It’s not often I get the chance to jump into an established video game series completely fresh. With long-running franchises like Final Fantasy or Pokemon, chances are I’ve played at least one entry in my 20-odd years of gaming. Yakuza 0, however, marks my first trip to Kamurocho and the deadly but glamorous life of Kazuma Kiryu. Since it’s inception back in 2005, the Yakuza series has had a cult following but only saw limited success in the west. Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the entire story and seems to represent a push by Sony and Sega to bring the series into the spotlight for western audiences. So is Yakuza 0 the perfect place to jump right in? Or is it destined to maintain the franchises’ relative obscurity?
It’s 1988 in Tokyo, the harsh neon glow of a thousand signs and advertisements radiates from all around. Recorded jingles and hokey sound effects emanate from every doorway. A stream of people fills the narrow streets, laughing, flirting, arguing. They move from the pachinko rooms to the hottest new disco or karaoke bar and back again. To the side, down a dark alleyway, lies a man. Beaten and bleeding, he begs for his life. Welcome to Kamurocho, Tokyo’s red-light district, a place where to be Yakuza is to be royalty.
The immediate comparison a lot of people jump to when discussing the Yakuza games is Grand Theft Auto, but I think that’s unhelpful. Some elements are similar, especially in regards to the narrative and themes of corruption, honour and greed, but you will find far more differences. To kill in this game would feel out of place, even foolish. Deaths do occur of course, but they have weight to them and are treated as monumental screw-ups. This is a refreshing change of pace from a lot of western games about organised crime. There’s not as much freedom as a comparison to GTA would suggest.
You can’t drive around or explore a vast open world, instead, the focus is entirely on this small slice of Tokyo. Every corner store, high-class bar, every side street and block of flats feels lived-in and authentic. There are so many interiors in this game and each of them is meticulously detailed. The convenience stores have shelves packed with individual items, a chiropractor’s clinic (don’t ask) has posters and towels, even locations insignificant to the plot are painstakingly fleshed-out. There’s a cosiness that comes with this level of detail that’s hard to describe, almost like a kind of nostalgia despite my never having been to Japan before. This feeling makes all the events that take place there even more meaningful.
As Kiryu (and a little later as Majima) you’ll spend most of your time dealing with the various crime families, a mysterious Real Estate Agency that even has the Yakuza running scared and a large number of side activities including hitting a few balls at the batting range, karaoke (complete with a button-mashing rhythm game), ten-pin bowling, Mah Jong and more. Combat is carried out with punches and kicks, with each character having three distinct fighting styles. Kiryu’s are a little more traditional than Majima’s, who employs the use of a baseball bat and break-dancing. Yep. Beating up cocky Yakuza henchmen never gets old, and thanks to a fantastic localisation, a lot of the more significant fights have great build-up. When you’re fighting a big bad guy Yakuza 0 makes sure you know it, making triumph over them all the sweeter. Some encounters were quite challenging and demanded I pay attention, one mistake can cost you quite a bit of health. Oh yeah and when you hit people money literally flies out of them, did I mention that?
The direction, voice acting and script are all top-notch. Fair warning: there are LOT of cutscenes, especially towards the beginning of the game. Some of them are a little overwrought, especially when you start playing as Majima and you have to go through a bunch of setup all over again. There were points where I felt like a scene had reached its point minutes ago, and yet it kept going. The payoff is occasionally worth it, although the balance is definitely off. The pacing throughout isn’t great either. At times I was on the edge of my seat, hanging on every (subtitled) line, but for every engaging scene, there was another where I was scrolling through the text just wanting things to move forward. There are also a lot of characters from a lot of different Yakuza families to keep track of; I made good use of the summary page on the pause screen.
Just in case the break-dancing and money-explosions didn’t tip you off, this game can be utterly bizarre at times. It may not hit you straight away, but perhaps when you talk to a high-school girl who sells her underwear to perverts, or when you come across a clown standing in an old shrine, or perhaps when a guy in his undies called Mr Libido approaches you and starts gyrating with a look of bliss on his face, or… No actually if that doesn’t do it I don’t know what will. Yakuza 0 (and I can only assume the Yakuza series a whole) isn’t afraid to go down that surreal path that Japanese media treads so well. Look, it’s weird, it may make you uncomfortable, but sometimes chickens just have to become Real Estate Agents.
While the more cinematic cutscenes look gorgeous, the in-game graphics aren’t all that impressive. Certain animations, character models and textures wouldn’t look out of place on last gen consoles. The frame rate is pretty solid most of the time, with odd dips during some cutscenes for some reason. Given the rather random nature of these instances, I’d say it’s likely they’ll get patched out. There’s also some pretty noticeable screen tearing, which I didn’t think even happened with console games, but it’s definitely there and noticeable. The level of detail I mentioned earlier certainly makes up for the lack of more modern bells and whistles.
The Yakuza series has never really taken off in the west and in some ways, it’s quite easy to see why. Yakuza 0 is weird, a little over-winded and not without a healthy dose of jankiness, but it’s also unlike anything else I’ve ever played, which is not something you can say often about modern video games. Too often big-budget, triple-A games go for the safe option, choosing tried and true over fresh and innovative. Your Call of Duty’s, Tomb Raiders and Assassin’s Creeds take no risks because they sell millions year after year, and the risky games that do get picked up are often cancelled (see: Scalebound). Yakuza 0 is an outlier in the gaming world and it’s that risky kind of game that we desperately need more of in this industry. Sega and Sony are giving this series another chance and I emphatically suggest you give it one too.