Although it’s a huge franchise in its native Japan, Yakuza has gone relatively unnoticed in the West. With only a couple of installments released on the PlayStation 3, it’s long been seen by us gaijin as a curio with a small cult following than a major franchise.
SEGA now seems to be aiming to change this perception, with three Yakuza titles being released in the West in the next year. First off the rank is Yakuza 0, a prequel to the franchise that chronicles the origins of its lead characters, Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. This will be followed later this year by Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the first game, and the latest instalment Yakuza 6, the first to be developed exclusively for PS4, scheduled for release early in 2018.
Both protagonists start off in a less-than-admirable position, finding themselves removed from the clans — involuntarily in Majima’s case, while Kiryu resigns in order to protect his mentor after a routine shakedown ends in murder and an underworld territory war. The plot borrows a great deal from the classic tropes of Yakuza films, with Kiryu torn between his loyalty to family, and advancement in an organization he is increasingly learning not to trust. So willing is Kiryu to protect his mentor, he goes so far as to have himself expelled from the family, sacrificing his career in the Yakuza for honour. Meanwhile, in Osaka, recently-exiled footsoldier Majima whiles his days away managing a club for a local bigwig, searching for a way to get reinstated in his clan’s graces.
The overall theme is redemption, and how the quest to achieve it can end one up in a very different place than one had intended. Both characters start off simply wanting to serve the best interests of their families, but become something very different — and something familiar to long-term fans of the franchise. Thankfully, being a prequel, players don’t need too much background information before jumping in, and the story does a generally fine job of working as a standalone piece (apart from the odd obvious wink to longtime fans that seems to be a contractual obligation for prequels).
One of the first things you notice about the story, is its idiosyncratic cutscene style. It employs fully animated sequences, subtitled in-engine sections — with and without voice acting — and minimally-animated tableau-style montages, often switching between them mid-scene for no discernable reason other than stylistic flash. It’s an odd conceit, but thankfully the story is compelling enough to prevent it from being too distracting.
While many have compared the series to the ten-ton gorilla of crime game franchises, that, of course, being Grand Theft Auto, Yakuza’s DNA comes from a very different source: the perennial cult SEGA franchise, Shenmue. Both series utilize smallish but intricately detailed environments, trading heavily on the sense of place, with densely populated city locations their calling card. There’s also mainly exploration-based gameplay exploration punctuated with short, sharp bouts of combat, and a plethora of minigame-based side activities. The game also retains its predecessor’s love of long, heavily dialogue-based cutscenes (with some scenes getting up to the 15-minute range).
However, where Shenmue’s story was rather languidly-paced by design, Yakuza’s plot rockets along with as many swerves, crises and backstabs as you could want. It also places a much stronger emphasis on the fighting, with frequent mobs making the streets a source of abundant clobbering opportunities. Each protagonist gradually accumulates a set of fighting styles that can be switched mid-fight and upgraded with money, with skill trees expanded by various trainers they meet on their journey.
While all this at surface level sounds like your average open-world crime game, two elements make Yakuza 0 stand out from the pack. The first is its wildly entertaining tone, which swings hard between stone-faced melodrama and cartoonish goofiness, and back again, at the drop of a hat. The game has a silly streak a mile wide, mostly thanks to its bizarre supporting cast encountered through the numerous sub-stories that can be found in the game world. Much like the Strangers in Rockstar’s games, the tasks they give you range from the relatively simple — for example, buy booze for vagrants in exchange for information — to the downright bizarre, especially those involving half-naked dancing pervert, Mr. Libido. Many of these escapades are genuinely funny, especially when it involves the unflinchingly stone-faced Kiryu, whose grim stoicism makes him a perfect straight man. In fact, the protagonists’ charisma plays a huge part in selling these tonal shifts, with both working well for the serious stuff as well as the wackier material.
The other element is the game’s approach to open-world design. The maps are small, each covering a few blocks, but it manages to pack an impressive amount of things to do into these spaces. If anything, the compactness of Yakuza 0’s turf is refreshing, creating a more immediate experience than your average open-world slog. In a genre often driven by excess, it’s a great example of how smaller, more intimate game spaces can create a greater emotional investment than larger but less detailed worlds.
