Hey! Do you like Japan? Do you like hitting dudes in the streets with bicycles? And is your idea of fun the unravelling of a story involving loyalty, real estate, crime, blindness, identity and the sharpness of suits, offset by the ability to play darts with local drunks, try phone dating and collect phone cards?
If you answered yes to any of those – or are even vaguely curious – then Yakuza 0 is the game for you.
The game serves as a prequel for the series that’s been running since 2005. It’s ostensibly a continuous story that focuses on Kazama Kiryu, a yakuza who spends a lot of his time in non-criminal pursuits. This instalment aims to provide backstory for the whole series – it’s set in bubble-era Tokyo and Osaka, and offers a cinematic story about betrayal and brotherhood, in the shadow of a land-grab by powerful criminal factions.
It also operates as an urban simulator. It’s not quite open world as you can’t move seamlessly between towns, say, but in terms of individual locations, it’s impressive. There’s businesses you can frequent – you’ve gotta eat, after all, and why yes, that leopard-print coat would look pretty great – and a lot to see.
There’s side-quests which range from the touching to the dumb-arsed (that is a Michael Jackson clone working with a Spielberg clone to make a film clip, so desu ne) but which also underscore the moral probity of the lead characters. There’s also a series of mini-games – from picture-perfect arcade emulations, to UFO machines, to karaoke, baseball, dancing, bowling, card games, pool, darts, and a number of traditional gambling modes – which all contribute towards your completion level. There’s things to collect and friends to make and keep. Dates to go on. Fish to catch. Hostess clubs and real estate businesses to manage. Weapons to discover and manufacture. Slot-car races to win.
Of course, there’s also the street fights you can interrupt, which brings us to the brawler element of the game. The camera is often a pain in the arse, but the street fighting in this game is over-the-top and hilarious. There’s a number of different fighting styles available, and weapons do figure in the skill-tree the game gives you, but for the most part you’ll spend your time punching and snap-kicking your way through groups of pugnacious dickheads, using the occasional street sign or bicycle to help beat these fools down while hoovering yen out of their duds.
Heat Actions – super-charged beatings you earn as skill points accrue through the fight – are gory and silly in equal measure, and even the most difficult boss battles are lightened by their presence. Which is good, as you will beat down a fuckton of guys in this game.
Oh, and breakdance-fighting is absolutely a thing. No, really.
While most games struggle with a couple of key mechanics, Yakuza 0 has a wealth of them. The choice is almost overwhelming, and so it’s reassuring that you don’t have to be great (or even good) at most of them, unless you’re keen to complete all of the side-missions. They’re not necessary, for the most part, to see the main story through to completion. But they provide the ephemera that provides a portrait of the main characters in more depth than their roles as tragic heroes or terrible aggressors.
Series stalwart Kiryu is only one of the leads in this game. Majima Goro is the other, and he’s ridiculous. A yakuza on probation, he’s a club manager with an eyepatch, unable to leave the prison of Sotenbori’s riverbanks.
With a viewpoint that switches between Kiryu and Majima, the story progresses, setting a pace that – eventually – leads to a catastrophic, energetic ending. It’s a long game, and the final third might drag, depending on how much Japanese cinema you’ve seen, but I never felt that it was wasting my time, even when I was in the middle of some side-mission grind.
The fictional suburbs in which the game’s placed are stand-ins for real-life locations: Kamurocho is Tokyo’s Kabukicho, while Sotenbori is Osaka’s Dotonbori. There’s a couple of changes: you’ll see a beer-drinking dude instead of the familiar Glico runner in Osaka, for example – but they preserve the spirit of the places: most notably in the quality of the evening light there. I’ve been to both places, and playing the games engenders a real feeling of homesickness: the convenience stores and alleys, the lights and the noise… everything is bang on. They’re memory porn for tourists, these settings, and while they may feel a little clockwork after a while – you can hear the same conversations, for example, throughout – they provide the feeling of a living environment. You’ll want to explore the different restaurants and chat to the pervs and fortune tellers that line the streets. I can’t think of many other games that have made me feel as attached to their setting as Yakuza 0 did.
