After an enjoyable experience with Sleeping Dogs, I felt that the western game developers missed their mark with the GTA formula as I felt that Sleeping Dogs itself, being a part of the True Crime series, felt like a better GTA V than GTA V itself. I was a massive fan of the GTAIII era of GTA and came out of GTA IV with high, especially with the DLC involved, enjoyment but just could not get into GTA V and it’s plot was a lot less compelling than IV’s and its level of satire looped back with itself and felt so mean-spirited without that much merit. When a friend told me that Sleeping Dogs was good but Yakuza was even better, I was skeptical but excited at the prospect for an even better experience, but it would be around a year before I would have the chance to pick up the bundle for Yakuza 0, Kiwami 1, and Kiwami 2. For the longest time, I was one of those people who wrote off the franchise as just the “Japanese GTA” and now I sincerely come to loathe that phrase.
There’s an interesting proposition for those trying to get into the long-running Yakuza series. The series started with the original PS2 title and continued on since there with each numerical successor, and a myriad of spin-offs until Yakuza 0 came after Yakuza 5, with then the updated remake of 1, Kiwami, coming out before 6 and Kiwami 2 coming out after. Many in the fandom recommended the release order to truly experience the games but since I was not keen on trying to emulate PS2 games on my lackluster laptop and the remasters for 3, 4, and 5 were not out yet so I was left with little choice. The reasoning behind playing the series in release order was to experience the gameplay evolution a lot more organically and because 0 is a relatively new addition to the series, it boasted significantly better quality of life mechanics, graphics, and story that have been stated to be the best in the series so playing it first chronologically would possibly sour the experience moving forward with less modernization being involved, more so with Kiwami 1 and 2 only adding an upward trend only for it to potentially fall off. I’ve known myself to be quite forgiving on this front because I’m not the type to quit a series halfway for reasons like that so I boldly entered Yakuza 0 with nary an idea of what to expect.
Taking place in the bustling bubble economy of 1980’s Japan, Yakuza 0 is the earliest tale of Kiryu Kazuma’s life in the Dojima Family yakuza only three years into his oath. After a messy shakedown, Kiryu goes out for a night in the town in the party district of Kamurocho with his childhood friend and fellow yakuza oath-brother, Nishikiyama. While eating, they see on the news that the man Kiryu collected from was murdered and Kiryu is pinned with a murder charge he did not commit and his reluctance to go to jail on the orders of his family’s higher-ups. Kiryu learns the beginnings of a massive in-family conspiracy revolving around his framed murder relating to his father figure, Kazama Shintaro, and the vacant seat on the family that is fueling this plot. This is compounded with the larger scale plan for the Dojima Family to become the dominant family in the larger Tojo Clan hierarchy with the acquisition of a seemingly empty piece of land called the Empty Lot, which just happened to be the place where Kiryu had “murdered” his debtor. Immediately, Kiryu tries to clear his name but also Kazama’s as to not tarnish his efforts but despite successfully turning himself a civilian to avoid Kazama from taking the blame, the Dojima family’s lieutenants all vying for Kazama’s seat ignore this act and continue their game to acquire the Empty Lot and replace Kazama. Kiryu’s troubles however seemingly meet their match as a mysterious man named Tachibana, owner of his eponymous real estate company, offers to help Kiryu combat the Dojima Family’s plot to acquire the Empty Lot and clear his name.
