Yakuza 0 is my first full venture into a series I’ve always admired from afar, and delighted in half-understood videos and memes. Thus, I won’t be placing my experience with this game in the context of the series as a whole, however, I’m happy to say it’s a fantastic entry point for a newcomer. I’m in no real position to call it the best in the series to date as others have, but what is here is vast and varied, brilliantly brutal at times, and enormously entertaining.
Let’s unpack the ‘vast and varied’ assessment first. At times, Yakuza 0 seems like a complete mess of styles and moods. You might look at Yakuza at a glance and presume it’s a GTA-esque open-world crime sim, set in Japan rather than the United States. But that would be inaccurate. I guess you’d call Yakuza 0 an open-world 3D brawler more than anything else, perhaps, with liberal sprinklings of left-field quests, fantastically deep minigames, and a spot of enterprising business management. All of this is framed by an ambitious narrative that plays out across wonderfully directed cutscenes that can last up to 15 minutes in length.
It’s very odd. It’s also utterly brilliant.
The game flits between the perspectives of two main characters. First up, we meet series stalwart Kazuma Kiryu. Kiryu is something of an everyman gangster with a heart of gold through whom we, and series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi, can live out some action-packed crime fiction. Kiryu becomes embroiled in an urban power struggle over a tiny patch of land at the heart of Tokyo’s pleasure district, Kamurocho, that has the ruling Tojo Clan all kinds of flustered. A simple debt collection goes south quickly, and Kiryu find himself staring down the face of a murder charge.
After a couple of chapters, we move to Osaka, where we’re introduced to Goro Majima, the game’s other playable protagonist. Majima is a complex man, ex-yakuza, and trying to earn back his favour and position by raking in money as the manager of one of the most notorious cabarets in town. His opening scene is an absolute joy to behold, and it sets the tone for a wild and wonderful ride that plays with our expectations of the character from the very start. He’s charismatic, deadly, and a little unhinged, and truthfully, I almost regretted leaving him behind during the chapters that swung back to Kiryu.
The story is a fine framework for a thousand and one street fights, and Yakuza 0’s combat system is weighty and impactful, almost to the point of wincing. Every punch and kick comes with satisfying visual and aural feedback. The smack and the crunch of it all conjures a brutal gauntlets of cathartic, combo-tastic action. It’s heavier than the ultra-slick combat of Sleeping Dogs, but more generous with its desire for precision than dedicated fighting games. Both Kiryu and Majima have multiple fighting styles that they can choose from, which broadly fall into straightforward and balanced, slow but heavy, and quick yet light categories.
Again, it’s Majima that sort of gets the best deal here. Although Kiryu has the better’default’ styles, Majima can whip out an indestructible baseball bat for some truly brutal combos, as well as being able to engage in some acrobatic street dancing that transforms him into a suited Eddy Gordo. Whatever the chosen style, though, both characters are able to perform special ‘Heat’ moves, that typically involve some up close camera work and a lot of shattered bones. There are no particularly convoluted upgrade systems to be aware of here – in fitting fashion for the 80s, all you need is the money.
Run This Town
Although there are some moments in which the narrative forcefully drives you onwards, for the most part, you’re free to wander the streets on foot, and it’s here that the game truly comes alive. Despite the fact that both Kiryu and Majima are sort of on the run for most of the game, you’ll go from breathless action to singing in a karaoke parlour in the space of five minutes. The various little minigame activities and side quests that you can indulge in are almost too distracting. I spent a good three hours playing pool and darts one afternoon, and learned the rules of Shogi the next. You can reel from a devastating death to pretending to be a movie producer and arranging plates of food for a shoot, or getting some baseball practice in, or helping a little kid by winning plushies from a claw machine.
It shouldn’t work, and yet it does. There are some absolutely fantastic moments of off beat humour, goofy cameos from bizarre side characters (and poultry), but these are matched by mini narratives that are surprisingly touching. Yakuza 0’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but also isn’t afraid to dive into some deep-hitting areas with its plotlines. Instead of dulling the effects, the clunky juxtaposition of the game’s many tones actually serves to make the laughs greater and the quieter moments stand out more.
There are two major sideshows in which you can get involved. In Tokyo, Kiryu begins to build up a real empire. Practically, this involves buying up small business, assigning managers and security staff, and occasionally beating down some troublemakers in a back alley every once in a while. Majima, on the other hand, dives into the world of cabaret clubs, and his metagame sees you hiring and training hostesses, sprucing up your club, and then responding in real time to the needs of your guests once the doors are open. It’s a little seedy, but also proves a rather compelling gameplay loop that can earn Majima tidy sums of money rather quickly.
A Man’s World
There are a few questionable elements, however, and Yakuza 0 does an unflinching job of painting the excesses and depravity of 80s capitalism. As with The Wolf Of Wall Street, this allows for some fine humour, and is unafraid to present men at their very worst, frequently as oddball creeps and pervs. The women in the game get a bit of a bad time of it, though, more often than not playing either the victim or eye candy, and there’s a strange minigame involving collecting cards that unlock softcore mini movies of girls rolling around on yoga balls and enjoying bubble baths. Too often, it seems like the women in this game are there only to highlight the cruelty or kindness of their male counterparts – either there to be ogled, or there to be saved.
At least Yakuza 0 does a fairly good job of dissecting the machismo at the heart of the experience. This is male power fantasy at its fullest, but the writing and the performances allow our two characters to become more than vessels into whom we men can pour our imaginations. They are human – they laugh, they cry, and more often than not, the actions they take are driven by heart and soul, compassion and tenderness. Even when you’re kerb stomping a knife-wielding goon in an orange jacket. Especially then. It’s sad to think that this is something that needs celebrating, I guess. It underlines just how underdeveloped characters within action gaming still are.
But then again, Yakuza 0 is a rather spectacular, brilliantly unique soap opera. I had more fun with this than I did with GTA V, which is perhaps an unfair comparison because despite surface appearances, the two are completely different games. But Yakuza 0 wants you to have fun. It also wants you to feel for its main characters, and get angry at the brilliantly brought to life villains, shed a tear for those lost along the way, and bust out some karaoke tunes. Its commitment to running the gamut of emotional spectacle is impressive to say the least, and manages to perfectly blend the ridiculous and the ‘cool’. That’s what this game epitomises in many ways…cool.
I realise that I say this as a newcomer to the series. But for me, that makes Yakuza 0 all the more alluring. Whereas there’s a clinical repetition to Western open world titles that I’m becoming increasingly tired of, this somehow feels fresh (despite the Japanese original being two years old, and the visuals appearing pretty dated) and essential. The presentation is sometimes a little suspect, the cutscenes long-winded; the fights can get a little stale at times, and some of the minigames can be a little on the shallow side. But this is a game with so much to do and see and offer that it’s hard not to fall in love with it.
And I have, utterly.
Yakuza 0 makes for a perfect entry point to the series, and its unique blend of high drama and entertaining extras creates an action-packed, emotional journey where laughs come as frequently as tears. It's brutal and brilliant and so damn cool.