Where has Yakuza been all my life?
Developer: Sega Publisher: Sega Format: PS4 Released: January 24, 2017 Copy provided by publisher
Yakuza 0 is my first foray into the Yakuza series, believe it or not, and I can safely say it’s been a trip.
My first impressions were not completely positive. A graphically basic game, full of restricted pathways and a slow moving story, I honestly wondered what the big deal was about the beloved Yakuza games. Once things started opening up, however, the game revealed its allure to me. With every ridiculously overblown fight sequence, every bizarre side quest, I fell in love with Yakuza 0 more and more.
Now I’m angry nobody told me to jump on this train sooner.
Set in 1988, Yakuza 0 takes us to the early days of series protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, telling two stories in a pair of distinct – but equally crime-riddled – cities in Japan.
As Kiryu, players will attempt to clear their names of murder and enter the cutthroat world of property development in a fight over Kamurocho’s notorious Empty Lot – a patch of land owned by an unknown entity and fought for relentlessly by the Dojima Clan and Tachibana Real Estate.
In Sotenbori, Majima is attempting to earn his way back into the Yakuza by working as manager of The Grand Cabaret. His story details the lengths he’ll go to in order to regain status, as well as the lengths he won’t.
Both story paths are distinct and offer engrossing plots with surprisingly grounded premises. While younger and more naive versions of the characters they’re due to become, Kiryu and Majima are thoroughly likeable protagonists who consistently have to act as straight men in a variety of weird situations.
The antagonists set before them are given tons of personality and plenty of reasons to have their heads smashed in – 0‘s ability to present a villain worth hating is exceptional.
Side quests, however, steal the show. Those aiming to experience everything in Yakuza 0 can expect to teach a dominatrix to berate her clients effectively, get sexually imposed upon by an old woman with purple hair, meet a man in underpants known only as Masochistic Man, and get involved in tons more equally unusual situations.
As a newcomer to the series, I’m reminded of cult classic Deadly Premonition and its relentless eccentricity – a comparison that speaks highly of Yakuza 0 if you know anything about my love for Swery 65’s farcical murder mystery. Yakuza 0 is unapologetic in its oddball nature, though sometimes it gets weird to the point of discomfort – the mission where you hand pornography to a child rather than risk breaking your word to him is one particularly questionable event.
Sega’s criminal caper strikes far more often than it misses, however, regularly surprising its players with strange storylines and funny scenarios.
Part adventure game, part brawler, Yakuza balances weighty combat against dialog-heavy scenes and tons of additional content to sidetrack the player. As well as Deadly Premonition, it’s hard not to bring up Shenmue when describing the overall atmosphere and wealth of activities on offer.
Yakuza 0‘s combat system is one of the most brutal I’ve experienced in a long time. Every single punch and kick connects with bone crunching impact, the sound and visual design dedicated to making opponents look as if they’re being put through physical hell. Heat actions – special contextual moves that can be used by maintaining a steady offense – bring the camera close to the action with vicious sequences that routinely see heads slammed into concrete or bicycle frames wrapped around ribcages.
New to the series is the ability to switch styles, with Kiryu and Majima each accessing three unique ways of fighting. Both characters get a default style – Brawler for Kiryu and Thug for Majima – that consist of easily performed Heat actions and standardized attacks, but their alternate styles, unlocked through the course of story mode, present some wonderful alternatives.
Kiryu gains access to the Rush and Beast styles. Rush is a fast moving style based around dodging and using flurries of blows to dizzy opponents, while Beast allows Kiryu to quickly grab potential weapons while attacking, incorporating environmental clutter fluidly into his combos. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the unpredictable Rush style, but Beast style is gratifyingly powerful.
Majima’s default style isn’t as good as Kiryu’s with its slower combos and more easily exploited openings, but he makes up for it with both his variants. Slugger gives Majima an unbreakable baseball bat (other weapons “enjoy” severe durability issues) that offers both superior blocking ability and a range of devastating attacks. Meanwhile, Breaker incorporates breakdancing into a range of punches and kicks that tackle multiple opponents while presenting a constantly moving target.
