Yakuza 0 - A Review

Cash

It’s late afternoon in Sotenbori 1988 and Goro Majima, nightclub manager, exiled Yakuza, and hyperintelligent thug is drafting Japanese tax policy. Earlier in the substory, he rescued a nameless bureaucrat from angry Osaka businessmen through weaponized breakdancing and his GOD MODE baseball bat. The grateful functionary plied him with booze and asked for his opinion as a small businessman on Japan’s soon to be proposed national sales tax. They talk, and true to his criminal roots, Goro outlines a plan to gradually squeeze the populace with a rate of 8% or higher, terrifying the guy with his plan to make the populace accept it by gradually jacking up the rate over decades.

The substory ends, and I turn from the PS4 to check out Japan’s sales tax policy Sure enough, the general progression outlined in the article matches Goro’s plan. I return to the game and continue my process training nightclub hostesses to defeat the Five Stars. I think if I defeat the owner of club Venus, I may unlock all the breakdancing moves.

Meanwhile, KAZUMA KIRYU, angry war god and world’s worst Yakuza is investigating a murder to clear his name among the Tojo Clan. The murder involves 32 square feet of crappy back alley land in Kamurocho, a postage stamp of territory that every one in Japan is ready to steal, kill, torture, maim and mutilate for. KAZUMA KIRYU takes a break from his investigations (implemented ) and defeats the evil Gambling King of Kamurocho. Claiming the last piece of the Gambling King’s land, he makes friends with the nice young lady by bowling to win a turkey. She gives him a chicken; KIRYU doesn’t have the heart to kill the bird, so he sets it to managing his real estate empire.

The substory ends, and I wonder who Emiri, the nice young bowling alley attendant is, in real life. The Yakuza series digitizes Japanese tv and film actors for major roles, and the men are these essays in cragginess – complex facial moonscapes that stand out in a sea of Gackts (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy XV). Except when a middle aged Japanese actor rips off his shirt to reveal abs that could break concrete, the versimilitude is amazing. Plus, the game has a little minigame collecting cards of the various girls, and they’re obviously photos. So I look up Emiri, and find out that she’s an adult actress, as are about twenty other women in the game. Given that Emiri, who says she grew up on a poultry farm, confused the chicken with a turkey, I feel something has been explained.

Welcome to Yakuza 0. Everything above is true.

What’s a Yakuza 0?

There are three ways to look at Yakuza 0: as someone new to the franchise, as a long term Yakuza fan, and as someone interested in a story that speaks to a very particular period in Japanese history and which Americans only really know from the other side.

For the western player, the Yakuza series are the love children of Shenmue, Japanese RPG’s and Grand Theft Auto. They are crime dramas with insanely complex storylines, manly tears, homelessness, betrayal, immigration and beating people unconscious with bicycles. Instead of a sixteen year old boy wandering the world, the Yakuza games are tied to a place and a person. The place is Kamurocho, the Liberty City to Kabukicho’s New York, the man is KAZUMA KIRYU, so manly that lowercase letters do not do him justice.

Yakuza 0 is a story of a young KAZUMA KIRYU. However, KAZUMA is blunt, honest, forthright, guileless, capable of incredible violence, and basically indestructible. He is a terrible Yakuza, and a bit of a flat character, so flat that the later Yakuza games have deprecated him in favor of others. Yakuza 0 does this as well, it’s the story of KAZUMA and his shadow. A broken man waiting for his best friend to kill him, an exiled ex-Yakuza forced to grovel to drunken bankers and eat their insults with a smile. A controlled, frustrated and broken man named Goro Majima. Yakuza 0 is about both men finding out who they are, and in the process of doing so, beating everyone unconscious with Ming vases.

