Backlog is a series where we visit (or revisit) older games to see how they hold up after release.
During my first hour of playing Yakuza 0, I went from fighting street hooligans to singing J-pop at a karaoke bar. From the blood-swept feuds of Kamurocho’s backstreets to the comforting hustle and bustle of the urban scene, the introduction of Yakuza‘s main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu was a uniquely wacky turn of events that I hadn’t ever witnessed before in a videogame. There are games both funny and serious, but I’d never been able to find something that balances both so perfectly until I’d spent an hour with Kiryu.
The Japanese yakuza can be seen as being almost like the mafia; organised crime syndicates located across the country that operate through gambling, extortion and prostitution. They adopt a hierarchical structure of leadership; violence, honor and politics are the foundations on which the groups operate, traits that inevitably carry over as central themes in Yakuza 0. Originally delivered as a prequel on the PlayStation 3 – and later PlayStation 4 – this particular release marks the debut of the franchise on PC. For fans of the series as it released on console, there were bound to be assumptions of where the story would lead and what the characters would end up achieving. But for me, a newcomer to the games, these expectations were subverted as the story veered in directions I couldn’t have anticipated.
Taking place across two different city districts – Kamurocho and Sotenbori – in December 1988, players will switch between Kiryu, as he uncovers a conspiracy originating from within the yakuza itself, and the multilayered Goro Majima, the manager of a cabaret restaurant and former mobster trying to get back in the game. The brilliance of the game’s storyline lies in its seemingly distant connection between both characters, and experiencing these stories grow over the course of the game is both engaging and impressive. It means that both characters are allowed to receive equal footing as far as the narrative goes, albeit being a slightly frustrating endeavour to have to leave one story behind for another just as it gets interesting.
Besides advancing the story, the game’s bread-and-butter lies within its numerous street battles and combat sequences. Both cities have their share of different factions that always manage to target Kiryu and Majima for a round of fisticuffs, and these largely act as distractions or easy ways to make money rather than posing any real threat to the player. But at numerous times in the story, the player’s fighting skill will be put to the test as more enduring battles against waves of foes or a boss can occur. When it comes to the latter, the important thing to keep in mind is they have a lot more health than you, and they pack a hefty punch. My initial strategy was to dodge their attacks and keep my distance. Despite this caution, I ended up failing regardless. It eventually clicked with me: this isn’t Dark Souls, where careful planning and strategic dodging is the key to success. In this game, you want to be in the enemy’s face. You want to keep them on their toes and gasping for breath. And I realised I could get away with this as I discovered health drinks were cheap to acquire. The sense of danger was eased. This doesn’t mean Yakuza 0 doesn’t pose a challenge, it certainly does. Rather, the fun in the game comes from the sensation of being powerful and dominant in the fights. Once I’d changed my strategy up a bit, I found myself succeeding a lot more often.
Both characters have three distinct fighting styles which the player can use during fights. Kiryu’s three allow the player to choose the speed of his attacks – from the fast Rush style to the heavy Beast – whereas Majima has more unique options in line with his character such as a weapon-based Slugger and – my personal favourite – the Breaker that emphasises his dancing skills. This variation in how to approach combat allows every fight to feel unique and heightens the enjoyment you’d get from whacking a thug in the face with a bat. From the fluidity between each punch to the sound of landing a heavy blow, the fighting in Yakuza 0 is the most rewarding aspect of the game.
As mentioned earlier, the thing about Yakuza 0 that I respect the most is how it handles the tone of its plot. The narrative is a tale of blood, extortion and betrayal. It’s a gritty story that lacks levity and is a lot to comprehend at certain points. To shake this up, Sega has provided a lot of additional content that acts as escapism for the player. Many of the side quests – known as ‘substories’ – provide this by delivering comic relief to the point of absurdity. These tasks can have you do anything from impersonating a girl’s boyfriend in order to enthuse her father, to teaching a dominatrix how to be more assertive in the bedroom. Once I had gotten to the point where I was pretending to be a film producer, and had to guess the correct industry lingo, I had decided this game held the most interesting side content I’d seen in a while. The plethora of these light-hearted substories allows the player to take a much needed break from the bleak narrative, and as soon as that has exhausted itself, they can promptly return to the main story.
The beauty of Yakuza 0 lies in how Sega has designed the hubs of Kamurocho and Sotenbori. Two small city districts, no more than one or two square miles wide, yet filled with an immense amount of detail that it ends up feeling a lot denser than a game like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed could achieve. If you have some money burning in your pocket, you can gamble it at the casino. If casual bar games are more your style, pool and darts are available at different venues. My personal favourite was trying my hand at the classic Sega games available at the arcade. If you’re old enough to remember Outrun, you’ll be pleased to know the protagonists can relax and play it at one of the numerous arcades located in the cities. There’s even a chance to play on those dreaded claw crane machines that haunted your childhood holidays. It’s not just these activities that generate interest. Even taking a stroll across the city will yield intriguing sights: groups of people going about their day, students heading to school, workers commuting home, call girls on their evening shifts and party-goers hitting the town. There is a lot to appreciate about the life that has been injected into these streets, and while it may be a small touch, it helps your experience feel much more real.
Earning money is also a large component of Yakuza 0‘s timesink. From upgrading your fighting skills to visiting the various city attractions, always ensure your wallet is heavy. At first you’ll be earning money from fights and progressing the story, but alternative sources of revenue present themselves later on. You can win money by gambling at casinos or by betting on underground catfights, but the real money-maker is through the game’s real estate and cabaret club minigames, small businesses that Kiryu and Majima manage. With real estate, Kiryu will buy properties, assign security and managers to them and aim for the highest return on investment. With the cabaret club, Majima will hire girls as hostesses, and will have to ensure customers have a satisfactory experience on the nights they visit. It’s an unusual touch to be able to use these alternative methods, as they deviate so far from the game’s standard formula, but it somehow works. There is the risk of it feeling like a grind, but these activities are not necessary to advancing the plot or making heaps of money.
On a technical level the game ran flawlessly for me. There were very few dramatic frame drops, and I didn’t experience any crashes or odd bugs. However it should be noted that many players are indeed having issues with running the game. It is also capable of running at higher framerates as well as having support for ultra-widescreen resolutions, although I did not have the capability to run this and see for myself. Despite the game also recommending a gamepad, keyboard and mouse controls were surprisingly excellent and responsive. It was a fine touch for a console port to have these decent controls, and although I ended up switching to a DualShock 4 controller in the end, both options felt like legitimate ways to play. Ultimately, this will allow players to experience Yakuza 0 in whichever way they see fit.
While I can’t speak for the franchise as a whole, Yakuza 0 feels like a charming entry point into the series. Although the abundance of cutscenes and dialogue may be off-putting to some, I would argue it probably has one of the best written stories I’ve ever experienced in a videogame, reinforced by its well-crafted characters, solid fighting mechanics and hilarious distractions. It’s not a prequel in the sense that newcomers will be completely lost, but rather an accessible and wide-ranging title of its own accord.
Tested on PC
Also available on PS4
Developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio