This has been a hell of a year for AAA games; there are a huge number of predictably brilliant blockbusters like Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn, with plenty more coming soon. This has been backed up with a steady stream of lower profile releases that have unexpectedly blown people away, such as Nier: Automata and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Yakuza 0 was one such game and slipped through the cracks until the summer, when a gap in the release calendar finally gave me some breathing room. Yakuza 0 is deeply bizarre game and kept me entertained largely through its sheer weirdness.
Yakuza 0 follows two protagonists in Japan in the late 1980s. The first is Kazuma Kiryu, an up and coming yakuza within the Dojima Family of the Tojo Clan. Kiryu becomes implicated in the death of a man he had beaten for debt collection, although it is clear that he is simply a patsy for the games of senior members of the Dojima Family. They seek the Empty Lot, an extremely valuable piece of real estate in the bustling red-light district Kamurocho, as securing it for the Tojo Clan will all but guarantee promotion to the high table. Meanwhile, Goro Majima is a disgraced former yakuza in the Sotenbori area of Osaka, now running a highly successful hostess club and hoping to re-enter the criminal world. When he is sent to assassinate a target in exchange for re-entry to the clan, he is pulled into a web of criminal intrigue and forced to examine his own morality and humanity.
Some games dabble in environmental storytelling or believe that game stories should be told through gameplay and mechanics rather than lengthy cutscenes; not Yakuza 0 though! It is not uncommon for cutscenes to run for as long as 15 minutes, with significant portions of the game involving simply walking to a location, watching a cutscene, then walking to the next location, watching another cutscene and so on. I must confess that this bothered me hugely in the first few hours; I haven’t played a game designed like this in years, but, for me, as the story went on it became less and less of an issue for one simple reason; the cutscenes are actually bloody good. The writing is deceptively excellent; it’s very hammy in the way that an awful lot of Japanese media can be, but it also has that emotional honesty of the best modern Japanese stories. Characters screaming their feelings is an anime cliché, but usually I’ll take it over stoic, calm Western protagonists. It’s hard to picture an Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty protagonist freaking out the way some of the characters do here. It’s over the top, sure, but endearing and at times genuinely moving. The characters are very strong; I liked the stoic and honourable Kiryu, but the ever so slightly unhinged and rougher round the edges Majima appealed to me more. Both have stories about trying to be a good man in an organisation designed to crush compassion out of you. They’re backed by an extensive and engaging supporting cast, such as the mysterious real estate mogul Tachibana and Nishki, Kiryu’s snappily dressed best friend (or bro as they ironically, and adorably, call each other). While it took a while to get its hooks in me, I can’t deny that it really did by the end. This being a prequel, and remakes of the orignal games on the horizon, I can’t wait to see where Kiryu and Majima go next.
So, after waxing lyrical about the story, what about the actual gameplay? First of all, the combat is a lot of fun. It involves switching between three different stances for each character, with some better for taking on large groups of weaker enemies and some better for pummelling bosses, but you can also tailor to your own preference through an extensive skill tree, slightly too extensive for my tastes but if you enjoy tinkering around with these things there’s a lot to…well, tinker around with. The combat is a lot of fun and becomes genuinely quite challenging during some of the boss fights. Between fights you’ll be wandering the streets of Kamurocho as Kiryu or Sotenbori a Kiryu. They’re small, but dense and packed with stuff. Not all of that stuff is good, but an awful lot of it is. As you wander, you’ll encounter a range of side stories, which is where the most bizarre parts of the game take place. Where the main story is still completely over the top, the tale of criminal power struggles is taken seriously in the writing, pulling off the Kojima trick of playing something silly straight and it genuinely working. The side missions allow the weirdness to cut loose, and involve a range of weird and wonderful characters, which usually end up pushing Kiryu or Majima out of their manly comfort zone into something weirder. The series is known for a large number of minigames, but a couple of notable exceptions I’ll get to later, this part of the game didn’t work for me, simply because the majority of them are bad and not fun. I didn’t mind the karaoke or dancing games, but stuff like bowling or baseball bored me to tears.
The most extensive side missions involve running a business, with two separate ones for Kiryu and Majima. They have their own extensive storylines, with many fully voice acted cutscenes as in the main story. Kiryu’s involves real estate, buying up property and raking in profits. It’s quite basic, but I’m a sucker for these real estate games, like in Fable 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. There are some added complications, such as the ability to choose who runs your businesses and manages security, with more competent employees requiring higher wages. New employees are recruited though the side missions. You will sometimes need to defend your properties in the streets and, when you amass enough property in one of the five districts of Kamurocho, fight the previous real estate boss of that area, who are all as flamboyant and bizarre as you would expect. Majima’s business is focused on lifting a small, struggling hostess club into success. This is done partially by making links with local businesses, but most prominently through a fun minigames where you manage the club. You have the send different hostesses to different clients depending on their preferences. The individual hostesses all have stats and experience. A couple are fully fleshed out characters, with little side missions where you give them individual training. The whole thing is silly, fun and very satisfying. Similarly to Kiryu’s side mission, when your club takes enough custom from a rival Sotenbori club, their bizarre manager will challenge you to a fight. I loved this element of the game, but my one issue is that they are introduced way too late in the game. Missions like this are best when spread out between the main story missions, but to complete either storyline you’d need to spend a lot of time grinding that same minigame over and over again for Majima or waiting for payments to come in as Kiryu.
Yakuza 0 was also released on PS3 in Japan, and you can sort of tell. It doesn’t look quite as sharp as most current gen AAA games, but strong art and character design mean that this is never an issue. The dense and bustling locations, as well as the distinctive character designs and strong facial animation help the world of 1980s Japan come alive. The music is generally very good and the voice acting, which is only available in Japanese, is excellent; often hammy, but genuinely impactful when it needs to be.
Yakuza 0 did not make a good first impression, but as it went on I grew to like it more and more. If your tolerance for cutscenes is low, fair enough, but this game won’t be for you. I’m definitely going to pick up the remake of the first game, Yakuza Kiwami, when there’s another gap in the release schedule, although looking at the next few months that won’t be anytime soon.