One of the best things about playing Yakuza is that you never really know what’s going to happen next. While the main story is always a taut mob tale – filled to the brim with the sort of Japanese gangsterism you’d expect – its weird, delightfully oddball side stories dish up genuinely funny, sometimes disturbing whimsy. Tonally, it shifts everywhere, making it one of the most unpredictable series in gaming.
Yakuza 0 is really no different. As an origin story for two of the series most prolific characters – Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima – Yakuza 0 expertly sets the stage for their future adventures as the “Dragon of Dojima” and the “Mad Dog of Shimano” respectively. As is the series staple, it flits between the converging stories of its protagonists. Instead of half a dozen of them, its focus rests on just these two, benefiting by telling a more cohesive tale.
Half of it takes place in Kamurocho, a fictionalized recreation of Tokyo’s Kabukicho and Shinjuku Golden Gai district. A glittering hub of neon lights and human excess, it’s home to Pachinko halls and Hostess clubs, restaurants and dens of depravity. There, low-level Yakuza thug Kiryu gets framed for a murder he didn’t commit –bringing his Yakuza family in to disrepute. He’s the proverbial tough guy with a heart of a gold, a reluctant criminal whose personal ideologies are often at odds with the Yakuza family he serves. He gets embroiled in a criminal conspiracy over a small bit of land that’s holding up a very profitable redevelopment project that half the Yakuza is intent on getting.
On the other, in a fictionalised district of Osaka called Sotenbori, Goro Majima is a man trapped. Ousted from the Yakuza, he desperately wants to work his way back in. While it may seem that he’s living the high-life, running the prestigious Grand Cabaret, he’s really stuck in a cage under a watchful eye. His chance to get back in their graces comes along when he’s tasked with a hit – but the victim isn’t quite who he expected it to be.
The interwoven, converging tale may be filled with clichés and tropes – themes of honour, betrayal and brotherhood – but it’s wonderfully told. Like many other Japanese games, it does mean that the action is regularly punctuated by lengthy cut-scenes. Yakuza 0 is not afraid to wrest control from you for long bits of exposition, but they’re often so gripping (with incredible Japanese voice acting and genuinely good writing) that they don’t really detract from being immersed in the adventure. There’s no English voice-over, but I think in this instance it’s a good thing.
As good as the story itself is, it’s the numerous side stories and other strange diversions that are really the star. Neither Kamurocho nor Sotenbori are particularly large for open worlds, but they’re so densely packed with detail and things to do that it scarcely matters. There are perpetual (though largely optional) distractions peppered throughout. On one mission, I helped a young boy track down his stolen video game, helped a bumbling production team produce their TV show, coached a shy dominatrix on how to be more assertive and bust a second hand, schoolgirl panties ring – all before making it to my objective.
If that’s not enough of a distraction, the game is host to plenty more, including playable arcade games from its 80s setting. You can play games like Outrun and Space Harrier, or those infernal UFO catcher claw machines from the inside of SEGA arcades. There’s a fleshed out Karaoke game, because of course there is – and it’s a blast to play through the challenging, catchy Japanese tunes as you engage in the finger gymnastics required to belt out the songs in time. There’s so much more though; darts, bowling, baseball, dancing, fishing and a handful of largely engaging and competent minigames. There’s so much to see and do. A play through of the core story will take at least 24 hours, but consuming the rest of everything on offer could easily triple that tally.
Each hero has his own specific macro game, too. Kiryu can became a real estate mogul, managing the properties and businesses in Kamurocho, waging a turf war against other property barons. Majima gets to micro-manage a hostess club, fitting women in outfits, and training them to keep patrons happy. It all sounds silly, but it’s not only fun to do, but also a great way to earn in-game money.
Money, incidentally, that you’ll want. The game’s experience system is tied directly to how much money you have. Yes, the same currency that lets you buy some healing Udon noodles and delicious fried takoyaki is what you’ll use to upgrade your attacks. The game explains it away as “investing in yourself,” but it’s an interesting way to handle progress. Thankfully, money is relatively easy to come by, because you quite literally beat it out of everybody. Given its 80’s setting, during Japan’s economic renewal, it was a time of excess.
The game’s actual meat largely comes down to brawling, melee combat – and beating enemies to a pulp gives you cold hard cash. While the combat’s improved over previous Yakuza games, it’s still lacking the finesse you’d find in other 3rd person action games like Bayonetta or the Arkham series.
There’s no distinct, skilful flow to the combat so the many, many fights your heroes will take part in start feeling a little dull. That’s not to say it lacks depth or satisfaction. Each of your protagonists has 3 fighting styles they can switch to on-the fly in the middle of brawls, and there’s a lot of variety in attacks thanks to the contextual attacks you can pull off. You can also upgrade each of those styles, adding new attacks as you progress.
You’ll be doing a lot of fighting, smashing in heads and kicking teeth in, but you won’t be doing a lot of killing. It’s something the game makes a point of, letting you know that killing people is a step too far, even for Yakuza. It makes a nice change of pace for a game to even acknowledge that killing everything that moves may not be the best way to solve problems (though kicking heads in might be).
If the game does get something wrong, it‘s in its portrayal of women. Yes, much of its sexism is a throwback to 1980s Japan and its inherent culture, but it would be nice if there was more than one woman in the game who wasn’t a damsel in distress or sex object. It’s a minor blip in an otherwise excellent game; one that I hope propels the cult favourite Yakuza series to the mainstream success it deserves.