Yakuza is one of those backlog series for me. By this I mean that I own pretty much every English localised entry but I have yet to invest time into the franchise due to a number of factors. These reasons include the aging hardware that they also seem to land on, the number of releases and that unnerving feeling that you have seen it all before when just looking at the front cover.
The main reason however is down to the old chestnut that is Sega’s fear of introducing another commercial failure to the west. While the Yakuza series is lauded for many reasons such as those that I will go over in the next few paragraphs they have often been the victim of poor sales or a harsh western initial glance to the franchise. After all, on the cover and particularly the first two games you could argue that it is your standard GTA style crime drama but with a Japanese edge. While there are similarities to draw however I ended up finding myself more enthralled by what was on offer in the fictionalised depictions of Osaka and Tokyo than I did with the likes of San Andreas.
Yakuza 0 may be the first time I have stepped into the shoes of Kazuma Kiryu but I can now see why there is a steadily growing fan base, all clamouring for more and beating down Sega’s door for translations of previously unreleased titles. A group that I am happy to say that I will be joining after enjoying my first generous taste of crime, bizarre happenings and tourism.
For those new to the franchise like myself, Yakuza 0 is a seemingly straight faced drama with a bit of a twist. You play as a young Kazuma Kiryu as he operates as a low level enforcer for the less than legal Dojima family. Early on in the game, Kiryu is framed for a murder that he did not commit and it is his job to clear his name and that of the master that initiated him into the Yakuza life before the other family heads can take out retribution and steal his masters standing with the Dojima family. This storyline sees Kiryu pitted against the muscle of the Yakuza alongside the gritty and corrupt streets of Kamurocho which is this games depiction of Osaka in the late eighties.
Not too much later into the game you meet another playable character by the name of Goro Majima who acts as more of a comedic yet still somehow tragic contrast to Kiryu’s story. Majima is a member of the Yakuza that has essentially been thrown out of his family due to him disobeying direct orders. He has been cast out and punished by being made to live civilian life as the operator of the Grand Caberet night club. He cannot lay a finger on his clientele or risk being executed on sight while all of his earnings ends up back in the Yakuza pocket. He endures this purely to regain favour with the Yakuza so he can regain his status within the crime family. Majima’s story sees you treading the streets of Tokyo, which have been renamed Sotenburi to fictionalise the setting.
The setting of Yakuza 0, whether being Osaka or Tokyo makes for an interesting yet well realised version of the open world games that have been popularised in recent years. While not as open as other games you are greeted to a more consolidated, populated areas that feel much more lived in. Whether at night or during the day Japan looks amazing and the sheer wealth of side distractions and the hustle and bustle of the many daily lives being played out around you add to that feeling that the world lives and breathes as you play. While in many other open world games, the streets can often feel like winding paths to the next storyline or cutscene there is far more to do than just simply get from A to B. There are a whole host of activities that you can partake in, including and not limited to; Visiting the local Sega Arcade to play full versions of classic arcade titles like Space Harrier or Outrun, fishing in the local rivers that pass through Sotenburi, performing enigmatic Karaoke routines and even visiting a night club to blow off steam in an energetic dance rhythm game.
The sheer amount of variety in the side distractions are staggering and gives off the feeling that you are visiting these areas as a snapshot of Japan in the late eighties. Sega should be commended for their attention to detail as while going to a convenience store to buy medical supplies could be a somewhat trivial and mundane affair, the sheer amount of products on screen when you enter one and the explorable interiors make for a more authentic experience. Especially when entering the Sega arcades, which of course are my favourite as being able to walk around and inspect a lovingly rendered Space Harrier cabinet and play UFO catchers is always going to be a highlight for me.
The streets are also littered with dangerous thugs that want to see your face caved in and these represent the main meat of the gameplay. Up until this point if you have not played Yakuza before you might not have realised that this is also a fully fledged beat em up title. Each character has their own choice of three move sets and a secret style to unlock after completing training missions. Kiryu starts out as a brawler who can pick up light weaponry to help him fight. He also learns the rush fighting mode which is a speedier yet weaker and also the beast mode which essentially makes him a tank that soaks up several hits before unleashing a devastating blow of his own. Majima starts out with a more dance like moveset before wielding a baseball bat to cave skulls in. While like many aspects of Yakuza 0 the fighting is a serviceable if not amazing beat em up but I will say it is incredibly visceral and satisfying. Landing a finishing move on an opponent is both a spectical and incredibly brutal way of ending a fight, often ending with snapped necks or heads being smashed into walls.
It isn’t just the thugs of course, there are plenty of side missions to perform also. littering the streets are a large number of people wanting help. Usually these culminate into a fight of some form however they can take the more strange route as well. One such mission tasks you with accompanying a young girl to meet her father under the pretense that you are her boyfriend. You are tasked with trying to convince the father that you, the man with the eyepatch and scarred face are the doting love interest while trying to remember the back story she has given you. While these are of little consequence they can reward materials to allow you help with crafting new weapons and gear for Majima and Kiryu, but the main draw has to be the variety once again as you will never know quite what to expect when you bump into a stranger on the streets. It also helps that when completing these side quests you get a very Seinfeld-esque sitcom jingle on completion, which to me suits Yakuza 0 down to a tee.