. Seeing how it changes with new stores, things being built and then turned into an actual scenario in-game. Hell, Kiryu’s moveset is built upon what he learned on the previous game. His roundhouse kick wasn’t at all available on Yakuza 1, it had to be unlocked.

 

Devil May Cry 2 was infamous for its heavier focus on gunplay than combat

 

So its kind of like what Devil May Cry 2 tried to do, where you pretty much had all of the first game’s moves unlocked from the start. With the difference being, of course, that later Yakuza games would keep expanding upon that base while DMC 2 doesn’t really do anything with it.

Not like it matters, DMC2 has the Big Gun Meta.

Yeah, I don’t think any Yakuza game misunderstood its core appeal like DMC 2 did

 

Although, Yakuza 6 did not follow this with its moveset, but I guess that’s because the new engine didn’t allow it that much. Yakuza 6 and the Kiwami games just make me see a lot of issues now days, they aren’t as polished as the whole series was until Zero. Yes, I’m including Dead Souls with its tanking frame rate. Judge Eyes and the Fist of The North Star game made me still love the developer, but as for the series, I’m just weary.

Its great that you say that, because I think that out of most people I know, you have been very outspoken about your views on the franchise and its fans. Which I find interesting, because you’ve sort of had an on and off relationship with it. You speak like a fundamentalist, even though you’ve only been a fan since somewhere around the early 2010s. In fact, your relationship with the Yakuza series reminds me a lot of my own relationship with the Shin Megami Tensei series

To further elaborate on that last point, I’m also kind of weary about ATLUS’ Shin Megami Tensei series of games. I started playing back in 2014 with Shin Megami Tensei IV, not too long after that came out. I loved that game a lot, but after going back through the catalogue of other mainline games, I began to see a few flaws.  Though some recent installments like Persona 5 have pleased me very much, the mainline series has lacked the polish and punk charm that made me love the earlier titles more.

We’re getting a bit ahead of topic now. Going back a little bit, would you say you haven’t been a particularly long time fan of the series? I mean, being a fan of something for about a decade is still a long time, but its not nearly as long as being a fan of the series from day one.

I’m not gonna say that I was fully invested since the actual beginning on the PS2. I just decided one day to play each game in order and let myself see how it builds upon. I did all of this before Zero was released and to see it going far and beyond was beautiful. Like DMC fans finally getting 5.

Would you call yourself a fundamentalist? Or for lack of a better word, an “elitist”?

 

I’m not strict at all. I’m simply dissatisfied with 3 games out of a long running series. It should be normal for series to have some duds.

Which leads me into what I’ve wanted to ask you all along. To establish some background, Yakuza 7 was recently announced and it is a HUGE departure from the rest of the series and I don’t mean that lightly. The series is now changing into a Turn-Based Role Playing game. While the aesthetics are all the same, the gameplay has been irrevocably changed into something that perhaps resembles Persona 5 more than anything else. So what’s your take on all this?

Being honest? I’m interested on how they will do this. If they actually pull it off, it will be great. At it’s core, the series always redefined itself with each entry they make, while keeping the core combat as the base to allowed themselves to experiment with whatever they feel like doing. For example, Yakuza 2 had a sub-story than turns into a Cabaret management mini-game, with a lot of work put into it despite being optional to the actual story. It wasn’t until Yakuza 4 where they bring it back to a more fitting character and more customization. They even brought it back for Yakuza 0 and it was even more improved. It’s all these little things they do, Yakuza 5 having the most of these out of all the games.

They keep experimenting and trying something just to see if it’s fun and lands. Zero was a complete overhaul to the combat and people consider it the peak of the series. Yakuza 6 was another big overhaul, experimenting with their new engine that allowed them to use as many physics as possible during combat, even if the result is much more slower than Zero. Yakuza 7 is not that different from what they usually do, but it is the most extreme approach yet.

What would you say to fans who prefer the original style of combat though?

 

The combat is not completely gone either way. Judge Eyes will carry on with it and the game already proved itself to be the best Dragon Engine game combat-wise. We know its going to continue because it was a surprise hit. A little off-topic, but I believe the JRPG take is a way to make it clear than this is a game about a new protagonist, not about Kiryu. Even if Yakuza 6 made Kiryu more sluggish than he was, but maybe that was just representing him getting old…

Something I noticed is that a lot of fans, both old and new, have voiced their disappointment with the new direction of the franchise. Some have even gone as far to say that it has gone stale. What’s your take on all this? Why do you think you’re more optimistic about this new direction? Or rather, why do you think people are disappointed by this change?

I don’t know what to say about that. If I was rushing through the main story and nothing else, then I would believe it got stale. But Yakuza is a sandbox with lots of interesting side activities to mix it from the combat. I guess if you’re into that jam and just want to kick n’ punch, I suppose there’s a point. I’m optimistic about 7 because I’ve been dissatisfied with the Dragon Engine combat outside of Judge Eyes. A different take with unique characters and gameplay makes me think it would be just like the very first game. If they follow the same philosophy as the rest of the series, we’re in for something great.

From Active Time Battle to Action RPG

Something that we do have to take into consideration is how radical and unprecedented this change is. I mean, we’re no stranger to other franchises changing gears, it happens all the time. But this time the change is so very sudden. It took Final Fantasy at least 9 titles to fully transition from Active Time Battle to being an outright Action RPG. In this case it might even be alienating for anyone who’s been following the series for a while. Its like, what if Devil May Cry became a Strategy RPG instead of the blood pumping action game it used to be. Or if Mario suddenly became a Visual Novel.

Devil May Cry’s identity is all about it’s combat and it’s depth. Yakuza has been…quite hard to describe seeing how many genres it tackles on top being a brawler.

So you would say that Yakuza isn’t necessarily an action game franchise then?

 

Hmmmm, it certainly used to be, but the sandbox is perhaps an even bigger part of the series now, since they’re now ditching it for a different type of combat.

So either way, this change of combat could just be a fresh take while still keeping the same core identity its known for.

I would certainly even call Dead Souls a Yakuza game despite it being a shooter.

Even if it fails, Toshihiro Nagoshi has gone on record saying that he has no problem with going back to the series’ action game roots if this experiment doesn’t go well with fans.

Yeah, they can admit when things don’t go quite as planned.