On the other side of things, the second protagonist features the series veteran lunatic, Majima Goro in the city of Sotenbori seemingly before his Mad Dog persona becomes his main face. Making up for his past offenses involving his oath brother, Saejima, Majima is forced to run a cabaret club The Grand as its manager. Despite his successes and fame brought with this prestigious position of owning the hottest entertainment establishment in the district, Majima is displeased with the civilian life and works hard to earn the fiscal goals set by his handler to re-enter the yakuza life under his original family, the Shimano Family. While it was Shimano himself that put Majima in the “hole” to be tortured for his insubordination, Majima was never conclusively expelled from his oath and was instead put under Shimano’s oath brother, Tsukasa Sagawa of the Omi Alliance, a rival to the larger Tojo Clan. While Sagawa is impressed with what Majima accomplished turning a formerly run down club into the biggest thing in town, he has no intention of letting Majima return to the fold especially when he rakes in all the cash. A sliver of hope comes down from Sagawa who offers to put in a good word to Shimano if Majima performs a hit on an individual named Makimura Makoto. Sagawa describes him as a foul man who cons young girls into being sex-workers and Majima investigates around town to hear that this person really does exist, but does the opposite of what Sagawa had described, apparently swooping in to save girls from being put into that sort of business Makimura was supposedly running. Whatever the case, Majima is able to discern his target’s job at the chiropractor’s clinic. Majima enters with blade in hand but finds no one home but when the clinic’s blind secretary comes in, Majima is forced to undergo some massage therapy to keep his cover lest he scares off the girl and gets the police called on him. When the clinic’s boss Makimura Makoto enters the scene of Majima getting massaged, things go awry when it is revealed by the intrusion of some unknown yakuza members storming the building and names the blind secretary as Makimura Makoto instead and Majima fights them off to save her. While the opportunity comes for him to kill a defenseless blind girl, Majima is unable to bring himself to commit and his superiors will no doubt find out about yet another act of insubordination.
Now while all this definitely makes for an interesting premise, I’ve basically summed up the larger picture established by the first 7 chapters of the game with some details cut out for brevity’s sake. The game definitely does take a while to get going but the events that follow what I just outlined are well worth the ride, even for anyone just entering the series. While I cannot yet vouch that 0 has the best story of the series, I can at least say it was better than Kiwami 1 and 0 actually enhances Kiwami 1’s plot points whereas in the original rendition, said plot points would have not felt as poignant and come off flat.
Describing the gameplay of Yakuza 0 becomes tough when there’s way too many mini-games to bother explaining so I will explain the core system of its exploration, major side-quests, and combat. You play as either Kiryu in Kamurocho or Majima in Sotenbori as you make your way through its streets and get to your eventual quest marker for combat centric missions with around four flavors of cutscenes: Ones with fully voiced-acted and high quality models, still-shots with no moving mouths but with voices, in-game models with voices, and in-game models with no voices at all. On the way there to your destination, you will be bombarded with punks looking at you funny and starting combat if they get too close and the choice to save a hapless civilian being harassed. You’ll also be suckered into being involved in Yakuza 0’s hilarious assortment of side-quests that range from trying to teach a dominatrix how to be more assertive, mistaking an immigrant’s plea for a Visa for a pizza, and many other hilariously absurd sidequests that contrast surprisingly well with the game’s serious main plot. The overworld is also stalked by a Mr. Shakedown, your secondary means of making bank but a constant check on your gameplay skill and a reminder to constantly level your skills.
Yakuza 0’s combat system introduces the Style mechanic that is new to the series. Both Kiryu and Majima have access to their base combat style and a lighter/heavier style to round things off. Kiryu’s Brawler style is moderately slow but powerful while his quick and evasive Rush style is imperative to invest in to keep up with harder boss fights provided you haven’t maxed everything out and just clobber through everything. Beast style makes use of the generous amount of objects littered on the streets you fight in to club people to submission with slow but heavy strikes that are well suited to destroy mobs of enemies. Trading in Kiryu’s massive strength for more acrobatic feats, Majima’s Thug style is his quick and nimble style that covers all aspects of what is important to survive against a boss while his faster Breaker style is the one to deal with mobs. Breaker style is however notable for being able to cheese bosses with his off-the-ground windmill kicks. Majima’s heavy style, Slugger, also has great boss cheesing potential and crowd control ability since it gives you a powerful bat that never runs out of durability. Weapons do exist to equip on either character but I never got too into them despite there being a ton of funny heat moves. Abilities are purchased by “investing in oneself” and literally spending money to earn new abilities and passives. Your trainers in each style of combat also have specific skills locked away until you do their training activities. There exists a fourth secret style unlocked as the reward for completing their major sidestory feature which provides a segway into said feature which doubles as your primary source of income.
