The Dragon Awakens
Way back in the early 2000’s, Sega had found its stride as a game’s company. They had built themselves a respectable place among the leading game developers of the time by focusing on a worldwide, child friendly audience. This ensured they were beloved overseas as well as in their home market of Japan, and the first few years on the turn of millennium were good ones. However, they started to find themselves in a bit of a financial crisis around 2003-2004, since arcades were quickly starting to lose popularity. While Sega did develop several games for home consoles, the revenue they earned from their most popular arcade titles was their main source of income. Knowing that they didn’t have long to act before their reserves were drained, Sega merged many of their development teams together, in a hopes of lowering costs and finding new ideas.
One of these teams, after a several days of team bonding exercises that consisted mostly of drinking a ton of alcohol in Tokyo’s red light district, came up with an idea. The idea was almost denied immediately since it would rely on a Japanese home market that might not even exist, and was a title aimed at adult gamers, a fact that minimised the potential audience. But the team persisted, and the idea was eventually green lit, though many were sceptical that the idea held any water.
The game created would be what Western territories call Yakuza (it’s Japanese name is ‘Ryū ga Gotoku’ which translates to ‘Like A Dragon’), the first game in what would later become the Yakuza series, and was a runaway success. After a ton of numbered sequels, several spin off games, and one game where the characters were punching the living dead back to re-death, we’ve come to Yakuza 0.
It’s important to know all of this before we talk about Yakuza 0, because Yakuza 0 is actually a prequel game, and one that’s a prequel to a game series with a vast and rich history. It was a game made to celebrate the series’ tenth anniversary, in which the characters (probably reflecting the developers during the first title) have to come to terms with the world changing all around them. It’s a game that celebrates how far the franchise has come for the veteran fans of the series, but is a great way for new fans to be introduced to its both stylish and brutal world.
Hop into your dancing shoes, press the wrinkles out of those colourful new suits, and prepare to throw some poor sod into a brick wall: we’re going back to 1988, Yakuza style.
Fast, brutal, and satisfying, the series’ staple combat is refined to a dagger’s point, and the side activities are great fun.
Yakuza’s core game play is a third person brawler, wherein you will control a character going up against a myriad of opponents with varying levels of toughness. You can perform a basic combo by repeatedly tapping the square button to use light attacks, and then pressing the triangle button to use heavy attacks at different points during the basic combo. When you use the heavy attack will change the exact nature of how you end the combo (with some moves having different follow-up attacks for certain sequences), but it will always be a good, reliable source of damage. This is the very most basic form of combat, but it succeeds in having a real sense of speed and weight behind each attack. The use of sound and animations really sell the sensation of knocking some poor git half way down the street by just punching him really hard in the head, and it’ll be a difficult sensation to become tired of.
That being said, let’s talk about the two real stars of the game’s combat: its style system and the Heat moves. In Yakuza 0, you play as two different characters, each with three radically different styles of fighting. The main character, Kiryu, for example has the ‘Rush’ style that emphasises speed and dodging; The ‘Brawler’ style that focuses on exploiting weaknesses and pushing advantages, and the ‘Beast’ style that is best summed up as “grab the nearest heavy object and bludgeon a guy into unconsciousness.” Each style has its own strength and weaknesses, and in a situation where one style isn’t working, another will exceed. A key fact about these styles is that you can switch between all three on the fly, making it a fast and fluid system that encourages experimentation, as well as allowing one to adjust their battle strategy as combat unfolds. An incredibly neat detail is that each style has its own theme musically, and switching styles will change the background music to a tune optimal to each one’s own version of ass-kicking.
The second star of the game’s combat is the series’ own Heat moves. These are special attacks that expend energy from the Heat gauge, which fills up as you deal damage and empties if you take damage or go too long without dealing damage. It’s not enough to just fill the gauge, though; you need to be under specific circumstances to be able to use the Heat moves, such as grabbing an enemy next to a wall or being armed with a certain type of weapon. While that sounds like a lot to keep in mind, the game provides you with more than enough situations to activate Heat moves, and make them worthwhile, since Heat attacks deal crazy amounts of damage, can’t be interrupted or stopped, and look amazing. The sheer brutality of them are a wonder to behold; one of the basic Heat moves involves repeatedly slamming a guy’s head into a wall, full force, before slapping the guy across the chops for good measure. To sum it up, Heat moves are both visually impressive, highly practical, and quite rightly a core part of the combat.
