Video Games Review: Yakuza 0 (PS4, 2017) is an engrossing, flawed, clever and defiantly Japanese experience

Yakuza 0 is the latest addition to SEGA’s long-running series of adventure games set in the Japanese criminal underworld. A prequel to the 2005 original, Yakuza 0 is all about how series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu began his bloody career in the mob.

It’s time for yet another “cards on the table” moment in a review from David: I have never played any of the Yakuza titles before, which, I felt, made Yakuza 0 a good place to jump in.

The game begins in December of 1988 and Kiryu, all of 20 if the series’ timeline is to be believed, is an entry-level thug within the Dojima Family. After completing a fairly trivial shakedown job from a loan shark, Kiryu quickly finds himself the victim of an apparent framing. His alleged actions during the shakedown have provoked gang tensions around a kind of No Man’s Land in Kamurocho (a blending of real world locations Kabukicho and Shinjuku Golden Gai, both in Tokyo) and he must now convince the family of his innocence and his loyalty, even as forces within the family attempt to leverage the rapidly deteriorating situation for their own personal gain.

You may eventually find true happiness in life, but you’ll never be Own Your Own Out Run Cabinet Happy

The skillfully written story is the part of Yakuza 0 that I absolutely was not expecting. Despite the fact that Kiryu feels at times like the atypical gangster movie protagonist, as prone to long stoic silences as he is to sudden, volcanic rage, every character around him is extremely well drawn, the character models are wonderfully expressive and the voice performances are nuanced and evocative. The plot thickens with every new cutscene and as the web of deceit around Kiyru becomes more tangled and the stakes continue to climb, I found myself wondering how he would ever come out the other side alive (despite my research telling me he appears in no less than six further games). It’s a credit to the game’s writers that they find a way to make every plot-driven sequence a riveting experience. Danger hangs in the air throughout every scene and when they’d end I’d realise my muscles had been tensed the entire time. It’s great stuff, and refreshing to see a game that’s perfectly comfortable taking a slow-burn approach to their storytelling. Further praise must be given to the localisation team who have done exemplary work on the translated dialogue.

It’s lucky, then, that the story is as good as it is because it’s really all that was pulling me through the early part of the game. When it’s not weaving a vibrant and layered, Infernal Investigations-esque narrative, Yakuza 0 is filled with aging game design from the PS2 and PS3 eras. The game is billed as being open world but closes off most of the (admittedly reasonably large) city maps early on, except for those routes that take Kiryu directly to his next destination. In fairness, the maps do open up substantially after a few hours of play and its at this point that they take on more of a Shenmue vibe, allowing you to wander about and try out a minigame or two. During these moments of exploration, two things will occur.

The first is that you will be set upon by random groups of thugs and beat them up in arcade-style, button-mashey brawls. Kiryu has a few different fighting styles you can switch between to keep things lively, and he builds up a Heat Meter, seemingly emblematic of him getting angrier and angrier as the fight goes on, which allows him to unleash brutal finishers. The combat is clunky, however, and never gelled well for me. In fact, the combat felt so dated that it came as a surprise to me to find that Yakuza 0 was only released in Japan in 2015. It felt much older than that. That said, whenever I have a bad day in future, I now have a game that will let me hit a guy with a small motorbike and then ram his head into a bathroom wall so hard his teeth fall out so I suppose I can’t be too grumpy about it.

I’m not making that up. You really can hit people with a motorbike.

The second is that you will be pulled up by various NPC’s for a chat. These chats frequently come at the end of one of the game’s many well-appointed cutscenes, which only really does them a disservice. Where the cutscenes are lovingly animated and stylishly directed, these in-world conversations play out in plain text with no voice over (only the odd Zelda-esque squawk to indicate tone) and very little character animation. The characters in the conversations stare blankly at one another as screen-after-screen of dialogue scrolls past. Together, these points represent two of Yakuza 0‘s more dated design choices. I have to wonder if they are perhaps artistic ones given that the original game, the one that would immediately follow this one in the timeline, was a PlayStation 2 title. If this is the case, you will have to chalk my grievances up to a lack of familiarity with the series.

This is literally Kiryu just trying to walk down the street.

There are little touches of more modern game design here and there, however. There’s an upgrade system for Kiryu that lets you add extra moves or fighting styles to his repertoire, so even if the combat isn’t your favourite then you can at least pour points into some cooler moves. Later in the game, the ability to switch between Kiryu and another character named Goro Majima (a lieutenant of a rival family, but I’m sure longtime fans know who Majima is already) during combat is unlocked which further allows you to shake up each battle. This character switching addition seems to be one the game is very proud of because, on researching the series for this review, the ability to switch between Kiryu and Majima in this game came up again and again in promotional materials.

It couldn’t be clearer that Yakuza 0 is a game built by Japanese developers for Japanese audiences because, despite its deadly serious tone, there are sudden moments of distinctly Japanese humour in the game that will leave Western audiences reeling. An hour or so into the game, Kiryu catches up with a friend and to pass the time he is talked into heading to a karaoke bar. What began as a simple scene about two up-and-coming gangsters amiably talking shop suddenly became a Parappa the Rappa-like karaoke minigame, replete with on-screen button prompts and a high-flying in-engine music video that sees Kiryu and his friend frolicking about dressed as rock stars. When it ends, life abruptly returns to normal as though this moment of pure, blissful insanity never happened. Moments like this are where Yakuza 0 may lose members of its Western audience. To a Japanese audience, karaoke is a national pastime and being elevated to godhood for the duration of a three minute breakaway pop ballad would be nothing out of the ordinary. Westerners will be left agog, demanding an explanation for this madness and finding none.

Karaoke not your thing? That’s cool fam, we got Saturday Night Fever DDR too.

Kiryu and Majima also have a number of side businesses they can invest in to build significant incomes and keep the upgrade train rolling. These include places like hostess clubs and parlours, each with their own missions and jobs to complete. It gives you something extra to do if you’re looking for it, and you wouldn’t believe how deeply invested I became in the trials and tribulations of my staff at the hostess club. I mean, I went from 0 to 100 in terms of how badly I wanted to make sure the business was a success and make sure my people had job security and a reliable paycheck. Once again, this is a demonstration of just how much emotional investment and character is Yakuza 0‘s real strong suit.

For someone with no prior exposure to the series, Yakuza 0 is an odd little game. I suppose it makes sense that the Japanese equivalent to a Grand Theft Auto title would be a character-centric, slow burn crime drama. While I feel that the game could stand to further embrace its desire to be an interactive story and discard those mechanics that feel outdated, I did find myself rather enjoying it. I can absolutely see why the series has won legions of fans over the last decade.

Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Great story; Great writing; Great direction
Lowlights: Some clunky, aging combat; Some cultural signifiers lost in translation
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release date: Out now