In the earlier games you get into fights less if you keep a low profile by walking by a group instead of running, in the later games you run fast enough that you can just choose to avoid a fight if you want. Kiwami 1 is the only one I played where I felt like I was running to dudes every five seconds at points.
I think Yakuza 5 balanced it the best. You get a lot of very powerful heat moves very quickly, and the fights are often against a large number of very weak enemies instead of a few tougher ones, so you can really steam roll through folks. It also has more pre-set enemy placement so you can just avoid X street corner when you don’t really like running into Y gang. I think 5 would be my favorite game in the series if the pacing and writing were better. The little moment to moment interactions and conversations are generally really good but the overall story has too many playable characters and it feels like you switch chapters every time one character’s story is just about to get good. The combat in it is just perfect though.
I’ve been really obsessed with these games since the first one, it’s been awesome to see its popularity very very very slowly grow in the US over the years and all the positive attention Yakuza 0 has gotten in the US. Like it feels like yesterday I was begging Sega to bring Yakuza 3 over.
Even knowing the general plot of the games, I’d still recommend playing all of them (except 1 and 2 since we now will have Kiwami and Kiwami 2) but maybe not one after the other because they all have a couple of unique cool things in them. Even the combat feels subtly different in each because of little changes to how the upgrading effects your abilities and how beneficial it is to have a full heat gauge and stuff.
One thing I will say, 3, and 4 have much shorter stories than the rest, so if you don’t want to really lose yourself in the mini-games or perfect every karaoke track with practice they’re not that long to get through.
Some people hate 3 for how long the opening parts are but I liked Ryukyu a lot. It was a little more interesting to be in this sunny friendly vacationy place and then still find all of the sleazy bullshit and corrupt political dealings and stuff under it, and the game does a good job intertwining that with the local culture. It also has one of the most annoying boss fights in the entire series though. 3 also very importantly has the most brazen Don Quixote endorsement of the entire series.