Review: Yakuza 0

Ask anyone to describe the Yakuza series (or read a review of any title in the series) and it’s likely that you’ll be told the games are a genre of their own. Part open-world, part action-adventure, part CGI video extravaganza, the Yakuza games can’t accurately be compared to any one title out there. Some might say GTA or Sleeping Dogs – which owes much to the Yakuza series, I might add – but I would argue that neither of these really feel much like the Yakuza games at all.

In reality, the games are a Japanese soap opera disguised as an action-adventure title, but one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Of course, the story itself is very adult, but also very melodramatic and over-the-top, and any Yakuza fan worth their mettle would admit that this is first-and-foremost the very reason they keep coming back.

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Yakuza 0 is no slouch in this regard. In some ways, I’d even go as far as saying it has the strongest story to date (note I’ve not played the first two games in the series, but I am across almost all of the others, including Isshin and Dead Souls). It’s also a prequel, so it requires no real prior knowledge of the series – great for first timers (that said, there are nods to a later storyline, but it’s really not necessary to know anything).

Telling the stories of two of the series’ main protagonists, Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, Yakuza 0 is set in 1988, both characters fresh faced and inexperienced. Kiryu’s story revolves around being framed for murder in fictional Kamurocho (based very closely on real-life Kabukicho in Tokyo), while Majima is trying to work his way back into the Yakuza after being forced into a kind of servitude, this time in fictional Sotenbori (based on real-life Dotonbori in Osaka).

Given this is a prequel – an origin story, of sorts – Yakuza 0 serves to detail what made Kiryu into the powerhouse he becomes, and what makes Majima such a crazy, unique character. In order to achieve both of these ends, the story includes certain arcs that are fabulously grand, highly emotional, and devastatingly powerful at times (albeit somewhat unbelievable, given the theme). While this is often the case in Yakuza titles, the comparatively tight focus (for example, Yakuza 5 followed five separate protagonists, each with their own story arc) makes for a more powerful punch, while still retaining the series’ staple convoluted plot-twists and reveals.

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On top of the main storyline, there are 100 side quests, each with their own mission, outcome, and characters. Each is well written, and the majority are laugh-out-loud funny – from teaching a submissive dominatrix to be more assertive, to attempting to procure an adult magazine without being noticed (I’ll let you discover the reasons behind that for yourself). Certainly, the topics at hand are often highly sexualised and misogynistic, but the real-world Yakuza themselves are quite patriarchal, so it fits the context (but is certainly quite childish at times).

Beyond the side quests, there are plenty of enemies to fight around town, fights to break up (by fighting, of course), shops to visit, bars to drink at, and of course – mini games. Yakuza 0 is packed to the brim with mini games, ranging from fully playable versions of Riichi (Japanese style) Mahjong, various forms of Hanafuda card games, various dice games, bowling, disco dancing, Karaoke, slot car racing, and the Sega Hi-Tech arcades (which contain UFO Catchers, and full versions of Outrun, Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone, and Super Hang-On, the latter two of which need to be unlocked via related side quests). Many mini games have varying levels of difficulty, and some even have their own quest lines to follow…

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And if you thought all of that was enough side content to keep you going, the game actually throws in two other major quests, one for each character. As part of Kiryu’s storyline, you will essentially run a property investment operation, buying and investing in properties with the goal to own as much of Kamurocho as possible. On Majima’s side of the woods, you will become manager of a small Cabaret Club, aiming to become the biggest club in Sotenbori. To do so, you will manage Hostesses, train them in entertainment, and handle customer complaints, again with the goal of raking in handfuls of cash. Both quests will take up a considerable amount of time if you want to actually finish them (which isn’t necessary, I should be clear), not to mention the mental investment involved (neither is as straight-forward as they might seem).

In fact, all of this will take up a lot of your time. The main story is 25-30 hours long, and as hard as I tried to play as many side quests and mini games as I could, I ended the game with less than 20% completion. There’s a lot to go back to, if I choose to, but the main point is that you don’t really have to, as the main storyline will keep you highly entertained.

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It really is – this was a staple when I lived in Tokyo… Good times, good times…

There are two primary themes I’ve touched on so far, but are really the main focus of this particular title in the serious – violence (which is a mainstay), and money. In regards to violence, this is a game based on the Japanese mafia after all, so there’s a lot of fighting, weapons, brutality, and blood… but not much death. While you will spend a lot of your time beating your opponents into walls and hitting them with pushbikes, you will never kill someone – they will always get up and apologise (there is honour involved, you see). Characters will occasionally be killed in cutscenes, but primarily for narrative purposes. In fact, NOT killing people is a major theme in the story the whole way through.

