Thoughts: Yakuza 0

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If you’re into anime at all1 you’ve probably seen One Punch Man. One Punch Man was something of an anime phenomena a few years ago; it’s essentially a comedy that mercilessly parodies all of the cliched Dragonball Z knockoffs out there, while also having the self-awareness not to fall into the same traps by delivering some exquisitely well-animated fight scenes interspersed with a plot decent enough to stitch them together and held up by believable, natural character arcs. Basically, it’s an anime that has its cake and eats it too; it’s a parody of action anime that’s also a better anime, period, than the things it’s parodying. I mention this because watching One Punch Man is the best analogue I can come up with for what playing Yakuza 0 feels like — of course it’s a little different, as Yakuza is first and foremost a crime drama about factional politicking within the Japanese yakuza, but the dramatic story bits are juxtaposed with scenes of such insane frivolity that it can’t help but feel like it’s taking the piss out of itself at the same time.

Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the long-running Yakuza series, which recently released its sixth installment and which I hadn’t played a single iteration of prior to Sega deciding to port 0 to PC and sell it for the bonkers cheap price of £15 a couple of months back. As such I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from it, but that’s fine because whatever I would have been expecting would not have come anywhere near the sheer ridiculousness of the actual product. Somewhat to my surprise, though, Yakuza 0 is not an open-world game — at least, not in the modern sense of the term. Outside of story missions you’re free to explore, find side quests (which Yakuza calls Substories) and tackle a vast, vast array of minigame activities, but the actual space you can run around in is limited to a single district of Tokyo. It might be more accurate to call Yakuza an action-adventure game with significant open-world elements, which is the sort of thing I might have played on the PS2 fifteen years ago. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there are other aspects of the game that are equally dated and which are definitely showing their age, like the inventory system and the save mechanic, which was a source of some not-insignificant pain that I’ll go into a little later on. In general, though, Yakuza 0 is something of a throwback, it’s proud of the fact that it’s a throwback, and this pride is well-founded because it puts a tremendous amount of effort into making this throwback work — or at least distracting you to the point where you just don’t notice.

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Of course, because it’s a prequel to a game series that kicked off in 2005, Yakuza 0 is a narrative throwback as well as a mechanical one. The story is set in 1988 and split between two characters: the main Yakuza series protagonist Kiryu Kazama, who at this point is just starting out as a low-level yakuza enforcer in Tokyo, and recurring sometime-antagonist Goro Majima, who is being punished for going against the wishes of his yakuza family by being forced to run a cabaret club in Osaka. (Trust me, it makes slightly more sense in the game.) This narrative is split into 17-odd chapters and you play two chapters at a time with each protagonist; you start the game as Kiryu, switch to Majima for chapters 3 and 4, back to Kiryu for chapters 5 and 6, and so on. The two protagonists are following two mostly-separated plotlines — Kiryu gets caught up in political maneuvering over an extremely valuable piece of real estate that’s crucial for the yakuza’s redevelopment plans for that district, while Majima is tasked with carrying out a hit to get himself back into the yakuza’s good graces — and the link between them doesn’t become clear until the final third of the game; Kiryu and Majima never even meet during the game proper, so it does feel a little jarring to be switching from one to the other, especially since these switches are entirely mandated by hitting certain story points and you don’t get the ability to manually switch yourself until the very end of the game.

The actual non-minigame gameplay of Yakuza 0 is probably best described as a brawler. You’ll run around this pretty nice-looking rendition of a 1980s entertainment district in Tokyo — neon absolutely everywhere, surrounded by the sound of pachinko machines and arcades, full of drunk people whose incidental dialogue added to the charm because it was in Japanese and so couldn’t possibly get repetitive because I couldn’t understand it — hoovering up side stories and playing minigames, and every so often you’ll get jumped by a bunch of goons wandering the streets. Bystanders will run up to watch, closing in around you and forming a fight arena, in which you dispose of your attackers with some truly brutal moves. Each character has access to three different fighting styles, each of which is useful in specific scenarios — Kiryu’s Rush style is great for bosses as he can quickly dodge out of the way of their powerful attacks, while his Beast style is tailor-made for taking on mobs as it allows him to automatically pick up items from the environment to smash multiple people at once. Hitting people builds up a Heat meter, which can then be expended to execute special context-sensitive attacks. In Beast mode, if Kiryu is fighting just one enemy, he’ll pick them up and slam them headfirst into the ground. If there are many enemies nearby he’ll instead pick them up and use that enemy to hit other enemies. If he’s near a wall in Rush mode he can use Heat during an enemy attack to dodge out of the way and get them to hit the wall instead. Heat actions get even better once you use them in combination with various pick-uppable items you can find scattered around the environment; this ranges from simple hitting-people-with-motorcycles moves to Kiryu grabbing a handful of nails out of a box, stuffing them into an opponent’s mouth, and then kicking him square in the jaw so that he’s forced to bite down on them.