Enemies will effectively spurt money from their cash holes every time they take significant damage, and players can earn bonus bucks through Heat actions and combos. This money may be spent on all sorts of healing items, minigames, and weapons, but also acts as potential experience, being used to buy both passive and active abilities across each protagonist’s three battle styles.
While combat can grow formulaic across the hours and hours of potential gameplay, it somehow refuses to ever grow irredeemably dull. The sheer mercilessness of every fight and the switching of battle styles keeps things interesting, and there are some Heat actions I don’t think I’ll get used to witnessing – Majima jamming his baseball bat into a victim’s mouth and then kicking it makes me wince every time.
Frankly, I don’t know how any of these fights are supposed to be nonlethal, but neither Kiryu or Majima take a life while fighting for their own in the city streets. There’s some disbelief that needs suspending when you watch a man get quite literally curbstomped and somehow walk away afterwards.
The open worlds of Yakuza 0 are not particularly big, to the point where “world” is really pushing it. They are, however, densely packed with stuff to do – vending machines selling random loot, the randomly wandering Mr. Shakedown opponent who will beat cash out of players, and all manner of establishments offering food, items, and minigames.
Such minigames include Karaoke, dancing, darts, gambling, a dating sim, a catfight betting game, and far more. Not all of them are winners – the catfight wagering is particularly frustrating and time-consuming – but they all offer more content on top of an already robust package, and some of them are incredibly fun. Joining the telephone club to flirt with girls using an abstract arcade shooter mechanic is memorable, to say the least.
Oh, and full working of versions of OutRun and Space Harrier can be enjoyed in the game’s Sega-flavored arcades, alongside an annoyingly engrossing UFO Catcher machine.
In addition to the game’s many side stories, minigames, and recurring events, both Kiryu and Majima get to operate side businesses with their own detailed systems and potential to rake in buckets of Yen. Both these businesses are designed to be integrated into gameplay naturally, but can quite easily take over a player’s attention.
Kiryu will be able to buy various properties around town and collect money from them at regular intervals. Before collection, he may invest in the business and assign staff, increasing potential profit and protecting the business from attack. Meanwhile, Majima takes charge of a beleaguered cabaret club, employing hostesses and assigning them to incoming clients while trying to keep everybody happy.
It’s not particularly cutting edge in the graphics department, but Yakuza 0‘s energetic animations and stylish camera cuts make for visually exciting action regardless, demonstrating how raw technical power is no substitute for genuine artistry. Additionally, everything runs at a consistently smooth 60fps, which is always more important than simply looking pretty.
A fantastic soundtrack underscores everything, and I think the voice acting is good. It’s all Japanese, and I lack the linguistic diversity required to appropriately appraise the performances, but the voice actors seem really into it and certainly appear to be pouring their emotional range into each scene.
Audio and visual direction really come together in 0‘s more climactic battles, with lots of exciting camera switches and plenty of opportunities to pull off dazzling Heat actions.
I’m not quite sure how much of what I’m praising is true of previous Yakuza entries, but I know it’s damn fantastic here, and the prequel nature of the story makes it a perfect starting point before the series’ remakes start rolling around. The 1988 setting is downplayed but ever-present, and there are plenty of jokes at the expense of future developments littering dialog.
Majima’s awed surprise at the concept of delivery pizza is particularly amusing.
Playing Yakuza 0 has been a revelation, one tinged with excitement at the prospect of what I’ve been missing and can now experience. As a first foray into Sega’s world of gangsters, BDSM, and fishing minigames, it’s been an utter joy to play.
Most complaints I could have are negligible and mostly revolve around a few of the chance-based minigames being frustrating and occasionally disheartening – almost all optional stuff, and even then it’s made up for by those optional activities that really nail it. Oh, and some of that questionable content can be a little offputting, even if temporarily.
If Yakuza‘s always been this magnificent, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do and a lot of “friends” to chew out for not recommending it to me sooner.