Every time SEGA release a new entry in the Yakuza series, the Western gaming media talk about how commercially successful they always are in Japan, but they have always struggled to find a market in Europe and America. This is, and always has been true, and no matter how good each new entry becomes, the lore and backstory has become more and more difficult to navigate. Enter Yakuza 0 – strangely the sixth release in the core series, and tenth if you include all spin-offs (you don’t release ten games in a franchise if it doesn’t have a pretty large and dedicated following). Being a prequel to games one to five, Yakuza 0 serves as the perfect starting point for series newcomers and offers a complete standalone experience – although there is of course plenty to appreciate here for longtime fans as well.
Game: Yakuza 0
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 (Review code provided by publisher)
For the uninitiated among you, the series follows protagonist Kazuma Kiryu – a member of the Dojima family of the Tojo Yakuza clan. A powerful member of the family in later games, Yakuza 0 sends us back to 1988, where we see his struggles to climb the ladder. This is made all the more worse when the victim of a routine debt collection turns up dead, and Kazuma finds himself in serious hot water with his own crime family when a mysterious scheme to gain control of a vacant lot of land is put in jeopardy by his actions. You must fight to prove his innocence, and help protect the father figure who helped you join the Yakuza ranks in the first place.
As has been the case in the last few titles in the series, there is not only one playable character. Rather than the somewhat unmanageable and convoluted four or five protagonists we have seen in the past, Yakuza 0 focuses only on Kazuma and one other – Goro Majima. The one-eyed, “Mad Dog” Goro has always been one of the most interesting and funny characters to feature in the series, and getting to find out more about his origins is a joy. He too has angered his Yakuza bosses, and as punishment has been sent to Sotenbori (a fictionalised district of Osaka) to run a Nightclub. Not just any Nightclub, but the Grand Cabaret “Hostess” club. Being someone who lives to fight, such a mundane existence is torture for Goro – who just wants to get back in with his crime family.
The fact that this is a period piece of sorts is constantly on display – whether that be from the use of pagers rather than mobile phones, Space Harrier and Out Run being the latest games in the local Arcade or the over-the-top excess of Tokyo before it was hit by a massive market collapse in 1992. The series has always suffered at the hands of critics due to its depiction of women as weak and unimportant in its game world, and this too is probably somewhat heightened by the property-bubble business world that Yakuza 0 is trying to recreate. There are more strong female characters than ever before, but the title is still unarguably male-centric in many ways.
The paths of our heroes inexorably meet as the game progresses through its seventeen weighty chapters (expect a full play-through to last somewhere around eighty hours), and longtime fans of the series will revel in getting to see these well-loved characters develop. The story is packed with over-the-top drama and tense confrontations – that are as compelling as they are somewhat cheesy. Players who aren’t used to reading subtitles for an entire game may find the game a little too text and cutscene-heavy, but there is so much variety on offer in the title that you won’t feel bored for too long. In fact, as much as I constantly wanted to push forward and progress the story, one does find themselves being side-tracked and distracted by all of the side-quests and mini-games that you can partake in.
But first let’s talk about what everyone expects from a title about the Japanese mob – violence. The fighting system in Yakuza 0 isn’t a radical change from what has come before – and the same stiffness and lack of a decent counter system remains from previous titles – but there have been enough improvements and evolutionary steps taken to make this the most satisfying fighting experience of the series. Each of the two playable characters now have three distinct fighting styles which can be switched between mid-fight, on-the-fly. They all basically amount to a balanced style, a quick style and a powerful one – but Goro and Kazuma each have their own flair.
Goro has a quick style that is based around breakdancing for example, and Kazuma’s powerful style sees him hunch his shoulders and hold his hands out like bear claws, for his Beast mode. These different styles not only maintain variety in your brawling, but allow for some tactical choices to be made depending on the strength and number of your enemies. This really helps to combat repetition and add some excitement into the mix which has certainly been missing in previous entries. The most famous part of Yakuza fighting is the Heat actions though. Your Heat gauge builds through successful attacks and blocks, allowing you to pull off vicious finishing moves and weapon attacks that somehow manage to walk the line between cartoon and ultra violence, somehow without becoming unsettling.
Although the Heat actions are a famous part of the series, it is the side quests and other activities dotted around the cities that give Yakuza its real character. Roaming the streets of Kamurocho or Sotenbori, there are so many diversions to take part in, aside from the constant battles with street punks and rival Yakuza members. These fights are vital to gain money and level up your skills, but it is in the random encounters and mini-games where you will have the most fun. Whilst wandering around, you will bump into new friends and foes, and people needing your help – such as the high-school student who suspects his suddenly-rich Girlfriend is selling her body, or the young child whose new video game has been stolen by a local street-punk. There are some golden lines of dialogue and moments of laugh-out-loud ridiculousness in these missions that will leave you combing the streets for more people to help. Ok, they can be a little derivative, but there is plenty to keep you busy.
You will also find people willing to teach you new skills and moves dotted around town, but it is all too easy to become lost in the sheer depth of things to do. If your character is in need of health, you can pop into a convenience mart or ramen store to grab some noodles. You can also stock up on health items and skill buffs to help in fights. After eating, why not head to a bar and get drunk, play some pool and dangerously hurl darts around whilst intoxicated? Okay, maybe thats not your thing – so you could indulge in some underground MahJong, remote-control car races, fishing or baseball. Karaoke and Disco dancing are probably the most challenging, but also most enjoyable options – both using rhythm-action mini-games to good effect. There is simply just so much to do, that there is rarely a dull moment.
Most of these activities have been present in the series for some time (apart from the period-inspired dancing game), but Yakuza 0 also brings unique side-games for both protagonists. Kazuma becomes involved in the real-estate business – expanding his portfolio of properties and settling resident disputes to earn big bucks, whilst Goro has the more enjoyable task of managing his Hostess club – managing his team of lady hostesses to most effectively build up an army of wealthy clientele frequenting the club and spending their money. These two modes again offer something totally different to take part in, with the club management mode feeling like a strategy game buried within everything else on offer.
The lack of English dubbing may put off some players, and true, for a PlayStation 4 title it may not be the most graphically-impressive title. But keep in mind that Yakuza 0 was first released in Japan around two years ago and was originally developed for PlayStation 3 – so we won’t see the full fruit of the next-generation power until Yakuza 6. But for a game that is so filled with life and NPC’s going about their daily business, this is still an impressive achievement. And the facial animation of the lead characters is still pretty damn strong, and thoroughly convincing – albeit caricatured at times to heighten the emotion of certain scenes. However, that is part and parcel of the Japanese dramatic style.
Yakuza 0 still won’t be to the taste of everyone, what with its pretty misogynistic view of life and very Japanese sensibilities. It doesn’t provide the perfect fighting experience, the best open world adventuring or the strongest writing we’ve ever seen in video games, but it does a great job of combining all of these elements in a really fun and entertaining way. Although the main story is very po-faced and violent, the side quests and diversions keep the atmosphere from getting too heavy. You always have a different choice as to what you turn to next, depending on your current mood, and the options don’t often disappoint. Yakuza 0 should be the game that finally allows the series to breakout with Western gamers, but I sadly won’t be holding my breath.