Since the Xbox Series X launched, I’ve made an astonishing discovery: I actually like the Xbox Game Pass. For years, I’ve advocated that if you’re interested in a game, you should buy it outright, not just rent it indefinitely. Maybe the subscription service works for movies and TV shows, where you’ll be in and out in a few hours, but not for games — long, intricate, replayable experiences that often grow and change over time.
And yet, even at the eye-watering price of $15 per month, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate has got to be one of the best deals in console gaming today. And I never would have believed it without a very strange mid-budget Sega series about Japanese gangsters.
Seven Yakuza games
A few months ago (although it seems like a lot longer), the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S debuted. To put the consoles through their paces, Microsoft sent us a bunch of review codes, including one for a rather bizarre game called Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
I had a passing familiarity with the Yakuza franchise: an action/adventure series that juxtaposes serious crime stories against wacky subplots and a ton of side activities. I also know that Like a Dragon was the seventh installment in this plot-heavy franchise, and that it was probably not the ideal place to dive in. Still, I was charmed by Like a Dragon’s spirited dialogue, colorful levels and inventive gameplay.
I played some of the game to help evaluate the Series X and Series S, but kept thinking how I’d really like to catch up on the previous installments. That way, I’d be able to understand every reference, joke and gameplay convention, rather than just smiling and nodding at everything that seemed like a callback to an earlier game. Still, Yakuza has six previous entries, plus three major spinoffs (on this side of the Pacific, at least). If I went with physical releases, they would be a pain to track down; if I went with digital releases, I could expect to dish out $100 or more.
That was when I put down Like a Dragon and decided to start researching the Xbox Game Pass portion of my review. Imagine my surprise when I found half of the Yakuza games waiting for me, ready to download and play for as long as it remains on the service.
Xbox Game Pass benefits
For those who aren’t familiar with Xbox Game Pass, it’s a subscription service that lets you download more than 100 Xbox games for a flat monthly fee. At the $15-per-month Ultimate tier, you can download games to an Xbox console or a PC, or stream them to an Android device. Save data carries over across platforms, and first-party Microsoft titles arrive on Xbox Game Pass as soon as they debut.
Before I reviewed the Xbox Series S, I’d toyed around with Game Pass, but never invested much time in it. Generally speaking, the games I wanted to play, I already owned — or was willing to purchase up front. But, as I learned, Xbox Game Pass doesn’t just make it easy to try new games; it makes it easy to dive into entire series.
As I stated above, starting a new series can be a daunting process. Which game should you play first? Where will you find it? How much will it cost? And, after investing all that time and money, what if you don’t like it? Xbox Game Pass neatly solves all of those issues by essentially laying out an entire franchise at your feet. You risk only the time it takes to download and try a game; if you don’t like it, simply download and play something else.
Xbox Game Pass hosts a generous amount of franchises, from both first- and third-party developers. At a glance, there’s Halo, Gears of War, Fable, Age of Empires, Bard’s Tale, Banjo-Kazooie, Dead Space, Kingdom Hearts, Mass Effect, Star Wars: Battlefront and, of course, Yakuza. Even if you wanted to buy just one game from each of those series, it would cost you way more than $15.
Yakuza is also an interesting example, as it’s actually gotten more entries on Game Pass in the past month. After toying around with Like a Dragon, I downloaded and played Yakuza 0: a prequel entry which sets the stage for future installments. The service also had Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza Kiwami 2: high-res remasters of the first two games.
But since then, Sega and Microsoft have added the whole Yakuza Remastered collection, which includes polished versions of Yakuza 3, Yakuza 4 and Yakuza 5. Yakuza 6 will debut on Game Pass on March 25; the Yakuza spinoff Judgment will make its way to Xbox consoles on April 23, and it may very well find a home on Xbox Game Pass as well.
Granted, relying on Xbox Game Pass for these titles has some drawbacks. The Yakuza games don’t belong to me. Once my subscription runs out, I won’t be able to replay them unless I either resubscribe or buy full copies. Microsoft could pull the games at any time — even if I’m in the middle of playing one. (Although, to be fair, games that leave Xbox Game Pass usually do so with plenty of warning.) The Xbox/PC/streaming triangle is also not nearly as seamless as it could be, particularly when it comes to save data carrying over properly.
But in spite of those quibbles, I have to say that I’m surprised by just how fully the Xbox Game Pass has won me over. I went from “mild curiosity about a series” to “having the majority of the series at my fingertips” in minutes — and if Yakuza isn’t your thing, there are at least half-a-dozen other long-running franchises to try. It helps that I loved Yakuza 0, and can’t wait to dive into the rest of the franchise.
To be clear, I think it’s still worth buying the games you know you’ll want to play and replay for years to come. But if you have an Xbox console and nothing in particular to play for the next month, give Xbox Game Pass a shot and see what’s out there. If nothing really hits your sweet spot, so be it. But you may come out of the experiment with a new favorite game — or a new favorite franchise.