I finished 龍が如く 維新! Final in-game tally said 60 hours, across a couple of months, covering the main story, almost all of the substories, and pretty heavy dabbling in the side activities including a chunk of mahjong.
I really enjoyed it! I love the series already, and the historical setting makes this an especially fascinating entry, and it’s also a major 積読 victory for me, since I bought this as a “well I assume I’ll never get to the level where I could actually play this, but it would be cool to have anyway” fully expecting it to 積 forever, but here I am! Played it no problem! It also satisfies another listed numerical goal for the year, so that’s nice too.
About the series as a whole
From the localized title “Yakuza” and how the games were originally pitched in the US, I originally assumed the series was like GTA, lurid crime-filled sandboxes. But they really aren’t anything like that at all. They’re more like elaborate twist-filled melodramas with over-the-top characters and set pieces and a zany and good-natured heart, that just happens to use the yakuza as a backdrop and aesthetic. And it turns out for me, that’s all I could really ask for out of a video game. Thanks to the series’ remarkable consistency, there’s always some wild story beat or intrigue to keep me moving forward, and there’s always some ridiculous side mission or minigame that’s just compelling enough to keep me happily not bored while bouncing from objective to objective, and the series engenders enough earnest good will that along the way I get truly invested in the characters and want to see things work out for them.
After watching a playthrough of 0 and then starting playing them myself with 3, I was quickly hooked, and not entirely coincidentally, this was right before I started learning to read Japanese. I’ve often said since that even if the only thing I got out of my studies was more of an excuse to appreciate the background design in these games, that would be enough to justify it. And it’s absolutely true, since a huge part of the attraction of these games is the sense of place they build and all the different things they show you along the way. Thanks to the series, I’ve seen fictionalized glimpses from cities pretty much literally all across Japan, from night life districts in Tokyo, Osaka, and Yokohama, to Sapporo and a matagi village in Hokkaido, to Naha in Okinawa, to Fukuoka, to Onomichi. And done everything from karaoke, to spear-fishing, to batting cages, to taking care of a baby, to employment certification exams, to zombie fighting, to Virtua Fighter, to sexy insect bikini themed rochambo trading card games for some reason, to stock car racing, to Shogi, to golf, to sexy ping pong, to Japanese folk dance, to managing a giant corporation and apologizing to investors. I even learned to play (and love) Mahjong!
Just having a reason to stop and smell the roses a bit more amid all of that is a plus that I immediately experienced on learning a little hiragana. Which makes it especially cool that nowadays I’m unlocking whole new frontiers in the series for myself.
To put it another way, the series is consistent in quality and vibe – all of those minigames are just the right level of compelling enough to sink a little bit of time into without deserving its full game, and you pretty much know the kinds of things to expect from the story going in (there’s probably gonna be twists and betrayals and you’ll wind up storming Millennium Tower at the end), but the specifics are constantly new and surprising, and I really love that dynamic.
It also helps that the specific tone, of over-the-top action + absurd goofiness + earnest heart is one I tend to especially like in things like superhero comics or professional wrestling – the series very much has a vibe of especially good pro wrestling, to the point I don’t think it’s a coincidence that NJPW wrestlers have cameos in multiple games in the series. I always kinda felt like the “Kiryu doesn’t kill, but he’s clearly killing all these dudes in the brawling sections” was missing the point – it’s not ludonarrative dissonance, but ludonarrative kayfabe, so to speak. The same way in wrestling the violence is a spectacle we can enjoy the drama of even knowing it’s fake, the violence of the gameplay in the series is fun and works as dramatic amplifying spectacle even though in the context of the story it isn’t “real” (in this one there’s a whooole lotta shooting and stabbing people who get up when the cutscene starts, which isn’t any less realistic than when the same thing happened after the fist fights in the other games when you really think about it).
It’s a series with a caveat or two though. Given the subject material, it’s really hard to know, especially when new to the series, how much you’re supposed to interpret the characters as like, actual yakuza members in real-world logic terms. There’s many story beats or minigames, especially when the series pretty frequently depicts the sex industry, that would, one would have to imagine, be exploitative or at least wildly skeezy in real life. But isn’t in the game only because all the characters are lion-hearted dragons with no tangible connection to anything that happens in the real-world. Before you trust that that’s what they are (and even after sometimes), it’s hard to know exactly what to make of a lot of that stuff.