When you’re not teaching punks that they should be more careful about whom they pick fights in the street with, there’s a slew of other content to get your teeth into for the game play department. One of the key things you’ll be taking part in is the game’s many ‘Sub Stories,’ which are little optional encounters very much like side quests or objectives. I talked at length about them in the past (see here: https://oliverculling.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/the-art-of-good-side-quests-feat-yakuza-0/), but to sum it up, they’re often humorous or heartfelt little side events that help to break up the more serious main story, while still being rewarding in a practical sense. They’re primarily helpful because each of the two playable characters run a business between all the head kicking they do, and completing these Sub stories will help you acquire assets that help you earn more cash. This, in turn, is important since cash serves as EXP in this game, and getting enough of it will let you buy new attacks or power up existing ones through literally ‘investing in yourself’ (don’t try to think too much on how that works). It creates an elegant system where completing these side objectives will boost your business, which in turn powers you up, and it’s all fun to do.
That being said, I do have a couple of criticisms: both character’s side businesses benefit from you spending cash by either buying advertisements in certain buildings, or outright buying the whole establishment. This is all fine and dandy, but it is annoyingly common to find every building out of the list of available sites except for one, and that one will inevitably be damn annoying to find as you run up and down the same street multiple times trying to find it. I understand this was to encourage you to really explore the streets, and inevitably find more side content, but it can be a real pain. Likewise, while it’s great it’s truly immersed in its setting, a couple of the side quests benefit from you being able to recognize some basic Japanese staples: there’s a point where a character’s giving you hints about a type of food that’s just become available and wants you to guess from a list, but I couldn’t even tell you what the heck the names were. The translation smoothes a lot of these over, but there’s a few times where it felt like I had to just guess and hope for the best. Also, if I were being 100% honest, the combat in the game probably isn’t the deepest in the world: it is amazing good fun, and fits the tone of the game perfectly, but even at its most difficult your strategies will be the same at the end of the game as they were at the start. While this can be somewhat justified by the fact the Yakuza games are part of the brawler genre (ie, it’s more about the catharsis of beating past loads of mooks and fighting more unique bosses), I can see this being an issue for some.
Music and Sound:
Featuring a sound track inspired by its setting without limiting itself, Yakuza 0 features some great and hype as hell tunes.
I’ll preface this with the warning that I’m pretty tone tone-deaf, and the musical bug that seemed to bit every other member of my family seems to have skipped me, but I feel pretty confident in saying Yakuza 0 features some great tracks. It really embraces the late eighties setting, and immerses itself in the musical styles of the time, especially in the singing and dance-club mini games.
Even when it’s not lingering specifically in the memories of the eighties, the game has some strong musical backing. As previously stated, the game’s background changes to match whatever style you’re fighting with during normal battles, and has some great boss themes besides that. Likewise, the sound mixing for every kick and punch has a real sense of impact, and is a big part of what sells the combat.
Fun fact: in the Japanese version of the game, the player could actually buy a Walkman to listen to music as they went around the game, which included some of the best selling songs of the eighties in Japan. Unfortunately, due to licensing issues, this feature was cut from the international release.
Graphics and Aesthetics:
Pairing up amazing graphics with the dingy and decadent aesthetics of its setting, Yakuza 0 brings veteran players into a setting that is both familiar and foreign, while introducing new players to its weird and wonderful world.
The actual graphical quality of this game is something of a matter of debate: on one hand, there are pre-rendered cut scenes in the game where in the characters look so much like the all-star voice actors they’re based on (not that my filthy gaijin ass recognises them), it’s nuts. On the other hand, the graphics outside of cut scenes are of a somewhat lower quality than the previous entries in the series, especially in regards to the various NPCs and enemy thugs you encounter. On the unforeseen third hand that I want to focus on, the game runs at a silky smooth sixty frames per second at pretty much all times. To sum up the matter of frame rate for those who haven’t heard the term, it’s how smooth an action looks on a screen, but also heavily affects performance on something like a video game. Let’s use an example: a thug throws a punch, and you have to dodge out of the way. At a higher frame rate, it’s easier to see the punch coming, and thus more intuitive to dodge. At a lower frame rate, you might have needed to actually start to dodge a couple of moments before you could actually see the guy wind up the punch. To that end, I think the lower graphical quality in actual game play is more than justified, since in a game as speedy and reaction based as this one needs the extra frames. I might make a post that goes into the matter with more detail, but for now I’ll just say that the slight downgrade in sheer graphics is more than made up for in performance. Not to mention, even if the total quality is slightly lower than normal, the game still looks pretty damn good in motion regardless.
