Yakuza 0 Review
A memorable origins story that fans of the franchise will appreciate
They say money makes the world go round, and nowhere does that adage ring truer than in Yakuza 0. While technically the sixth (canon) game in the series, Yakuza 0 rolls back the clock, sending the player on a bullet train back to 1988 to explore the origins of Kazama Kiryu, the Dragon of Dojima. In this time of excess, where the jewellery on display will blind your more than the glaring neon lights, I got to find out where it all began for Kiryu, as well as his rival/vitriolic buddy Majima Goro. Through the streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, both leads kick and punch and smack talk and gamble and a myriad of other distractions their way through the plot to discover who owns the Empty Lot—a tiny patch of land smack dab in the middle of Kamurocho, and the key to the city’s financial future.
What has always impressed me with the Yakuza series is its tendency to break convention. Not like weird, art house perception of what it means to play, but rather, you’ve-just-beat-on-five-mooks-and-it’s-now-time-for-karaoke convention. It’s something that really establishes the tone of the game in the first ten minutes: story, minigames/sidequests, beating the hell out of people. Those are your three staples. While the series has sometimes been likened, at least for a western audience, to Grand Theft Auto, I find it’s more akin to Shenmue, in terms of the abovementioned “staples”. With no forklift driving, of course.
Money is put front and centre right off the bat. Kiryu is collecting a debt, unbeknownst to him at the time, in the Empty Lot. After beating a guy halfway to Sunday, he collects the man’s money and escapes. However, the next thing Kiryu knows, the man has been killed and everyone has the Dragon of Dojima in their crosshairs—on both sides of the law. Kiryu sets off to clear his name by finding out who framed him and who owns this Empty Lot.
Meanwhile, a taxi ride away in Sotenbori, Majima has been booted out of the yakuza for (Yakuza 4 spoilers) conspiring with his best bud Saejima to kill members of the Ueno Seiwa outfit. However, Majima literally couldn’t pull the trigger, so Saejima took the fall. Now, to claw his way back into the yakuza, Majima runs a cabaret-style club “The Grand” in Sotenbori. He’s hoping to make enough scratch to get back in the good graces of his boss Shimano.
One of the issues that naturally arises with prequel games, at least on a narrative level, is the fact that you’re either voiding or retconning a lot of character development. And in the case of the Yakuza series that’s quite a bit. To compensate, you have to walk a fine line between having characters go through an arc and leading them to who they were when the first game began.
Kiryu’s journey has been on-going through several games, but his relationship with his sworn brother Nishiki, who took a rather sharp turn in the first game, was a narrative string many wanted pulled. We also get a fleeting look at the “master/father-figure” Kazama, who is the boss of his own, opposing faction. Kiryu is the “yakuza with a heart of gold”, which one NPC dubs him. Majima, on the other hand, was first introduced in Yakuza beating a guy to death with an umbrella. He’s known as reckless and crazy—the “mad tiger”. So, it’s quite a shock when he’s first introduced as a calm and collected club owner, who refuses to use fisticuffs in his club. Slowly, through the story, we’re party to events that erode at this calm and collected veneer.
The threads that tie both characters together, and serve as the main thematic elements for Yakuza 0 are honour and immovable will. While most antagonists and characters around Kiryu and Majima are motivated by money and glory, the two protagonists are motivated by doing what they feel is right. The Empty Lot is the personification of the excess of the ‘80s and our antagonists. As the name implies, the Dragon of Dojima is part of the Dojima family. The Empty Lot is wanted by Kazama, the Dojima family, Majima’s family, Tachibana real estate, and another shadowy consortium. It’s easy to get lost following every narrative path, so the game is kind enough to offer you a summation every few chapters.
Along Kiryu’s journey, he’s facing off with the “generals” under Sohei Dojima, the head of the family. There’s the ex-boxer Daisaku Kuze; Daiki Awano; and Keiji Shibusawa. Each one of them has their own motivations for hunting down Kiryu and laying claim to the Empty Lot. And Yakuza 0 does a great job making these characters’ motivation clear—whether it’s a show force, money, or glory. Not to mention, across the board, there are stellar performances from all involved.
Aiding Kiryu is Tetsu Tachibana, of the aforementioned Tachibana real estate group. Compared to all other characters in the game, he’s perhaps the most calm and collected. With all the morally grey people in the game, and likeable, often sympathetic antagonists, Tachibana may leave the least room for ambiguity. Along with Jun Oda, his right hand man, Kiryu soon finds himself embroiled with them.