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This all sounds ludicrously violent, and I suppose it is — but thanks to Yakuza’s over-the-top nature it’s never taken particularly seriously (it’s violent in the same way that Mortal Kombat was back in the day), and the vast array of fight moves available ensures that throwing down with a group of enemies never gets boring. A nice touch is that since taking down enemies rewards you with money, the game signals how much money you’re making by having coins and banknotes physically fountain out of these poor chumps every time you hit them. Fights with random sets of enemies hanging around Tokyo make up the majority of the game’s encounters, but Yakuza ratchets it up to another level when you do the story missions, as it throws these sustained battles at you where Kiryu (or Majima) rampages through a building dispatching multiple sets of baddies, with some absolutely incredible scene transitions from one fight to the next — the tamest of which involve smashing open a door with somebody’s face. These long battles are often followed by a full-on boss battle, and these are awesomely overblown as the participants dramatically tear off their shirts to show off their yakuza tattoos before getting down to barechested business. They also have some of the best boss music I’ve heard in recent times; Yakuza really knows how to package these encounters so that you’re constantly having a good time, even though it’s a 40 hour-long game and you’ve done several hundred fights by the end of it.

The boss battles are lent some additional weight by the cutscenes introducing them, which are absolutely stellar. Yakuza has gone to the trouble of hiring several Japanese actors with extremely memorable faces to play the set of yakuza lieutenants you fight your way through during the course of the game, and the writing, line delivery and face mocapping for these guys pays off in spades. Every one of them is a three-dimensional character with understandable motivations for doing what they’re doing — not that that’s going to stop you beating the crap out of them, but it means they can inject some additional drama into the fights via scripted and/or quicktime events and have it mean something beyond being a tired videogame cliche, as these feel like actual people you’re fighting rather than some generic muscled-up roadblock. The cutscenes throughout the game are great, in fact; the plot starts out strong but gets a little too muddled by the end, but my interest was nevertheless maintained on the strength of the voice actors and the facial animations. However, praiseworthy though they are, one potential sticking point is that Yakuza is probably going to be something of an acquired taste as there’s no localised voices and the dialogue is all in the original Japanese with subtitles. I personally wouldn’t have it any other way; it makes sense to me because this is a Japanese game set in Japan and this happens to be how I prefer to watch foreign language films anyway, but if you’re not used to it it could be a bit distracting having to pay attention to subtitles all the time.

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Anyway, everything I’ve just described is pretty above-board for a videogame about the yakuza – a little over-the-top maybe, but nothing that particularly confounds expectations. The thing is, though, you spend maybe a third of your time with Yakuza 0 unpicking the story. The rest of the time is spent doing side quests and completing minigames, and I don’t think there’s a single one of these that’s not played for laughs. From helping a dominatrix become more assertive to competing with children racing toy cars (for which there is an entire series of side quests), all of the side stories put these big tough yakuza men in decidedly un-yakuzalike situations, and their reactions are a joy to behold because no matter how ridiculous the situation they end up really getting into it. It was a little less fun to watch Majima doing this stuff because he’s already slightly nuts, but Kiryu is the quintessential straight man for this absurdity to play off of and it’s incredible to see his heart break whenever his toy racing car comes off the track, or his fist pump when he picks up a spare in bowling. The contrast between a Kiryu who burns goons’ faces off using a portable stove one moment and who acts as a motivational life coach to a man selling mushrooms in a back alley the next is something I found deeply, deeply amusing, and which sustained me through the slightly grind-y nature of the open world play.