As for the actual aesthetics of the game, Yakuza 0 makes some interesting choices. For those not in the know, the Yakuza games often take place or at least revisit a singular location in every game, which is often highly tied up to the game’s story. This is the fictional red-light district of Tokyo called Kamurocho, which is based on Tokyo’s actual red-light district, Kabukicho. While the garish neon lights of the city are the same as they’ve always been, long time fans of the series will notice some pretty noticeable differences. Trash lines the street in unregulated piles, more drunks than the usual number can be see clambering out of bars come sundown, and women of questionable repute seem to be on every corner. While Kamurocho will always be a hotbed of crime and other such happenings, one does get the feeling that this is a city that is being swept up in a wave of unregulated decadence and the grit of the visuals very much reflect this. It’s important to remember the game takes place during a time where Japan was experiencing an unprecedented growth of wealth, where the already prosperous suddenly found themselves with more cash than they knew what to do with it. It was probably this idea of excess where the game takes its Money fuelled tone from, and this theme can even be seen in the game play, such as the new ability to throw money in the air to distract would-be attackers.
The more fantastical elements are also worth acknowledging. For example, money explodes out of enemies when you defeat them, as if you punched them so hard their wallets submitted to the better fighter. It ties into the money related themes as said above, but also fits the more humorous side the game has, since the implication is that the harder you beat someone down the more money you literally knock out of them. Also, let’s talk about Heat: there are few things more odd or as cool as characters surrounding themselves with the burning energy with their passion for combat, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Story and narrative:
An emotional roller coaster full of intrigue, crime politics, and more twists and turns than an actual roller coaster, Yakuza 0 brings the series’ characters back to the beginning to find out what it truly means to be a Yakuza.
Yakuza 0 is an odd duckling in the continuity of the series, considering it is actually set before the events of the very first game. This means not only is it set before all of the character development of the later games, but is actually showing how the characters aquired the traits they were known for in the first game. It does do a lot of interesting things with this unique opportunity however, especially with the game’s two playable characters. First off, Kazuma Kiryu is defined by his stoic nature and his efforts to avoid conflict in his debut appearance in Yakuza 1, but the Kiryu in 0 is a lot more hot-blooded. He often rushes into battles knowing he’s gonna have to fight a small army of goons to get anywhere, and won’t hesitate to throw down with Yakuza many years his senior. He’s not completely, and makes a lot of effort to avoid several outright suicidal situations, but his naivety and inexperience shines through. Even more glaring a difference is the second playable character, Goro Majima. Compared to the complete and utter madman that is basically a psychopath and a clown fused into a single entity in the later games, the Majima of 0 is a level headed and cool as ice individual. He can keep his outward emotions totally hidden, and (to start with) makes every effort to avoid unnecessary battles. If it wasn’t for the eye patch and love of doing crazy spins during his attacks, you would have almost thought he was a different individual.
An incredibly intriguing part of the main characters throughout the game is that you can see the very start of what would become their defining characteristics. As time goes on, Kiryu learns that he needs to think more with his head, and that he can’t stand by and let others dictate what it means to be a Yakuza to him. Despite wanting to follow in his adopted father’s footsteps, a man very high in the criminal chain of command (and for all intents and purposes the Yakuza’s equivalent of Sun Tzu), it becomes increasingly clear to him that he needs to decide for himself what actually being a Yakuza entails. This will become the bedrock of Kiryu’s sense of right and wrong as the series progresses, and heavily affect his later choices. On the other hand, Majima’s story is more a stripping down: everything gets taken from Majima, from his position in the criminal underworld, his freedom, and very nearly his life a couple of times. It becomes hard to argue with Majima’s assessment that following the standards others have set for him has led him nowhere, and there isn’t much reason to not let loose. This is the very start of him earning the title of ‘Mad Dog of the Shimano Family,’ and it’s fairly easy to see how he escalates in the years between 0 and Yakuza 1.
But that’s just our two main heroes; what about the plot that surrounds them? Oddly enough, the core crux of the plot lies in real estate. We join our main character Kiryu, still a fresh face in the criminal Tojo clan, just as he gets embroiled in a clan based civil war. It turns out that the lieutenants of the clan are not exactly big fans of his adopted father, who is away serving jail time for a crime they got him caught in. This is only a temporary solution however: the only way to ascend high enough in the ranks to actually deal with him is if they secure the ‘Empty Lot,’ a small patch of dirt that is right in the middle of Kamurocho’s poorest district. Kiryu finds out the Empty Lot is actually a key part in a project the Tojo have been working on for years, one that could make the clan richer than they ever thought possible. However, this final piece of the puzzle is proving to be the most difficult part to solve, and the entire clan is in an uproar. It’s quite the odd situation: people are losing their minds, beating each other down and even going as far as killing for what amounts to a dirty patch of useless dirt and concrete. The irony that so much is riding on such an underwhelming area of land is so thick you could almost cut it with a knife.