It’s important not to give too much of Majima’s story away, because it unfolds at a slower pace than Kiryu’s. However, Tsukasa Sagawa, who works for Majima’s ex-boss is an interesting antagonist. It’s great to see even those pitted against you travel through their own character arcs by the time the time the dust has settled. I started off hating him, but by the end, my tune had changed.
Alongside the great acting, the models during in-game cutscenes look fantastic. However, it’s easy to see which characters, like Kuze and Tachibana, were based off actual people. They often look a little peculiar when put side-by-side with Kiryu and Majima. These hyper-realised facial models also contrast with the world itself. Coming straight from Yakuza 1 (which I finished a day before jumping into Yakuza 0), Kamurocho has been fantastically realised. The level of detail in every torn poster, shop sign, glowing neon light, and product on display is insane. What spoils it, and only lightly, is the fact that there are prominent pop-up issues—items will appear when you’re fewer than five steps away, and it’s pretty easy to tell that the game was originally on the PlayStation 3. But with the sheer level of detail and charm that the world oozes, it’s easy to forgive these shortcomings.
However, all that aside, we’re just really scratching the first layer of grime away from Yakuza 0’s plot. It takes its brilliantly executed noir and yakuza tales, mixing them with a grindhouse feel to create a compelling plot. If you’re a stranger to the games, you may find it convoluted—because it pretty much is. It has more narrative twists and turns than a broken shopping trolley trying to navigate a crowded supermarket. Yakuza 0 demands your attention during its dialogue-heavy cutscenes, and if you switch off for a second, you can lose track. The games uses this time to dump exposition and break up the literal break-neck pace. So, if you’re not a fan of these convoluted storylines, you’re probably going to switch off. The slow pace in the dialogue sections will no doubt have you hammering the “X” button to just get them over with. And the same applies to the substories. Plus, if you hate subtitled games (as there is no English voice acting) and scanning tons of dialogue boxes, then the story and characters will have a tough time keeping you engaged.
These moments of dialogue often lead to a spectacular series of fights, and the first incident for Kiryu is one of the game’s seminal moments. It’s a gauntlet-style brawl through a Dojima-owned office. You’re thrown into a fight with several mooks, barrelling through rooms, jumping through windows and launching thugs through doors, all the while contesting with one persistent enemy who you can bust up in a series of QTEs.
Boss battles are a particular joy, with a favourite being when Majima faces off with a knife-wielding opponent. After trading blows, the knife flies into the air and, through a successful couple of QTEs, Majima boots the blade into the other man’s shin. These brutal, cringe-inducing moments are a plenty throughout the game. Violence in Yakuza 0, much like the era and the mystique following the yakuza, is bombastic, insanely excessive—every blow is felt and every knocked-out tooth is revelled in. Once completing these chapter fights, you can then replay them in the Ultimate Battle mode, which lets you gleefully revisit brawls and parade your martial superiority when you’ve levelled up. Post-game, there’s New Game+, which lets you carry over things like money, or you can head back into your previous game before the finale and clear anything you like.
The combat in Yakuza 0 is definitely at its most visceral. Fists, chairs, swords, guns, clubs, car doors, curbs, walls, windows, rivers—the ways in which you can inflict pain on your fellow man is varied and exhilarating. It’s less like the Batman Arkham games or Sleeping Dogs (with a counter system/context sensitive combat) and more a straight-up slugfest. In the vein of games like Dynamite Cop, Streets of Rage, it’s simple, insanely fun, and rewarding.
Kiryu and Majima now have three styles of combat. In previous games, you simply levelled up one style. Now, however, the styles are more nuanced, depending on just how you want to knock someone’s teeth out. For Kiryu, there’s the Thug, Rush, and Destroyer styles. Thug is your all-rounder, great for pretty much any fight you run into; Rush is quick, with the emphasis on dodging and a barrage of rapid strikes to stun opponents; Destroyer is a powerhouse, able to grab weapons from your surroundings and dismantle enemies quicker than the pushbike you just broke on some dude’s head. The latter style is perfect for tight spaces, where tons of weapons are at your disposal. Rush is pretty much the staple for boss fights.
Majima’s styles follow a similar pattern. His default style is quick, and modelled off his combat in the previous games. His Dancer style is essential for close quarters. Its capoeira/break dancing, so it’s all spinning legs and enemies caught sucked into your whirlwind of limbs. His Slugger style, complete with bat, takes care of bosses like nobody’s business.