The Yakuza series is often described as a Japanese Grand Theft Auto clone, but this does both games a disservice. Yakuza 0 has tongue-in-cheek moments – particularly in the silliness of a lot of the side-missions (Help this dominatrix learn how to insult dudes! Convince this girl to stop making her peers flog their undies for cash!) – but it doesn’t have that as a default position, the way Rockstar games often do. There’s a lot of running about, and you’re more or less free to do what you want until you choose to focus on the story missions, but I find Yakuza treats the story much more seriously than most GTA entries, which kind of push the “we know we’re a game!” knowing wink angle a bit far.
Tonally, the game varies a lot. It’s deadly serious – this is a game where, as a lead character reminds you, people sign their name in the blood of others – and the criminal aspect of the stories are treated with as much solemnity as you’d expect from something purporting to display the effects of Japanese organised crime. But then there’s a lot of silliness involved, too: Kiryu’s confused nani? is something you’ll get used to as the non-crucial missions reach towards absurdity. But it’s always good-natured, these weird moments. They don’t seem to work against the darker narrative – instead, they offer some appealing idiosyncrasy without the sarcasm that other franchises would tack on.
The game was initially released in Japan in 2015, but only had a worldwide release two years later. I suspect a lot of this time – aside from being a kind of chronological tax Japan likes to lever against the rest of the world where this series in concerned – was spent on the localisation of the release, because the translation work is excellent. Whereas other instalments of the game went with overdubbing – if you can imagine a gangster film where the voices are provided by Michael Madsen, Eliza Dushku and Mark Hamill you’re almost there – this one is subs-only, and the better for it. The slang and abbreviation – Majima’s writin’ always seems looser’n others – conveys character really well. It feels like there’s been a lot of work put in to making this approachable for non-Japanese audiences, and that’s a good thing.
Notably, this game also doesn’t appear to be cut in the way some previous non-Japan releases were. There are softcore video parlours, phone dating clubs and hostess clubs in Yakuza 0, some of the elements that were cut in other games because it was thought they wouldn’t play well with Western audiences. It’s strange that stuff like this was previously edited, as I would have thought it was violence, rather than cheesecake which would have prompted concern, but I guess I’m wrong there.
Thankfully, the publisher seems to be coming to realise that the sort of people who play these games play them because they provide a stylised portrait of a part of Japan, and is releasing what’s fundamentally the same game to all.
In terms of consecutive hours on a single playthrough, I suspect this is the game that I’ve spent the most time playing. I stopped looking at the in-game counter when it hit about 160 hours, and I’m sure the final count is closer to 200. It’s worth noting, though, that a lot of the finale of the game is presented as cutscenes: I’d estimate there’s close to two hours of material there at least. It’s hard to quantify exactly what it is that makes the game work so well – it’s such a melange of mechanics, a lot of which seem kind of broken, that it shouldn’t work. But perhaps its the dedication the game has to creating a realistic-yet-improbable urban environment is enough to pull it through.
This game has me very excited for the forthcoming Yakuza 6, but also for the two Kiwami games, PS4 remakes of the first two entries in the series. It seems that Sega is finally interested in getting the series completely on to modern platforms – it’s suspected that there might be an effort to port the third through fifth entries to the PS4, too – so there could be a real chance of playing the games right through on the same hardware. I don’t know that I’ll be launching headlong into the first Kiwami straight away – I think a break would be good – but I’m looking forward to getting back into it.
If you’ve never played these games, Yakuza 0 is a great introduction. It’s the least buggy of the series I’ve played, and has no assumed knowledge. The game mightn’t tell you some things about its mechanics, or how best to play it, but in terms of setting you up for the rest of the games – and providing the peak Yakuza experience – it’s unparalleled. It plays well, hits some emotional highs and looks bloody great. I absolutely loved it.
(It seems to be on sale on the PSN quite a bit, so grab it. You won’t regret it.)