What’s more, if you like your games to come with a lot of distractions, this game’s tailor-made for you. From pool and darts, to bowling and mah-jong, to fully-emulated versions of Fantasy Zone, Out Run, Space Harrier and Super Hang-On playable in the SEGA arcades dotted around the map, you can sink multiple hours just into recreation.
Ultimately, however, you’re going to want to upgrade your combat moves, and that requires a lot of money. Thankfully, Kiryu and Majima each fall into a side career that can net such astronomical sums, with the former getting into real estate, and the latter running a struggling cabaret club. Each involves acquiring and developing assets — as Kiryu you’ll be buying and investing in businesses, while as Majima you’ll hire and train hostesses for the club.
Both become highly compelling, especially the club game, forcing you to think on your feet and make snap changes based on the customers’ needs and your girls’ stats and specialties. The only downside of these activities is their long-windedness, with an awful lot of grinding required to exploit them — and their profitability — to their fullest. The real estate game is particularly bad for this, with purchasing and developing properties requiring huge funds over an extended period. Expect to spend a long time burning most of your earnings on developing properties so that they generate more money, to spend on more properties then developing them more, for multiple hours before you can even realistically think of buying out your skill trees.
This works fine up to a point, but it gradually becomes apparent that the side mechanics and the story aren’t completely in sync with each other. The story is structured into a series of chapters, with long cutscenes often leading straight into a chapter (and protagonist) change. It feels written to be experienced all at once, and if you try working on the business activities and levelling up on the side it eventually puts you in the position of choosing between temporarily sidelining the plot, thus halting the flow of the story, and furthering the story and potentially missing out on a fair chunk of skills and content. My playthrough lasted 80 hours, and I still had to abandon maxing everything out just so I could get this bloody review done!
Yakuza 0 does a good job of giving you tons to do and making these distractions enjoyable, though it does come at the expense of what’s clearly meant to be a quite fast-paced story in the late game. Smartly, however, the game features a ‘Premium Adventure Mode’ that allows you to continue the side stuff after finishing the story, which may be the most satisfying way of experiencing everything the game has to offer.
Yakuza 0’s only substantial misstep is in its depiction of women. While it stays true to the general sexism that is traditional to the gangster genre (and as a narrative, Yakuza is very much about classic gangster/Yakuza film tropes), women are routinely there for ogling, patriarchal protection or as a money sink. While things like the girly videos and catfights — think bikini mud wrestling, without the mud — are far too knowingly silly to offend, the main plot and the substories regularly portray female characters as overly vulnerable, and unable to function without the intervention of a man, be it physically or financially. This is particularly noticeable with the Platinum hostesses you get to hire as Majima, who, despite having distinct and potentially interesting backstories, all conform to the ‘giggly submissive with a quasi-paternal crush on you’ trope and ultimately all feel interchangeable with each other.
It’s a tricky one. While there’s a cultural factor at play, and in large part it rings true to a strongly patriarchal subset of society in a strongly patriarchal era, the game’s unwillingness to ever subvert these tropes — or at least throw in any real sign of awareness of them — can get more than a little cringey. It doesn’t ruin what remains an immensely likable game, but is disappointing for one that bursts with such originality and creativity in so many other aspects.
Yakuza 0 is a cross-generation release, not an ugly game but not a graphical powerhouse either, and its occasionally wonky camera and intermittently stumbling framerate betrays the engine’s mid-2000s legacy. However, it offers enough that only the biggest tech pedants would have serious complaints, and what the game lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in sheer charm and a determination to do things differently. In a way it’s a shame that the series remains PlayStation-exclusive, because it’s easy to imagine a PC port being the kind of quirky sleeper hit that’d make a killing at sales time.
Already a highlight of what’s looking to be a particularly strong year for gaming, Yakuza 0 is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale open-world crime genre. While it’s occasionally a bit anachronistic in its structure and writing, it succeeds through a charm that is equal parts sincere and goofy, a strong story and an abundance of addictive side activities. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for a different take on open-world games.