The fighting itself is similar to previous titles, but this time each character has 3 fighting styles – one that’s fast, one that’s brutal, but slow, and one… kinda in between. Each is viable in its own way, but I ended up sticking to one that I liked rather than switching between them (particularly the extremely overpowered “Slugger” stance that Majima uses). In previous Yakuza games, increasing in level was based on collecting orbs, which were accrued by fighting (essentially an XP system, disguised as… orbs). These could then be used on new techniques and upgrades. This new system depends on money – each upgrade comes at a cost (although some can only be obtained through training) – and the game refers to this as “investing in yourself”.

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And money is everywhere – keep in mind this game is set in 1988, at the height of the Japanese bubble economy – people use 10,000 Yen notes (basically $100 notes) to flag down taxis, it floats about like confetti when you beat down your opponents, and it is readily paid out as part of your side businesses. You may be impressed when you hit your first million yen, but soon you’ll get a million from every fight, and that 30 million yen upgrade will come out of pocket cash. In fact, eventually you’ll be so flush with cash that you can throw a handful in the air every time you want to clear a path through the streets (or to cancel an oncoming fight).

Gameplay follows a simple flow, but one that may not appeal to every player. Control is portioned out between story components, which play out in one of three ways: 1. fully animated cut scenes; 2. dialogue heavy conversation via speech bubbles (with each sentence able to be skipped through quickly); and 3. a kind of noir comic-book style conversation, with still images floating through conversation beats. This third style is new to the series, and rarely used in the game itself, almost feeling like an afterthought (which is perhaps what it is – it may be that the developers ran out of time to fully animate these scenes, or simply wanted to quickly flesh out unclear aspects of the story). While each of these are well written, they are often lengthy – the series heavily relies on its story, after all.

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Cutscene – comic book – conversation

Between these story beats, players have (mostly) free roam of one of the two cities. Side missions and mini games are everywhere, with the minimap highlighting where side missions can be progressed further (or completed), and where the player needs to get to in order to progress the main story. My main issue here is that there is no option to choose a particular mission – only the main storyline is ever brightly highlighted on the map, and occasionally it seems like there is no time to go after side missions.

That latter point couldn’t be further from the truth, however. The only time players are not able to go off on their own is when certain areas of the map are blocked off. While this does happen somewhat often in the game, story chapters are lengthy, and once this part of the story has been bypassed, the game opens itself up again. However, once players reach Chapter 9 (or thereabouts), the story picks up its pace significantly, and players can get lost in the story itself, missing out on completing much of what the game has to offer. That said, the final chapter does allow players to finish everything they want to before embarking on the final mission (and you can take as long as you want).

Another important aspect of the game is it’s voice-acting. While everything plays out in Japanese, the voice actors are top-notch , with Sega enlisting household names to play primary characters. These same actors are also physically represented as the characters they portray in game, so if you’ve had any exposure to Japanese entertainment/TV/movies, you may recognise a few faces. All of this leads to an extremely genuine feel (although boisterously – and deliberately – overacted at times), and clearly Sega has learnt not to overdub in English from their initial failure (Yakuza 1 and 2 were both dubbed in English, and were very poorly received).

Graphics-wise, the game is hard to place. From my perspective, it’s gorgeous – clearly above and beyond previous titles, all of which were on PS3. However, the fidelity is definitely not up to PS4 standards, with some character models coming out very polygonal, and with very limited animation. It has to be understood, though, that this game was made for both PS3 and PS4, so the restrictions that applied to the PS3 version have hamstrung the PS4 version. Still, given all that, the detailed and faithful representations of Tokyo and Osaka, along with the very lovingly crafted cutscenes make for an enjoyable game, even given the limitations.

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These limitations spread beyond just the artwork, however. The archaic save mode that has been in play since early titles (and likely is a result of the folder structure for save files on PS3) is still used here, and given this is PS4, its more frustrating than ever (essentially, each save makes 2 save files – a gameplay save, and a system save,  and you have to wait through them both). A small issue, but annoying nonetheless. On top of that, gameplay is still delayed when a fight scene is triggered – likely due to the game needing to switch between the open game-world and the closed fight arena. I expect this is due to memory limitations of the PS3 as well, but it really slows down the pace.

Overall, Yakuza 0 is a fine title for virtually anyone that enjoys action games – or even just a robust and outrageous story. While it exposes much of Japanese culture and everyday life, it does so tongue-in-cheek (stamina drinks aren’t medicine, after all), taking a firm dig at Japanese tropes in the process, and making some exceptions in the interests of streamlining certain aspects (for example, Japanese people wouldn’t rally around a fight and cheer people on – they’d be more likely to rush off in fear and pretend they didn’t see anything). If you’re after an extremely enjoyable experience, with plenty of activities to keep you busy for a long time, you shouldn’t pass up on Yakuza 0 (especially with Yakuza Kiwami, the PS4 remake of Yakuza 1, coming our way mid-2017).

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