There’s also pretty reliably one or two sour notes sprinkled in amid the fun stuff per-game, usually in the form of a trans caricature (this game, for example, has a minor substory among 60-70 others where you’re looking for a かまつき expecting, I think, a sickle-wielder, only to find out it really meant おかまつき and they lead a gang of “おかま”). There’s also an occasion or two in the older games where it finds fat people a lot funnier than it should. Even in (most of) these sour moments, I think the general good heart of the series shines through (the heroes are never angry at trans people existing, for example, and are more than happy to let them do their thing, it’s just generally used uncomfortably as a zany element for laughs), and notably I think over time they’ve gotten much better in this area. But it’s the kind of thing that’s more of an obstacle the less bought in you are already.
All this is to say that after never really being the kind of person to click so thoroughly with a specific series, this is a fascinating one that I really love, especially 3, 5, and 7 – the last of which was a massive milestone for me with reading Japanese and consequently the most fun I’ve had with a video game pretty much period.
About 維新 specifically
It’s a 龍が如く game! So I liked it for all the reasons I just described. In terms of the usual 龍が如く stuff, like the brawling combat, pretty much the only comment I have is that the four fighting styles of firsts, sword, pistol, or sword AND pistol, are all pretty fun (but I’m still looking forward to the next RPG-style game in the series since when it’s at its most grindy the brawling can get more tiring for me).
The far-and-away most interesting element in this one though, is the historical fiction aspect.
It’s the 1860s in the Bakumatsu era, and you play (ostensibly) a person who really existed: Ryouma Sakamoto. For brief historical context, with Japan divided under the shogun into restricted, semi-independent 藩, things are beginning to reach a boiling point that will result in civil war between the shogunate forces and loyalist armies hoping to restore the emperor and depose the shogunate in order to modernize and strengthen Japan against foreign imperial forces, leading to the Meiji Restoration (hence the title of the game).
My (very limited) understanding is that the real Sakamoto played a crucial role in fomenting that eventual war from the loyalist side, particularly in uniting and coordinating Satsuma and Choshu domains in the lead-up to the war and restoration. Then he was assassinated at an inn before the restoration itself happened.
Throughout the game, I had a very interesting time navigating all of this context – not knowing exactly what happened historically just on basic details, not knowing what pervading interpretations of those details are or what political controversies different ones might entail, not knowing where the game was going to go or how closely it was going to stick to any of that, etc. To my American educated mind, it was initially tricky even just to break out of a “civil war in the 1860s → okay one side is super going to be in the right on this issue and the other side super isn’t going to be but it’s gonna be a wildly politically fraught topic to this day” mindset at all. (I’d still be super curious to see how for example, a Japanese high school textbook would talk about these events, because I’m not sure at all now. I had vaguely assumed Sakamoto would be lionized in those contexts Founding Father style but I really have no idea).
It pretty quickly becomes apparent though – you’re not really playing the historical Sakamoto. You’re playing Kazuma Kiryu, the protagonist of the series. He looks like Kiryu, he acts like Kiryu, he is Kiryu, he even gets framed for the murder of a parental figure like Kiryu and not, I’m assuming, like Sakamoto. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure the real guy never infiltrated the shogunate-backed Shinsengumi in order to track down a mysterious ninja who killed his father. I also feel like he did a lot less dual-wielding swords and pistols. I ESPECIALLY don’t think Sakamoto ever single-handedly stormed Edo Castle with his friend Majima to personally present a proposal to Shogun Tokugawa after, naturally, dueling him in a sword fight.
There’s also an especially weird angle where like, as a side thing you get to live an idyllic pastoral life with Haruka, Kiryu’s daughter figure in the main games, (and it’s just Haruka - her name is just “Haruka” not anyone historical) something that due to circumstances you never quite gets to do very much as like, actual Kiryu. Which gives this strange vibe of like, living your own best life while wearing someone else’s skin.
I guess what I mean is that it’s less “historical fiction” and more a 龍が如く story run through a history soup. That means it’s got all the twists and turns you would expect from one of those stories, as well as all the “hey isn’t this institution kind of messed up in real life oh well this is just about the dragonlike ultramasculine individuals with the institution as a backdrop” baggage (The Shinsengumi here might as well just be a 龍が如く yakuza clan, it’s a cartoonish pile of over-the-top characters with mysterious back stories and secret plans that at the end of the day completely overshadows whether or not it was an oppressive organization or not).
After a while, I thought this was kind of too bad, since it honestly highlights how… simple… these games can be. In the sense that like – Kiryu is an apolitical cartoon character. He is defined and driven 100% solely by 1. being superlatively strong. 2. continually getting wrapped up in other people’s business and trying to do the right thing 3. “love.”
