There are certain things in life that I have just simply missed, a cultural blind spot if you will. I recently had to admit that I had never seen a single second of Twin Peaks, a void that has now been filled with as much quirkiness as David Lynch can throw at me. The Yakuza series of games has been another blind spot for me, and while I have always been aware of the series I have never so much as held one of the boxes. Yakuza 0 is a straight prequel, offering newcomers the experience of Yakuza without needing to carry the burden of understanding the overall story of the series. As it turns out it seems that I have been missing out; I didn't realise it, but I have needed the Yakuza series in my life.
Let me begin the meat of this review with an anecdote, one that will either push you further down the page of this review or scrambling for that big red X at the top-right of your screen. Either way it should help you decide if Yakuza 0 is for you. As game reviewers we are often tasked with seeing as much of a game as we can in a relatively short space of time, and with a large game like Yakuza 0 time is very much of the essence. Having set aside four hours of playtime on a particular evening to push the main storyline forward I was met with some of the most insanely brilliant in-game distractions I have ever played. It took me three and a half hours to realise I hadn’t moved the story one inch, but what I had done was help a punk band develop a punk attitude for an interview with fans, I helped a struggling Dominatrix learn how to berate her customers and I also stood in as a TV producer on a food show before facing off against the actual producer in a streetfight that comes across as something straight out of Anchorman. Does that sound like something you would want to play? Then come on in, pull up a seat, get a warm sake in your hand and let me take you to the neon-soaked and corruption-filled world of 1980s Japan.
Here's Kiryu in one of the moments he isn't punching someone.
Yakuza 0 follows the story of two of the series’ mainstay characters, Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, each of which are in different locations; Kiryu in Kamurocho and Majima in Sotenbori. Both characters are caught up in a larger clan power struggle and both are trying to make amends. Kiryu is framed for murder and is desperately trying to clear his name, while Majima is trying to make amends due to his part in an attempted assassination years earlier. The interesting dichotomy sees Kiryu trying to maintain a low profile on the streets of Kamurocho while Majima is the face of the cabaret nightclub he runs, very much up front and centre. The linking story between these narratives focuses on an overarching conspiracy and power struggle for a piece of property called ‘The Empty Lot’, a key to a whole lot of yen that everyone wants. Truth be told, for all the madcap moments of Yakuza 0, at its core is a very well-grounded crime/family drama, and at times it is wonderfully written and acted.
Yakuza 0 has been referred to as ‘open-world’ but that description really stretches the definition of ‘open’ to a point of nearly becoming a bit of a lie. Within the areas of Kamurocho and Sotenbori a very high percentage of buildings are purely window dressing, actual locations are reasonably small and those hoping for sprawling cityscapes will be disappointed in small maps that are traversable in barely minutes. The magic that Yakuza 0pulls is that it provides some of the most dense maps, in terms of things to do, that you will find. Any time you are moving across the map towards the next highlight on your minimap you will undoubtedly encounter someone in trouble and only you can solve their problems, problems which vary greatly in topic and tone. Some ‘substories’ will have you helping a father reconnect with his son, or you might have to fake being someone's boyfriend to help them avoid their father arranging dates for them. Failing that, how about shutting down a ring of schoolgirls selling their underwear for money? The differing scenarios, ranging from heartfelt moments to scenes of lunacy are an absolute delight and you’ll be hooked into helping anyone who asks just to see what happens. A lesser game could be heavily criticised for its inconsistent and erratic tonal shifts but Yakuza 0 manages to commit so heavily to its unpredictability that it absolutely works.
Substories are just one way to be distracted from the main story, the others are the sheer range of activities on offer. Populating the game areas are arcades, providing you with the chance to play games like Space Harrier and Outrun and marvel at how bad you are at them. Similarly you’ll be amazed at how long you will play the arcade claw games, throwing money at the prize-filled machines until you get that Sega Mega Drive plushie. Perhaps you fancy yourself quite the dancer, then get yourself to the local disco and show off your moves in an incredibly well-crafted dance mini-game that will have you returning time and time again. Maybe you are more of a sports person; well why not take yourself down to the local batting cages, or bowling alley or pool hall? Or you may be a bit of a thinker, so why don't you just visit the local Shogi room, and hone your mental skills in a game of what is essentially Japanese chess. The amount of content crammed into this game is truly staggering, there really is something for everyone, and while all of it may not be for you, you'd be hard pressed not to be impressed.