Around the early-middle section of the game, Kiryu and Majima get involved with a real estate and cabaret club business management where you are assigned as the manager and made to acquire new business partners. For both characters, this involves going around town and partnering up with local shops and venues to either get more property and more fans. Both are met with opposition from the Five Billionaires who seek to rule Kamurocho and the Five Stars who wish to take on the Grand with their clubs’ popularity. The difference begins with Kiryu whose business acquisitions are passive. First you assign a manager to a district in question and also assign a security guard to make sure the respective Five Billionaires’ goons don’t try and make a commotion. After that, you simply wait for a bar to fill and cash out the payment. As for Majima, getting fans means more people to show up to your clubs but you also need to go around hiring staff. Both characters can get more staff members through the completion of quests and also beating out their competition but in Majima’s unique case, he can summon girls through the Completion Point Shop. Cabaret Girls function off two stats, physical appearance such as being cute, sexy, beautiful, etc; and then social skills which are separated in five stats representing their capacity to listen, charm their guests, party hard, etc. You start out with one platinum hostess who has the privilege of being able to change out her appearance to fit particular stats and they can also engage in practice sessions to level them up faster and you partake in a dating sim like segment where Majima must pick the right answers to help guide the girls along and help them how to make a conversation flow. When your hold over an area through acquisition or fans reach a certain threshold, you are challenged by one of the Five whatevers of that area to a battle, Kiryu’s is preceded by a small mini-game off before a full-on brawl while Majima partakes in a competitive cabaret-off before his brawl begins. Each time you do this, a new staff member and platinum hostess is given to you. It goes without saying Majima’s Cabaret mini-game is more involved as you must pick the right girl for the right customer and respond correctly to the needs of the customer’s. Despite that, Majima’s sidequest makes significantly less money compared to Kiryu’s real estate business but either way, these are the primary methods in which to make money.
If fighting and managing business get tiring, you are free to partake in the many mini-game assortment across the game’s overworlds. Karaoke, disco dancing, pocket-racing, shogi, baseball cages, and literally playing some of Sega’s own arcade games in their Club Sega locations in-game, to make a long story short, there’s always something to do if you’re getting bored of doing one thing. Doing anything enough times will earn you Completion Points and those can be traded in at a Shrine to earn some other conveniences such as being able to run for longer without tiring your player character, getting unique equipment, and a myriad of other small but welcome effects.
I’m absolutely sure I forgot to add to write about another aspect of this game but it should be obvious at this point that Yakuza 0 provides for a lot of entertainment just beyond its gripping story, there’s always something to be done. The quality of the story for me definitely starts out strong but has some weaker moments before things finally start to pick up during Kiryu and Nishiki’s emotional cutscene and Makoto’s introduction. The amount of reading however I can see being a bit of a turn-off since apparently people really don’t like reading these days. The fighting definitely takes a bit of getting used to and it’s not until you unlock some of the core fighting abilities you start getting the timing of evading and hitting opponents in the back of the head. The story quality itself high for me despite some characters are said to be made more sympathetic when they don’t deserve it but maybe it’s that honor-bound culture that I’m accustomed to that made some questionable redemption arcs make sense to me, or maybe I’m just a horrible person. I think the one aspect that appealed to me greatly was the boss fights that emblazoned each encounter with a boss’s full title and name while a number of them had some particularly standout themes. While many say that starting with 0 will only spoil my enjoyment of the other, not in a story spoiler sense but a gameplay evolution with each successive game sense, I’m more than willing to try and see where the story takes our protagonists. After playing this, Kiwami 1 and 2, I can easily say 0 has my favorite story and cast of characters. We’ll talk about why that is as we move forward, and it should be easy to compare when we move on to the next game.
Join me next week where I cover my immediate thoughts of Kiwami 1 in a significantly shorter post because most of the gameplay and mini-games are damn near identical.