KAZUMA KIRYU

Like the GTA games, Yakuza is a central fighting mechanic with a collection of minigames strung around it. However, where western open world games are about exploring a map, the Yakuza games are about exploring a story. The world is small; the plot large. In a Yakuza game, you walk everywhere or take a cab; Sotenbori (the fictionalized version of Osaka’s Dotenbori) and Kamurocho are segments of their city’s red-light districts, maybe 5 blocks on a side. The plot, however, is humongous – a maze of interconnected stories and substories, half of them completely optional. Every two chapters, you switch between Majima and KIRYU, advancing their individual stories to the climax. Like a Bollywood film, there’s something for everyone in its ludicrous 50+ hour playtime: Yakuza will go from heartbreaking to ludicrous so fast your emotions will whiplash. And like any good Bollywood film, there is dancing.

The plot advances through its central brawling mechanic. Majima and KIRYU both possess multiple stances, each containing dozens of moves – the stances break into a fast style, a crowd clearing strength style, and a combination of the two. The real beauty of the system, however, is the improvised weapons. Yakuza doesn’t really have much truck with guns, and while you can buy swords, baseball bats and saltshakers, the real appeal is exploiting the contextual events by picking up weapons from around your environment. At some point, you will knock people out using bicycles, scooters, milk crates, and Le Corbusier chairs. You will use context to smash people into walls, in car doors, into flatbeds or on trucks. Boss fights have QTE’s specifically to pull off ludicrously stylish combos, emphasizing the grit and crunch of the combat.

You gain combat moves using an RPG style, except Yakuza 0 takes place during the eighties and adds a twist. When you punch anyone, they drop money, and you gain experience using that money. This is the bubble, however, and beating up people will only gain you millions of yen. To get the billions needed to fully kit out your characters, you need to get a job. Both KIRYU and Majima have side jobs, Kiryu manages real estate, Goro manages a hostess club.

These minigames extend into complicated sidestories all on themselves. To fully kit out your characters, you have to meet hidden masters who teach you secret moves, train hostesses, make friends with a chicken, recruit Michael Jackson, and defeat the evil nightclub managers and real estate tycoons who rule their respective roosts.

So, in the end, why play Yakuza 0? First, because it’s an experience you don’t find in many other games – it’s the crime stories of a different culture, it’s the experience of being someone alien. Second, because it’s visceral combat, a brawler where every fight is calibrated to create an improvisational Kung Fu film. Third, because its an operatic crime drama, it’s about people willing to do anything, up to a helicopter assault, to own 32 square feet of land.

Who Is Goro Majima

Goro Majima

For the returning Yakuza player, Yakuza 0 contains much that’s familiar. The clunky system mechanics are the same – the weird double button saving, the odd purchasing interface. All the minigames are there – mahjong, shogi, and so forth. The combat is still wonderfully visceral, and the boss fights are, by far, the best orchestrated of any of the Yakuza games. The QTE’s in the climactic battles lend a genuine awesomeness to the fight, and that meaty-guys-punching-each-other-on-a-high-rise feel is there in spades.

Of course, what we really play Yakuza for is the story, and for the returning player, there’s two parts to that. First, Yakuza 0 is the story of how Goro Majima came to be. Second, Yakuza 0 is about the bubble, and how the bubble was seen in Japan.

Now, as with any Yakuza game, KIRYU is the central character, present even in his absence, but KIRYU Is basically KIRYU regardless of what happens. He is guileless, honest, forthright, indescribably violent, and really unsuited for this whole Yakuza thing – his first real action in the game is to quit the Dojima family to clear his name. As in the other later Yakuza games, KIRYU’s story is more about the people around him and, in particular, the contrasts we see in later games. Nishiki is almost Kiryu’s deuteragonist, and there’s no way to play the game without thinking about the flaming bag o’dickery he’ll be in Yakuza 1. Kashiwagi, Sera and other Yakuza standbys also appear, and you can watch them take their parts in future games. Sohei Dojima is more than an afterthought in Yakuza 0, although mostly you ask yourself why the hell KIRYU would work for the punch permed twerp. I don’t care how awesome Shintaro Kazama is.

Special shout out to the substory involving young Daigo Dojima, dressed like a Japanese Richie Rich and looking like he wants to murder everyone on earth.