One activity that you cannot avoid in Yakuza 0 is fighting, and oh-so-much of your time will be spent punching people squarely in the face. Simply walking up a street can see you garner unwanted attention and before you know it you’ll be in a streetfight; sometimes their frequency can make it feel like Final Fantasy’s random encounters. Thankfully the combat is highly enjoyable and utterly devastating. It’s not the most in-depth brawler, favouring the old school light-attack, heavy-attack, dodge approach. Any depth that exists in its combat is delivered via the different fighting stances you can take: some will be better for fighting crowds while others will make you lighter on your feet which is of benefit when fighting slower, heavy hitters. You can change the modes on the fly mid-fight, adding a nice level of adaptability during a ruckus. Both Kiryu and Majima have their own fighting stances to unlock, helping to bring a wide range of styles to a simple fighting system.
One other mechanic that adds to the flavour of the combat is the the Heat Gauge. As you put together successful combos and deal out some violence your Heat Gauge will increase, and there are three levels to it as it builds. Each level that the gauge is filled up will offer you a brutal special move to deliver, the first level of the gauge obviously dealing less damage than your gauge is filled up to the third level. Special mention has to be given to just how brutal some of these special moves are; I have seen some of these animations hundreds of times and I am still wincing at the sight of them. This incredible violence could be tasteless but there is something inherently funny about the combat, which has a lot to do with the fact that no-one seems to die. You may have just smashed someone’s face into a wall three times before kerb stomping them, but when the fight is over they’ll be there complimenting how strong you are or apologising for starting a fight.
The developers have also been quite clever in using fighting to help progress your character, but not necessarily in a traditional way. When you fight someone, every punch, inexplicably, sees money fly from their person and into your bank account, like some kind of hyper-violent piñata. With this money you literally ‘invest in yourself’, using your money to work your way around the skill tree. It turns combat from a distraction to a necessity, punching the money out of goons to better yourself.
The biggest negative of Yakuza 0, and it has to be mentioned, is in its portrayal of women. Females in this 1980s Japan are diluted down to essentially a damsel in need of saving or an object of someone's sexual desire. There is a very odd collectible challenge that sees you collecting playing cards with images of real-world women. So far, so uncontroversial. However you can then take these cards to what I affectionately call a Crank-Den, where you can watch a short video of the said real-world girl writhing in a bikini, which literally has your character reaching for the Kleenex. Again you can avoid this completely if you want to, or have your character whacking away until sunrise, you choose, but the fact that it’s an option is a tad jarring. Broadly speaking, in a game of this size and depth it is very rare that these moments will hit you but it’s something to be aware of before taking the plunge into Yakuza 0.
Another consideration for the would-be Yakuza in you is asking yourself the question, ‘Do I enjoy reading?’ There is a lot of reading in Yakuza 0, all the voice acting is in Japanese so you’ll spend a fair bit of your time reading dialogue boxes - if that’s not your bag you may want to have a think about investing. In real terms the game is engagingly written and not particularly overwrought, so the conversations are usually either interesting or hilarious, moving the plot forward but always keeping you onboard. It’s not a criticism per se but something to have in your mind when considering Yakuza 0.
Majima is definitely the more athletic out of the two main characters.
There is so much more that I could touch on but feel it would be better explored on your own terms as every street and every person are discoveries worth making and truth be told, I could talk about it for hours. I haven’t even mentioned the fact you can run businesses or manage properties, or that there is quite literally a man called Mr Shakedown who, you guessed it, shakes you down for money. This is purely scratching the rough-looking surface of a game that just keeps giving, and if you spend time with it you will be rewarded in spades. It is impossible not to recommend Yakuza 0, it’s manages to be dense without content feeling superfluous, it’s violent without being mean-spirited and it can be heartfelt without being awkwardly saccharine. It’s a truly wonderful trick that Yakuza 0 plays, and rather than work out how it does it, just sit back and let this videogaming alchemy entertain you.