SEGA’s Yakuza series of games has been good for a very long time but it’s only with the release of Yakuza 0 that this serious(ish) tale of one man’s involvement with the Yakuza has become properly accessible. The first two games in the series launched on the PlayStation 2, while the third (and the other sequels, including the zombie-themed Of The End) appeared on the PlayStation 3.
Yazuka 3 is still the pinnacle of the series (even missing the content that was removed for its Western release) but Yazuza 0, the prequel to all of the involved events that followed, is an excellent starting point. It introduces newcomers to Kazuma Kiryu, the stolid young orphan-turned-Yakuza who has never met a problem he couldn’t punch into submission.
A Young Dragon
Players take on the role of Kazuma Kiryu at his youngest. As an adult, anyway. He has only just joined the Yakuza and has yet to attain the prestige and respect he does in later outings as the Dragon of Dojima. He’s still taking minor jobs like shaking down folks who haven’t paid their loans. He’s framed for murder as part of a larger plot for control of parts of theYakuza’s Dojima Family. The Dojima Family is made up of various factions, the leaders (Dojima’s lieutenants) of which are vying for the post of Captain. One of these leaders seems to have framed Kiryu for murder, resulting in his leaving the Yakuza (a feat in and of itself, since he isn’t killed) and becoming involved with a real estate syndicate. The reasons for these events develop throughout the course of the game.
A Muzzled Dog
Kiryu isn’t the main focus of the tale by any means. Majima Goro is the other playable protagonist, who is the manager of a cabaret in the fictional Sotenbori, some distance from Kiryu’s familiar Kamurocho. Old hands will be shocked at his appearance from the outset, as the professional and pliable nightclub manager. We’re more used to Goro cackling madly and then taking after someone with a baseball bat than kneeling at the feet of a rowdy customer. Goro’s angle is that he’s serving out a punishment in this position until he makes enough money to secure his return to the Yakuza. Managing the club is a big part of his tale but there’s also a certain person he encounters while on a mission for his boss that brings his part of the story in close proximity to Kiryu.
In true Yazuka style these initially divergent stories merge into a single story that builds in drama as it goes. We’re not going to spoil later events (because what would be the point of that) but the character building that SEGA is capable of is in full display here. The story is gripping enough to hold a players attention, even when gameplay might be growing a little stale.
Except… that doesn’t really happen. Gameplay elements are introduced gradually, to the point that you’re still learning new things by around Chapter 6 or 7. There’s a real estate meta-game for Kiryu to explore that is more cerebral than we’re used to while Goro sets himself up as a researcher for exotic weapons quite early on. But mostly players are going to be progressing by punching things really hard in the face. This is the one area that had potential to feel stale but that has also been taken care of.
A New Avenue Of Attack
Combat varies in that both Goro and Kiryu now have at least three combat styles. There’s a light, heavy and in-between style for each protagonist, with Kiryu getting the Brawler (a strong, one-on-one style), Rush (speedy, but low-damage), and the Beast (damage sponge/damage dealer) styles to use and upgrade. Goro has the Thug (a sneaky, one-on-one style), Slugger (an unbreakable baseball bat and a lot of pain), and the Breaker (breakdancing, crowd control) styles to do the same with.
Players will find their personal favourites early on. We favour the Beast Style for Kiryu and the Slugger for Goro but it pays to become familiar with all of them. There are milestones for combat with each style that serve to unlock later upgrades and at times players will be forced into one style or another to surmount an opponent or event. Witness Goro’s breakdancing battle on the streets of Sotenbori, for one.
Distraction (But Not For Everyone)
Lest you think that Yakuza 0 is all Japanese gangster seriousness, we have to dispel that notion right here. The game is littered with unique side missions for both protagonists that range from the sweet (helping a young man propose to his girlfriend) to the strange (buying a young boy a magazine he definitely isn’t supposed to have). Along the way players will encounter oddballs galore, like the dominatrix who is too polite and her masochist client or the fellow who runs around in his underwear and watches a lot of porn. These can all serve as distractions from the main game, if you let them, or they can be left until you’ve concluded Yakuza 0‘s excellent main story. We’d recommend a mix-and-match approach, because some setups will just be too intriguing to ignore.
There are also side activities to take part in. Bowling, baseball, karaoke, a certain activity involving telephone cards and videos, and also locking down the protagonist’s real estate and nightclub ambitions, are options once you’ve completed the main game. Or you can find out why it takes about 80 hours to finish the main story if you’re easily distracted and wander off on tangents all the time. Only…
Not everyone is going to be fond of Yakuza 0. It’s a great jumping-on point for anyone who isn’t familiar with the series but it’s steeped in Japanese culture and tradition, when they’re not playing something for laughs (and often when they are). Some of the situations will be hard to understand, others will make some players uncomfortable and there is about as much sexism as you can expect from a game set in the 80s in Japan’s underworld. There’s also a surprising amount of inclusiveness, with people who are incredibly different from the norm (then and now) being largely treated as people, like everyone else. That, the storyline, and the fact that you get to punch large numbers of bad guys in a collection of inventive ways, makes Yakuza 0 a great place to start. If it seems like your thing, go and get it.