Really, Yakuza 0 is about Goro Majima. Kiryu is presented with a mystery – who owns this empty lot in Kamurocho that everyone will kill for? Goro is presented to the player as a mystery – who is this tuxedoed, passive, intelligent man, and how does he become the snake-suited asskicker we all know and love? The answer, as with most good stories, is pain – Goro Majima’s story is one where every damn he has to give is systematically taken out in front of him, ripped up and set on fire. At the end you see Goro Majima, as he silently walks away from a better life and commits himself to the Mad Dog of Shimano. I dare you to not cry manly tears over the watch.

Cash Cash Money

Cash

Yakuza 0 is a Japanese game for a Japanese audience, and in this case it’s tied to a very specific and now almost mythical Japanese era. Yakuza 0 is in 1988, it’s during the bubble, and the entire game is thematically built around this era. In this way, Yakuza 0 is a bit like Dead Souls, in that it takes the core Yakuza mechanics and ties them into an overarching central theme. However, where Dead Souls was clumsily married to the gunplay of the zombie genre, Yakuza 0 takes the cash mechanic and runs with it. It’s not like, say, Yakuza 4 where Shun kept his 100 billion yen in a safe and you still had to fight for table scraps. The money you get is used for experience and purchases, and the prices are comparable to other yakuza games, so, paradoxically, money just doesn’t matter as much. You want 40 Drinkers of Ryukyu? Go nuts!

The other way this plays out is in the retro elements of the series. KIRYU doesn’t have a cellphone, he has a beeper, and has to interpret beeper codes. Zack Morris cellphones occasionally pop up. What really got me, though, were the references to late 80’s Japanese pop culture that as the middle aged anime nerd when we consumed anything from Japan, I found myself recognizing. Obatarian, Juzo Itami movies (particularly A Taxing Woman), Yanki music, all sorts of little elements like that. Playing Yakuza 0 is very much about experiencing how another culture thinks about its own past, and that was an experience in itself.

Seriously, Guys

So, this isn’t a game for kids, and it’s a Japanese game. It’s also a niche game. The Yakuza publishers know their audience is niche in the US, and so they provide the whole experience, some of which may offend.

ugh

The Yakuza games are known for their hostess clubs, and adult actress thing, but Yakuza 0 takes it to a new level of tastelessness. As I alluded to above, there’s a bit of a collect-em-all game involving collecting “phone cards” for various Japanese adult actresses, and they cameo throughout the game. My guess is that with the exception of Reina (the New Serena’s Mama) and Makoto (the female lead), every other female character is a digitized adult actress. The phone card business involves collecting racy photos, and there’s an “adult shop” where you can watch adult videos (and implicitly wank to). The videos, which appear to mostly involve the actresses frolicking in bathtubs wearing relatively modest swimsuits and, for some reason, playing with balloons, aren’t so much titillating as confusing. Even the achievement for watching a video can’t take the experience seriously.

Similarly, there’s an underground catfighting arena where you bet on women in ludicrous fetish outfits. When I say “ludicrous”, I’m thinking 3D Mortal Kombat era battle scanties. Mercifully, these sections are optional if they’re not your thing. I found them tacky.

These elements are jarring because of the dark elements of the core story. Makoto, the female lead, is trying to regain her own agency after a very dark backstory of trafficking and abuse. Even her rescuer is unwilling to give her much control over her own life (and to the game’s credit, it’s apparent that he is overprotective). So, the game’s mood whiplash is pretty bad there.

can I quit

In conclusion, Yakuza 0 is an excellent game for those who want to experience something unique. It’s very much about a particular time and place in Japan, but it’s accessible to Western audiences. The central brawling element is thrilling and visceral, and the storyline is compelling. The game has flaws – the character building games can get a bit tedious, Kiryu’s story is less interesting than Majima’s, and the “ho ho, gurlz” element will cause some eyerolling in comparison to the pitch-black elements of the main plotline. That said, it’s worth playing, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Disclosure Statement: Sega of America graciously provided Tea Leaves with a review copy of Yakuza 0.