That’s just the sidequests, too. There are a vast number of minigames in Yakuza 0 that have absolutely nothing to do with the story and which have been tossed in just because the developers can. There’s a bowling minigame that I became very taken with; the aforementioned racing car game (and there’s a whole host of upgrades you can acquire to tune your car for each race); a UFO catcher minigame with physics that are guaranteed to infuriate you just as much as the real world variant; SEGA-branded arcades full of games that were big at the time such as Outrun and Space Harrier (which will incidentally remind you just how bastard hard Outrun and Space Harrier were, as they’re baked into a couple of optional challenges); a karaoke minigame which segues halfway through into some truly incredible fantasy sequences starring whoever is singing; a disco dancing minigame that I could never really get the hang of but which was nevertheless immensely entertaining to watch; pool; darts; shogi; mahjong… the list goes on and on. The vast majority of these you can just ignore if you want, but most of them are entertaining enough that you’ll give them at least a couple of goes, and a lot of them are used to spice up side activities where you can get a slightly better outcome if you do well in the minigame.

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Then there are the big money-making side activities. Kiryu and Majima each get a different one: Kiryu ends up managing a real estate company, running around Tokyo buying up various properties and investing money in them to increase their returns; while Majima’s has him running a cabaret club (it’s a different cabaret club to the one he’s already running, though) and essentially playing a Diner Dash-style game to match up hostesses to patrons in a way that squeezes the most money out of them. These are far more in-depth than the other minigames and have multiple stages (Kiryu has to defeat five rival land investors, Majima has to do the same with cabaret owners), and the amount of money you get from them quickly eclipses what you get from beating people up; if you refrain from exploiting a certain set of walking moneybags called Mr Shakedown it’s your best source of income in the game. This is important because the way you improve your character stats and unlock new skills is to spend money on them, and the higher tier skills cost a billion yen. Levelling up your real estate empire/cabaret club to the point where you can amass this much money takes time, and is where most of the grind in Yakuza 0 comes from.

Consequently I started to get a little fatigued whenever I switched from Kiryu to Majima, as I spent something like fifteen hours in chapter six levelling up Kiryu to the max and then switched to Majima and couldn’t face doing it all over again via his cabaret club (despite it being the superior minigame). There’s also a bit of an issue in that I just wasn’t as invested in Majima and his story as I was Kiryu; it’s definitely not had as much development effort spent on it as Kiryu’s has, and Majima’s cast of supporting characters is both smaller and weaker. Maybe it would have been different if I’d played the other games in the Yakuza series and understood who Majima was and why I should give a crap about his history, but I hadn’t, so I didn’t. His story does finish on a high note and just about justifies its inclusion in the game, but barring the start and end my feeling towards it was one of general resentment that I’d been taken away from Kiryu’s story, which is far more interesting.

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Still, that’s small potatoes compared to some of Yakuza’s actual flaws. Most egregious, gameplay-wise, is the complete lack of autosave. If you want to save in Yakuza you need to do it by finding a payphone and saving there. Which, you know, I can somewhat appreciate as a stylistic choice — except at no point during your first few hours with the game are you told that payphones are how you save. You’re explicitly directed to call people via a payphone a couple of times during the tutorial, but on both occasions your interactions with the payphone are scripted and the save interface is completely hidden away. I know this because I had to replay the first two hours of the game after getting to what seemed like a natural breakpoint and assuming there’d be some kind of autosave there, and then becoming extremely irate the next morning when I booted it back up again to be presented with the same “New game” menu I’d seen the night before, with nary a sign of my prior time with the game. Since I had to go through the opening chapters again because of this oversight I naturally became very interested in seeing whether I’d somehow missed some crucial piece of tutorial text and very carefully stepped through the entire thing, which confirmed that Yakuza 0 simply chooses not to relay this vital piece of information to the player. I’m prepared to put up with a lot of Yakuza’s dated idiosyncrasies because they contribute to the game’s signature feel, but I am not prepared to give it a pass on wasting my time because it’s been made by yet another developer that thinks teaching the player to play their game is beneath them.