Speaking of knives, Majima has his own plot to deal with. He’s been left out dry by his superior after disobeying a direct order, and is now stuck running a cabaret under their control until he pays back his debt of obedience. This has him slightly peeved, though it’s more the fact that the entire city has become his gilded cage, and the fact that said superior had previously had him tortured for over a year before putting him up to the task. As if that wasn’t enough, he finds himself involved in a potentially devastating power play by his boss, and on a hunt that will take him all across the city and to the very heart of his clan’s ambitions.
These two stories start off completely unrelated to each other, but through the twists and turns of the narrative, end up coiling together just in time for an explosive, grand and extremely hype finale. The fact that the player finds out often key information way ahead of each character simply because we see both sets of events unfold is a perfect example of dramatic irony, and wonderful to watch unfold. Even better is that the story is wonderfully paced: in addition to letting the player spend some time between story missions screwing around with mini-games and side quests, the story’s own internal pacing is never too fast or two slow. It takes exactly as much time as it needs to, and it never feels like the characters are lingering too long before jumping into action. Because of that, characters feel much more involved in directing the events of the story, which is pretty essential in what is at heart a character piece. The Empty Lot stuff is really cool, but it never overshadows the development the characters are going through, or that they’re the main focus of the story.
There are a couple of things I wasn’t one hundred percent sure on, however. At the risk of spoiling, I thought it was kind of disappointing that Kiryu and Majima never met properly during the events of the story. They do technically meet right, right RIGHT at the end of the game, but it feels more like a fan service moment to close the game off. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t pumped as hell when the two player characters finally met face-to-face, but it didn’t feel like a meeting worthy of such larger than life characters. Hell, the biggest missed opportunity of all was that they didn’t fight or team up with each other (in either order) at all during the game, which really would have made the entire experience worthwhile. Majima and Kiryu’s relationship in Yakuza 1 is so entertaining and peculiar that it feels like a waste that we don’t see how it all begins, especially since they sometimes come within a hair’s breadth of meeting during the events of 0. A few other problems I had can be summed up as ‘inherent problems that a prequel introduces:’ since these events occur before the events of the first game, we know for a fact that all the characters we met during the series who are in peril in 0 must eventually live through it, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense. This can take some of the tension away from some of the scenes of the game. Likewise, we know any new characters we meet will have their character arcs resolved in such a way that they’re either dead or permanently separated from any potential future events, to explain why they don’t show up later in the series. This can pose a few problems; chief among them is that some characters felt like they were gone before they reached their full potential as parts of the story. Despite all that, I would still rate Yakuza 0’s story pretty damn highly: even if the game had lacked it’s slew of optional content, I would have been happy to pay the entry fee just to take part in the very beginnings of Kiryu and Majima’s stories.
As brutal as it is heart-warming, hilarious as it is tragic, and god damn amazing at every other moment, Yakuza 0 is equal parts celebration and introduction.
I think there’s a question that’s been lingering over this review that I should really answer: would you enjoy this game more as a long time fan of the series, or as a complete newcomer? Honestly, the answer isn’t straight forward. Veteran fans will be able to see all the cheeky nods and winks to future events that will probably fly over the heads of newcomers, but at the same time I think there are a lot of points in favour of using this as a way to get into the series. There’s been a lot of care to make sure that all the call forwards won’t feel too out of place by integrating jokes around them (barring the time where Kiryu has his fortune read). Additionally, all the problems that a prequel creates won’t actually be an issue for someone who doesn’t know where the story is going. In fact, the events of Yakuza 1 will probably feel more powerful, if you see the set up that 0 creates.
Speaking of Yakuza 1, another reason this game would make a good entry point for the series is that a remake for the very first game is coming out very soon, under the name “Yakuza Kiwami” (kiwami could translate as either ‘extreme’ or the ‘height of’). This means if Yakuza 0 wets your whistle, you can see where the series began in its totality, with the added bonus of it being HD and re-updated to fix some plot holes.
Bottom line is, regardless of where you’re approaching the game from, Yakuza 0 is a real gem of a game. Filled to the nines with content and unapologetically in love with it’s both hilariously over the top tone and it’s more dramatic and serious one, Yakuza 0 really does earn its Japanese title: this is a game that rises infinitely and unerringly Like A Dragon.
Fun fact: Did you know that Yakuza 1 was very nearly scarped as early as the idea phase in its development? Or that Majima, resident mad man, very nearly didn’t have his incredibly sily voice acting? The game has a pretty fascinating story behind its creation: I’d highly recommend a series called ‘Forging the Dragon’ on YouTube (part 1 found here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbELDqMPZ3k) that goes into more detail. As of writing, the series in incomplete, but it’s an interesting look behind the curtain of all the work that actually went into making the first game. It shouldn’t be surprising it faced so many obstacles, in one essence: only something that is that much a labour of love could come out and take the Japanese market by storm.