Levelling up your skills is a simple matter of treating yourself. You literally beat the cash out of opponents. Just watch a shower of coins and notes explode from a foe after you introduce their skull to a steal bat or crush their face under the heel of your boot. To unlock more skills, you can train with different masters. Veterans of the series will see a few familiar (albeit youthful) faces here. And each master has their own minigame associated with them.
Along with regular combat, Yakuza 0 cranks the action to 11 when you start doling out HEAT actions. Think of it as your special attack gauge, which builds as you brawl. When at a certain level, a flame icon appears, then you just hit triangle. Over the course of the series, more and more HEAT actions have appeared. Personal favourites include the ol’ head in the car door, stomping on a guy through a shopping cart, and launching a guy into a river. There must be dozens of HEAT actions that never disappoint. Combat in general is at the pinnacle of the Yakuza series, with each game building stronger foundations.
However, if you want to unlock those sweet moves, it all comes down to money. You can earn it through regular combat, but that’s probably the least efficient method. If you want to fully level up, Yakuza 0 pretty much forces you to engage in other activities from the main story. For me, that is fine, but it’s still quite a grind fest. If you’re just a person who wants to blow through the main game, and none of that interests you, there’s no way you’re going to progress more than a dozen abilities for each battle style. That’s not even taking to account the crafting sidequests.
To really rake in the moolah, substories and the real estate games are your best bet, and they come in a ton of flavours. No two substories are ever quite the same in Yakuza. One moment, you’ll be helping a boy track down his stolen video game, or fighting with an old lady, or becoming a producer on a TV show, or getting involved in an underground fighting ring, or infiltrating a cult. Not every encounter needs to be solved with fists, and some of the best missions Kiryu and Majima solve with their wits. They all serve as funny, sometimes heart-warming, self-contained stories.
The game’s real estate mechanic is how you really rake in the cash. For Kiryu, you have five areas to “conquer”, meaning you’ve bought all the properties in the area and thwarted the “Five Billionaires”. Each area (and by extension its property) generates income. You can then invest to upgrade properties, fend off the leaders who want to battle you, and buy more businesses to rule the district. In the end, you can be generating hundreds of millions of yen every few minutes. Majima’s cabaret club is more a social game, where you recruit, train (and even dress) hostesses to get the most bang for your buck when you open the club. It’s like a management minigame you see on the App Store. Basically, you assign girls and give them commands, making sure the men who visit the club are happy by chatting, and bleed them for all they’re worth.
Sidequests (of which there are around 100) are just scratching the surface of how you can entertain yourself in Yakuza 0. Pool, darts, classic SEGA arcade games, phone line dates, collecting all the phone cards, eating at every restaurant, making friends, remote-controlled car racing—the list goes on. There’s hours of STUFF to keep you entertained, and it’s easy to forget you’re supposed to be finding out who framed you for murder when you need to add that last stuffed dragon to your claw machine collection. Personally, I couldn’t be bothered grinding through darts and pool and the arcade games, which you are forced to do if you want to collect achievements. The former two games aren’t going to blow you away; they’re just little distractions. Plus, the dating quests of Majima’s money sub-game aren’t really my thing, either. However, by completing them, you receive “Completion Points”, which are used to do things like generate money quicker, run without getting tired, and lots of other useful boons.
The multiplayer bar activities, like darts and pool, can be played with others on the network or offline, and are perfectly fine distractions for a while if you feel like chilling out. You only need one pad, too, which, unless you’re a germaphobe, can be shared between you and friend. Because all the assets are local, with the most potentially intensive game being disco dancing, online runs extremely smoothly. Unfortunately, there is no side-by-side story-related multiplayer, which would have been awesome.
I spent over 50 hours in Sotenboroi and Kamurocho, and I’ve only tackled about half of the characters’ subquests, just completed the main story, and have an absolute ton off activities in my backlog. You can easily sink 100 hours into Yakuza 0. While the pacing of the game may seem plodding or stuttering in some places, there is nothing quite like Yakuza 0. It’s pure testosterone; it’s jacked dudes ripping off their shirts to knock the stuffing out of each other. And behind those chiselled abs and pecs, there’s a heart beating louder than the broken bones Kiryu and Majima leave in their bloody wake. Yakuza 0 is an epic experience, and you’ll find few games like it in the west.