This article contains light spoilers for Final Fantasy 7 Remake.
Folks who were playing Final Fantasy 7 Remake before I started were telling me, "Yo, this game's got some real Yakuza energy going on." At first, I took it with a grain of salt, doubting how a serious-looking game about radical environmentalism and fighting an evil corporation could reach the levels of outlandish charm of Sega's long-running crime-action franchise. I thought, maybe it's because FF7 Remake has side-quests to help build out the NPCs that embody its hub areas with similar stylings as Yakuza's Kamurocho or Sotenbori. But that's only scratching Midgar's surface.
I often describe the Yakuza series as a journey through Japan's violent criminal underworld where "absurdist humor meets gripping melodrama starring an adorably naive but beefy man with a mean mug, fists of steel, and a heart of gold." I immediately fell in love with main man Kazuma Kiryu and how the series balances seemingly opposite ends of the tonal spectrum to make you laugh, cry, and cry from laughter. FF7 Remake doesn't quite hit the same extremes--which is fine--but when the game channels that energy, it gets it so right.
The most stark examples come from Chapter 9 in FF7 Remake, when Cloud and Aerith venture to Wall Market in search of Tifa. Wall Market's a seedy red-light district in the Sector 6 slums, lit up by neon signs, run by a few influential individuals, and filled with bars, clubs, and shops to feed any vice of its patrons. And the first place I thought of when walking Wall Market's cramped streets? Kamurocho.
Now, Kamurocho isn't exactly a downtrodden slum (it's modeled closely after the Kabukicho district of Shinjuku in Tokyo), but the way Wall Market is brought to life is the same. When you approach Don Corneo's mansion, it's just as imposing a sight as the gaudy mansion of Yakuza's Purgatory area, architecture and all. There's even an underground fight club, AKA Corneo's Coliseum, that you participate in where pyrotechnics blast as a betting crowd roars, watching you engage in some violent combat sport. However, instead of Kiryu fist-fighting tigers or his secret best friend Goro Majima, it's Cloud and Aerith destroying a mechanized house that's outfitted with jet engines and elemental magic.
It'd be a bit presumptuous to say that FF7 Remake wanted to create its own little Yakuza-like town, but the parallels can't help but make you think so. The scenario that solidified my love for FF7 Remake's commitment to this tone was in the Honeybee Inn rhythm game. Since when did Cloud have the beautiful dance moves in him to perform on stage with Andrea Rhodea? Well, since when could Kiryu flawlessly boogie on the dancefloor to Koi no Disco Queen, and why is Majima on rollerskates singing 24-Hour Cinderella in a perfectly choreographed boy band? Both games are so unapologetic about their eccentricity in a way that wins your heart and convinces you that, yeah, my self-serious protagonist is a badass dancer, too.
Between the two games, it never comes across as "haha, we're trying to be funny," because there's a good measure of genuine wholesomeness behind the outlandish story beats. Whether it's Kiryu settling a harmless bet with another club-goer (or impressing a Michael Jackson stand-in) or Andrea's message that beauty transcends the concept of gender, both games bring these scenarios back down to earth in a way that stays true to themselves.
And the whole "Burning Thighs" competition at the Wall Market gym feels like a sweet Yakuza substory that somehow didn't make the cut. The squatting minigame is, of course, a reimagination of the one from the original FF7. What really sold me, though, was the chemistry and energy from Jules and their two inconceivably swole sidekicks who run the gym. They talk trash before the challenge, and when you beat them, they're nothing but positive. One sidekick Ronnie learns his lesson after defeat as Jules asserts that one should not body shame. When it's all settled, they continue to flex and speak to the uplifting virtues of fitness.
While FF7 Remake's Wall Market is the shining example of its Yakuza-like spirit, the similarities don't end there. Actually, I was pretty convinced by Chapter 4 with the first encounter against one ludicrous biker whose only desire is to get in a real good fight. My man Roche is Majima in Final Fantasy form. Not only does this bike chase sequence through Midgar's corkscrew train tunnel look and feel like one of those instances of yakuza clan members pursuing Kiryu on Tokyo's open roads, but it showcases Roche's unhinged tendencies.
He respects Cloud yet berates him, then admits that he's his only match in the world. Roche is a Shinra SOLDIER too, though he doesn't particularly care for the name and really just joined so he can get in wild brawls--right out of Majima's playbook in Yakuza Kiwami, and I love it. When Roche busts onto the scene, Shinra troops stand aside and do as he says. When Roche wants to fight Cloud one-on-one, that's what he gets. When Roche wants to do gravity-defying stunts that make absolutely no sense in the context of realism, you accept that.
Now replace "Roche" with "Majima" and every other proper noun with its Yakuza parallel and my words will stand 100% true.
It'd be quite the stretch to say Cloud and Kiryu are the same--Cloud was his own character well before Kiryu was conceptualized. Though, now with Cloud further developed in FF7 Remake, they do share similar traits and paths. They reluctantly do things to help people, find themselves in ridiculous predicaments, and beat the shit out of comical goons. Although Kiryu often has a bit of wisdom to impart on those he beats down or helps out, Cloud kind of becomes the town hero, too, whether he likes it or not. In side-quests, he helps kids find their cats, plays along with their shticks, lends a hand to the Sector 5 orphanage, and begrudgingly assists other adults on their indulgent pursuits, all while keeping a straight face.
Even in FF7 Remake's combat sequences, there's an unmistakable feeling in how some of its biggest fights use intense cinematic cuts to transition between phases of the battle. Quick cutscenes that seamlessly go to and from gameplay display environmental destruction, enemies going into new phases, and your own characters stylishly taking action and gathering themselves before handing back the controls, UI elements intact and all. None of this is to say that Square Enix pulled from Ryu ga Gotoku Studio's games, because these techniques are in no way exclusive to Yakuza. But as someone who loves both games and franchises, I'm absolutely delighted that they evoke the same invigorating sensibilities during their most thrilling moments, drawing me into their completely different causes with a bombast and personality I can get behind.
FF7 Remake doesn't lose sight of its source material or the overarching message it's trying to send through its main story, even through all its flair and additions to flesh out Midgar. Like Yakuza, it flips the script on what seems to be out of place, and embraces the absurdity to pull you in and breathe richer life into its characters and the world around them. If you like FF7 Remake and haven't played Yakuza, or vice versa, this is me selling you on doing so.
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