There is nothing else to him. (it’s actually one of the things I like about the change in 7 – Ichiban is a protagonist with a more believable grounding for pushing for social good that feels at all connected to the real world). And it seems like to me… this would be an incredibly critical and interesting time to have political stances! We know from historical fact the country is going to be going through massive changes – whether and how you think that should happen seems like it’s critical for navigating the spaces the game takes place in. But Kiryu isn’t really capable of verbalizing anything like that beyond war and suffering being bad, and his motivation throughout is really just resolving a mystery, not anything to do with enacting change. His closest attempt to that is to personally duel the Shogun and then like, just ask him to return authority to the emperor. Surely that’ll work.
Which seems a whole lot different from the real Sakamoto! For a chunk of the game I found myself really hungry for a more grounded historical fiction (or even textbook) take where I could immerse myself more in like, what the real people actually thought and discussed and fought over. It seems like it would be extremely fascinating! But you don’t really get that here, at least not in any kind of grounded way.
It turns out though – that ends up being kind of the point. At the end of the game, it turns out that a different character, assuming the Sakamoto name, does most of the political action leading up to war associated with the real historical Sakamoto, and thanks to a photograph, it’s underlined that he, not you, is supposed to be that Sakamoto we think of in historical detail terms, despite your character being the “real” Sakamoto.
The climax of the game ends up being Kiryu – the platitude-spouting, lionhearted and brave, more dragon than human, virtuous hero Sakamoto Vs. the arms-dealing, gotta-break-some-eggs-to-make-an-omelet, sometimes war is necessary to enact change Sakamoto. And after the fight (climactic sword duels in castles are definitely up there with ripping off your shirt to reveal your cool tattoo and then fist-fighting on the roof of a skyscraper), the two Sakamotos come to a mutual understanding, not resolving their differences but both ganging up on someone who’s planning to sell out Japan and make it an English colony, which we can ALL agree is a bad idea no matter what we think about the war and Sakamoto. It’s made clear that the Kiryu Sakamoto is the one that ends up in statues, while the political Sakamoto is the one that influences the new government going forward.
That’s honestly a much more interesting and thoughtful exploration of like, historicity and our interpretation of it than I was expecting from the game! Even if in the end I don’t think it like, takes a stance really, and it does devolve a bit heavily into generalities about love and patriotism. That core concept of the two Sakamotos is really interesting and a cool use of the strength of the series being two dudes fighting on a big tower.
Hard to tell if I know more or less about Japanese history after it though! I think the game heavily confused me when it comes to particular details of figures’ biographies and motivations, and I’m no clearer than when I started on like, what an average person’s views on these events and these people would be. BUT I think the game gave me a much much better understanding of like, the basic mechanics of the circumstances of the time. I would have had a very hard time verbalizing like, what’s actually different about a 藩 vs. a 県, what IS the Shinsengumi, what does a Restoration actually mean, etc. One small example is I had just sort of assumed Edo was the official capital in the Edo period, and so I was really confused about where exactly the game took place when the characters always just say 京. Turns out, I eventually figured out that 京 is what’s modern 京都, and it was still the official capital because the emperor was based there even though the heart of politics, etc. was administered out of Edo where the Shogunate was based. Edo became 東京 only once the Restoration happened and the emperor moved house there. In retrospect, I guess it makes sense from the names huh. Kinda funny that essentially there was a capital city just called “Capital” and then they moved to a different city and just renamed it “East Capital” and kept both names like that…
So I think at the very least, I’m more prepared than I was before to read more in-depth things about the time period. I’ll just try to not let like, “hey isn’t that the guy who looked and acted exactly like Majima” color my take on the real people who existed.
Some memorable substories (my favorites were the ones that take the setting into account): The one where you decode 土佐弁 for somebody, the logic puzzle mystery-solving one, the one where you meet Natsume Soseki and help him with title ideas, the one about the (apparently real) ええじゃないか movement, the one that’s basically a reading comprehension quiz, the sex (or “look after”) minigame that’s like space invaders and you’re shooting hearts is also sure something. Also the one where you fight a bear.
Oh yeah! Also all of the anachronistic setting things are very very funny to me – there’s karaoke somehow, there’s a minigame that’s basically just a batting cage except you’re slicing cannonballs with a sword, and you better believe there’s a Don Quixote, complete with an old-timey version of the jingle.
I’m not sure exactly what’s next for me game-wise – it’s been so long with this one that I’ll probably try to tackle a number of shorter and older games before going after anything large. Plus there’s a lot of cool stuff coming out the last couple weeks… Including Lost Judgment, the newest 龍が如く Studio game! I’m excited to get that… but unfortunately I’m definitely not in the mood for more 龍が如く after how much time I spent on this, so I’ll have to give it some time.