The other thing I feel I have to bring up is Yakuza 0’s portrayal of women. Yes, this is a game from a Japanese developer. Yes, they tend to have a rather different cultural view of women than that of a Western developer (who aren’t exactly saints in this regard either). Most of the time when I’m playing a game by a Japanese developer I tend to regard it as a tiresome, annoying habit of theirs to dress major characters in a bikini and some full-body fishnet and justify it by saying they drink through their skin, or whatever — it’s something where I have to roll my eyes and grit my teeth and just put up with it. Yakuza 0 takes it to another level, though, in that the single major female character is a totally helpless damsel in distress who is portrayed as an object for other characters to pursue and who has precisely zero agency of her own — every single decision she makes is shown to be actively harmful to herself and to others, to the point where I started shouting at my monitor towards the end of the game because it had gotten so utterly absurd. Shit, even Quiet, shitty though her visual design was, somewhat compensated for it by being a badass sniper lady who saves Snake’s ass on missions a whole bunch of times. I’m a straight white guy and I don’t have the best radar for detecting when women are being belittled and marginalised, so the fact that this got through both that and my “oh yeah, it’s a Japanese developer” filter really says something about how bad it is. The other women in the game are either throwaway characters with three lines of dialogue in a single quest, or they’re scantily-clad hostesses that I imagine the developers were getting far too invested in modelling. And let’s not even fucking mention the video club where Kiryu can go to jack off to short videos of real-life models, which I really wish I was making up. Or the catfight club, where you pay to watch women wrestle in their underwear complete with lovingly detailed boob physics. It’s utter fucking trash, it really is, and it materially diminishes Yakuza 0 in a way that’s impossible to ignore because it’s being shoved in your face at every turn.

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Enough of that, though. I do prefer to focus on what Yakuza 0 does right, and Yakuza 0, screwed-up though it may be in many, many ways, ensures that (for the most part) you don’t notice these screw-ups because it’s constantly distracting you with something new. It probably has more minigames than your average installment of Mario Party and it correctly leverages them to ensure that you never get bored, even though the money grind can segue into the JRPG-esque in places. It has a great sense of humour, and isn’t remotely afraid to take the mickey out of itself if it’ll make the player smile. And despite that it still manages to make you fully buy into this ridiculous world of criminals who’ll have lengthy discussions about honour and what it means to be a yakuza before tearing off their clothes and beating the snot out of each other in some truly satisfying hand-to-hand combat. It might feel like a throwback that’s been made on a limited budget, but Yakuza 0 is significantly more entertaining to play than many of the western AAA titles it’s competing with — something these other games often lose sight of, but which Yakuza 0 almost never does, is that playing a videogame should be fun. Playing a videogame should make you smile. And, if you judge it by that metric, Yakuza 0 is nothing less than a smashing success.

  1. I’m not all that much, but I’ll idly watch stuff when it shows up on Netflix in the hope that it’ll be entertaining.
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3 thoughts on “Thoughts: Yakuza 0

  1. ilitarist says:

    Oh, here’s the game that will justify my vacation in Japan this spring. It’ll probably explain the context of everything I saw there!

    I totally agree with your assertion of usual portrayal of women in Japanese media and I was very much surprise how different is Japanese culture when you look at it from inside. I’ve heard about used underwear shops and stuff and was worried my wife may find it uncomfortable in Japan. But being there you’d never believe that’s a birthplace of anime. We had to go out of our way to get into special shops where they sell you suggestive figurines and bodypillows, everywhere else you are more likely to find Minion or some Disney character than anything you’d expect to find in Japan. And we failed to notice any sort of discrimination, it felt like gender equality is better realized than back home in Eastern Europe (e.g. no salesman ever assumed that I, a man, manage money which you often see in other countries). Since then I’m very puzzled about seeming gap between Japanese culture and what you actually see in Japan: it’d be like visiting Czechia and realizing they don’t drink beer and don’t have bridges and castles. I thought maybe anime is non-representive as it’s maybe young male-dominated, even though you still have popular high-quality anime made for girls and about girls. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sh%C5%8Djo_manga

    Weird. Anyway, you rarely praise the game so high, seems I’ll have to get it.

    Also strange how you managed to not mention Saints Row.

  2. miquelramirez says:

    That was a pretty thorough review, thanks very much!

  3. RustyJ says:

    Minigames within games, done right, are a great way to break up the monotony of the core gameplay loop. I’m a big fan and I’m looking forward to playing Yakuza 0 – which I hadn’t even considered buying before.

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