Getting a copy of this game was a hassle. I intended to buy it the week it came out, but by the time I went to my local stores, it was sold out. I had to wait at least two weeks before I could find a copy, but when I eventually saw it in the shop, my eyes beamed and I bought it instantly,finally able to play the incredible game within.
Yakuza 0, a prequel to the long running Yakuza series, which is highly popular in Japan and East Asia more generally, but rather niche in the West, has finally graced our consoles with a localised version this year. Being a prequel and requiring little familiarity with the prior games in the series, this is the perfect entry point for those that yet to experience it.
The story in this game focuses around the two playable characters, Kazuma Kiryu, who starts off as just a low level yakuza doing debt collecting jobs and Goro Majima, an exile of the yakuza who wants to get back in, but is forced as being a money maker for his boss in the late 1980s. After Kiryu is framed for a murder in the Empty Lot in Kamurocho (a fictionalised version of the Kabuchiko district in Tokyo) and Majima is tasked with assassinating someone by the name of Makoto Makimura, they find themselves embroiled in different groups fighting and infighting over this tiny patch of land and punch,kick and stomp their way through and making their mark in the Tojo Clan.
The main storyline of Yakuza 0 is a gritty and compelling crime drama that is well written and the performances, whilst I cannot understand Japanese, are full of emotion so in my view they are as a whole, quite good.
There is another side to the writing Yakuza 0 and those are the wacky and often genuinely funny side quests. There is one where you have to assist a dominatrix in learning how to berate her clients better or another where you accidentally agree to buy a young kid a porno magazine, which turns it into a mini stealth mission. Or another where you pretend to be a producer or someone’s girlfriend, there is plenty of variety in the narratives of the side quests,which provide a nice counterbalance to the furrowed brows and tense stand offs in the main story.
As far as the actual mechanics of the game goes, there are two pillars: combat and mini games.
The combat here is of a more traditional brawler style, different to the current trend of making variations of Arkham Asylum combat. This means that you’ll usually have to counter manually, block using L1, strike with square and triangle, grab, pick up weapons or guard break with circle and dodge with x. There are also brutal special moves called HEAT moves that range from curb stomping someone’s face, ripping their teeth out with pliers,suplexing people on rails and pouring boiling water on the faces of goons, delinquents, yakuza and anyone else who gets wide with you. Generally trash mobs are quite easy, although later in the game they tend to have bigger health bars, draw weapons more often and get a few more moves under their belt but the biggest challenges tend to come from some exciting boss fights. It’s not at all a difficult system to get used to but it does have two issues worth noting. At times, it can feel a bit like I’m just button mashing as opposed to games with more finesse, like Devil May Cry 3 or Metal Gear Rising, but in spite of this it’s still lots of fun. The other is that the way lock on works is pure shit. You have to hold R1 to lock on, but most of the time, except for certain moves that require it, it’s pretty useless and not helpful when fighting large packs of guys seeing as there’s no reticle placed on your target, so who you’re actually targeting can be very vague and moving around in time can become a hassle.
There are also three fighting styles per character (4 if you do what’s required to unlock the last one). They are Brawler/Thug, Rush/Breaker and Beast/Slugger, being medium, fast and heavy respectively and you can switch between them in the middle of battle. As Kiryu, I mostly used the brawler and rush styles in combat, whereas with Majima, I tended to use his styles more evenly,as Kiryu’s beast style is best only in tight areas with lots of weapon pick ups, which are not always around. Majima’s breaker style is also very effective crowd control as he spins and kicks while woohooing as if he’s Mario. Each style also has it’s own upgrade tree that while they look like sphere grids, they function as regular old ability trees. You upgrade by ‘investing in yourself’ through Yen, which is the single currency used for everything in the game, from buying food and items, upgrading yourself, buying real estate, gambling and so on.
There are a shitload of side activities in Yakuza 0. You can play Sega arcade classics, such as Space Harrier and Outrun, use the claw machine, go bowling, play pool, darts, mahjong and more. You can play shogi, which is like a Japanese version of chess that I am absolutely terrible at due to how it deviates from chess throwing me off entirely. There are rhythm games, such as karaoke that are lots of fun although I wish it had more songs.The dancing minigame is quite interesting as it takes a unique spin on rhythm games. There is a grid on the on the screen and each button press will appear at a square on the grid and you must traverse the grids to be able to press it in time, whilst traversing as many squares to get there in order to maximise your score. It’s counter intuitive at first, but once you get the hang of it, can be quite fun. You can also use the telephone club to hook up with girls and watch erotic soft-core videos for a bit of titillation and to recharge your heat bar. There are lots of others that I did not mention and you can easily spend a shit load of time on these, especially if you’re a completionist type. On that note, the game took me just under 61 hours to finish at ~45% total completion.
The other two major mini-games, which have their own quest-lines attached to them are the real estate management and cabaret club; both of which are necessary if you want to be able to upgrade all your fighting styles fully.
How the real estate management works is you use your money to buy property in an area to gain a greater share and run out the billionaire that monopolises it. Then, you get managers (which you obtain through the completion of substories usually) and security guards that you assign to an area when starting collection to maximize profit in addition to using advisors to upgrade the rank of each property. Then you wait, collect the profit.Sometimes you will have to do a money battle, which amounts to mindlessly mashing X, take on the area boss in a bet over 10% area share in a mini game and after you have 90% share, you take them on in combat. Rinse and repeat 5 times. It can feel quite tedious, to say the least, considering how you can only invest in upgrading a property once per collection round.
Majima’s mini game questline follows a similar premise of taking over turf to beat rivals, but it is far more engaging than real estate. The cabaret club has you manage hostesses by preparing the business for opening by choosing which girls you are going to have on per session, which area’s fans you are targeting and customizing the clothes, hair, facial features and accessories of your platinum rank hostesses, as well as training them through karaoke or disco dates and customer service training, which is a dialogue that helps you level them up. These dialogues are actually quite engaging as the lip syncing, voices and back stories of the girls all feel believable. Then when you open up, you must keep customers happy by assigning girls to guests trying to make as much profit as possible, and assisting the girls by reading their hand signs to know if they’re ordering a drink or want the menu or whatever. It’s a rather simple mini game but surprisingly addictive and the grind feels much less tedious than the real estate mini game.
Aesthetically, the late 80s rendition of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, with their neon lit streets and plenty of detail,rendered at full 1080p 60fps and despite some low quality texture and low poly models here and there, the game generally looks quite nice. Cutscenes look even better running in real time but 30FPS. The soundtrack is also varied and generally quite enjoyable too. However, there are many elements of the game that demonstrate it’s limitations as being developed with the PS3 in mind, like the difference in lighting models between certain cutscenes and dialogues (you will know when you see it) and how there is loading times between interiors and the overworld. Thankfully, these load times are quite short.
Yakuza 0 is a game that juggles so many elements, especially tonally, and manages to do it very, very well. You will laugh, cheer, feel hype, tense , sad and sometimes a little fuzzy and much more and just have a generally good time punching guys in the face. If you’re the type of person who refuses to watch a foreign film out of stubborn refusal to read subtitles, then this is not the game for you, but for everyone else, definitely give it a look, for it is sure to please long time fans and newcomers alike.