Review – Yakuza 0

My experience with Yakuza boils down to this one time that I watched a former roommate play a bit of the first game on Playstation 2. All I remember is the title character running around in what looked like a Japanese garden. I was unimpressed, but the series remained in my periphery. Why wouldn’t it? Its journey across the pond to North America is interesting to watch.

The series was a big hit in its homeland of Japan, but had a great deal of difficulty finding its footing here in the west. After the initial game flopped, Sega was pretty cagey every time a new game was coming down the pipe. Yakuza 3 famously had content cut, much to the chagrin of fans, and after that, it was, “We have no plans to localize, but maaaaybe…” Yakuza 5 didn’t even have a physical release, being fully digital. It’s been a ride.

Recently though, it seems Sega has learned to let a game serve a niche. If I had to guess, I’d say it has something to do with their recent purchase of Atlas, a developer with a long history of localizing niche titles that have no hope of selling over a couple-hundred thousand copies. Regardless, it has finally presented me with an entry point into this daunting series, as the developer has gone back to the beginning with a prequel and full remakes of the first two titles. Yakuza 0 is that prequel, and it seems like a good height to jump from.

Sure is!

WESTERN SHORES

As previously stated, I’ve thus far forgone the series, but I’ve always considered jumping in. I want to stress this because it has an impact on how I view the game. I can’t compare it to previous titles in the series; I don’t know how it has evolved or has failed to. I also can’t speak of any fatigue that someone who’s played all the titles might be feeling if they’ve been too samey, or the disappointment if they’ve strayed too far from what made them great.

On the other hand, if you’ve never played a Yakuza game before, then we’re on the same page. I also don’t know which characters are wearing plot armor or if anything that happens is significant enough to have an impact on the overall narrative of the series. So whether or not I have a reasonable perspective, that’s up to you.

Yakuza 0 dials back the timeline to 1988, smack dab in the middle of the Japanese economic “bubble.” The game’s central themes are all centered around Japan’s powerful affluence during this period, with money literally bursting out of enemy thugs with every punch. Tacky clothes, garish interiors, and fluttering currency is the aesthetic of choice. Likewise, staples of Japanese culture in the 80s are present, with disco dancing, telephone clubs, and even classic arcade titles to play in the game centers. Even without being intimately familiar with the time period, the sense of nostalgia is palpable.

YAKUZA GAIDEN

Yakuza 0 is a series of distractions that must occasionally be interrupted by a narrative. The story is split between the characters of Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, both of which are former Yakuza attempting to regain status among their respective families while getting entangled in a plot involving real estate. That may not sound very exciting, but the real estate in question is an empty plot of land that is holding up the development of a larger area of the Japanese neighbourhood of Kamurocho. Property was everything during the bubble, and the Yakuza is falling over itself to gain ownership of the lot.

During this, Kiryu is framed for murder and expelled from the Dojima-gumi, whereas Majima has been an outcast for a while and is stuck living in Osaka under the thumb of a brutal man named Sagawa. Their reasons for getting involved with the empty lot are radically different, and the ways that their actions unknowingly affect one another is one of the narrative’s stronger points.

I’ve been training for this moment.

WELCOME TO THE FANTASY ZONE

Being involved in such a life-or-death twisted knot of conspiracies naturally leaves both Kiryu and Majima with a lot of time for fun! Dining out, hitting up the game center to play Space Harrier, or even disco dancing, there’s a lot to do. Pile onto that a massive crowd of people who want the assistance of hardened thugs to help them with things like proposing to their loved one or saving their loved one from a cult, and there’s a lot to do around Tokyo and Osaka.

Seriously, the number of side activities is dizzyingly vast and layered thickly. On top of simple side-distractions like karaoke and phone dating, each character has a giant business opportunity that involves buying up assets and running a cabaret club. Hell, if you’re bored you can just sit back and watch softcore videos of models posing awkwardly in front of a camera (which made me feel uncomfortable, personally). You can learn the intricacies of Shogi, build your own racer in Pocket Circuit, or try to reach the end of OutRun.

The amazing thing is that, with a few exceptions, all the side activities are a lot of fun. There’s a wide variation so, for example, while you’re waiting for your business money to accumulate, you can go out and hit the arcade for a while. Many of the activities have characters attached to them that you can occasionally compete against, which helps the various diversions feel like more than just mini-games.

JUDGEMENT KAZZY

So, when you finally get down to actually addressing the main plotline, whether or not it’s actually a good story is difficult to assess for a few reasons. Taken as a whole, various criminal organizations fighting over a small plot of land with the focus being placed on the individuals caught in the middle is a pretty reasonable premise for a story; tantalizing, even. However, it’s weight down by a, let’s say, Japanese approach to storytelling.

Whether or not the cultural divide is to blame for the differences in narrative preferences is a worthwhile discussion to have, but here in the west, a lot of value is placed on succinct storytelling. The approach taken by Yakuza is anything but. Cutscenes are absolutely jam-packed full of melodramatic exposition and frequently spins its tires on topics that have already been explored. Plot twists are frequently farfetched, most dialogue is conducted in a shot-reverse-shot format, and certain elements are far too coincidental to believe. The criteria for injury and death is also mystifying, as some characters will heal the moment that the scene changes or fall into a coma when it’s dramatically appropriate.

On the other hand, it’s somewhat balanced by the breadth of the side-quests and activities, as well as their overall goofiness. In one moment, your character may be crying at the loss of a friend, while in the next they’re buying a child a dirty magazine.

There’s certainly a lot of variety to Yakuza 0’s side activities.

A MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

That’s what you’re getting with Yakuza 0, an overwritten and ridiculous crime drama frequently derailed by bizarre side activities. It was honestly difficult for me to even reach the end of the game because I just kept spending so much time doing everything but the main quest.

Not that this a bad thing, it’s hard to be let down because there’s too much fun stuff to do in the game. When things finally do get back on track, Yakuza 0 does prove itself to be a capable game with a ridiculously over the top and varied combat system and likeable characters. Things just tend to drag on when crucial plot points are broken up by hours spent at Pocket Circuit. Frankly, this game could have probably omitted the main quest and I’d still give it a recommendation.

8/10

This review was conducted on an original PS4 using a disc copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.

About Adzuken 161 Articles
Adzuken has been gaming for as far back as they can remember. Their eclectic tastes have led them across a vast assortment of consoles and both the best and worst games they have to offer.

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