Yakuza combat is awesome because it’s a fighting game at heart


X, X, X, Y, pow. The thug is thrown to the ground. B. I caught him, and now I’m throwing him and throwing him at his buddies. Y. I blasted with full-throttle heat capability, yielding his head into a brick wall. It’s brutal, but as soon as the fight is over, he straightens up and apologizes with nothing but a bruised ego.

Yakuza might be a JRPG that lets you explore the open streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, but its brawler-inspired combat feels more like a fighting game. There are the signature quirky combos, devastating moves that would definitely kill enemies in any other game, and over-the-top introductions to boss fights that even Heihachi or M. Bison would think were a bit too much. You don’t just kick heads and shoot guns like in GTA, you roundhouse kick yakuza and spray foam in Men In Black’s eyes while Kuze rides a motorbike with a lead pipe. I can almost hear the announcer shout “FIGHT!”


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We often complain that Yakuza combat is too arcadey and relies on button mash, but that’s the charm. This isn’t a hyper-realistic melee or Souls-like re-enactment; it takes the traditional 2D side-scrolling combat format and brings it to small, confined arenas that you can move around freely. There are environmental cues and finishers like in Mortal Kombat, but they’re scattered throughout the world you explore. Kiryu and Nishiki’s brotherly beef is heartbreaking character drama for the ages, but I took this punk down by slamming a bike on his head. Only Yakuza could juggle two distinctly contrasting tones so easily.

I mention Mortal Kombat because it’s the closest comparison of the lot. The heat actions are essentially MK’s X-Ray attacks – brutal and visceral, with a hint of morbid slapstick about it, but not at all “real” in the way they affect the world. In Mortal Kombat, I could rip out Mileena’s heart or stab her in the chest; maybe even crush his skull so hard the bone fragments pierce his brain. But after, we’ll discuss the shit and continue with the narrative. The fights are a twist on the game that embraces the quirks of the medium and the thrill of action combat, even though that would normally hamper the story. You can’t exactly stab Darth Vader and rip his helmet to pieces in Jedi: Fallen Order because that would break the barrel, but forget the barrel. Fighting games are all about fighting, doing combos and screaming while you slap someone stupid.

Likewise, in Yakuza, your fights seem more metaphorical or illustrative than they are literally part of the story as it canonically happens. For example, Kiryu makes it a point not to kill, so much so that Nishiki swears he’ll be there for him when he crosses that line in Yakuza 0, but in combat I push katanas into people’s stomachs and I put knives to their knees their guts. Hell, I can even disarm a guy and shoot him straight with his own gun. Then it will be like new.

Yakuza combat is great because it takes this approach down to its core design and incorporates it into the character-driven story and limitations of a JRPG. It sounds ridiculous on paper, like trying to wedge a flight simulator into a PS5 action-adventure exclusive, but somehow developer Ryu Ga Gotoku pulls it off. Kiryu is my Scorpion and Majima is my Sub-Zero – both could get knocked down, stabbed, shot, thrown into walls, thrown out of buildings and beaten senseless, but they get back up, return the favor in full and have a little conversation with the villain as the grief continues.

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