Genre: Action Adventure
Platform: Playstation 4,
Rating: M for Mature
Release Date: January 24, 2017
Editor’s Note: Review copy provided by Sega
“So take me away, I don’t mind
But you’d better promise me, I’ll be back in time
Gotta get back in time”
-Huey Lewis and The News, Back in Time
Before we dive into the latest fantastic edition of the Yakuza series, I need to get something off my chest. Feel free to jump down three paragraphs if you just want to dive into the review, but I hope the powers that be at SEGA read this and take it to heart.
I originally stumbled across the Yakuza (known as Ryu ga Gotoku “Like A Dragon” in Japan) series by accident. I recalled reading briefly about it in a print gaming publication in the early 00’s, described as a “Japanese GTA” – but as is with most uniquely Japanese titles, after that initial mention, word and coverage of the title seemed non-existent. Then, luckily (while at UGO.com) I was handed a review copy of what would become the first game in a now 12 year old franchise that has seen (with the release of “0”) 6 major releases and several spin-offs. That game, the original Yakuza blew me away. While the choices to dub the game with American actors (including Michael Madsen, Eliza Dushku and Mark Hamill) did feel distracting in a distinctly Japanese world (I am not a fan of dubs, and speak the language fluently), the gameplay itself was compelling and addictive and I found myself an instant fan.
Thankfully, with subsequent releases, SEGA wisely got better with importing this game west. The translations improved significantly with each new game in the series, controls improved, and thankfully we weren’t plagued with American actors diluting the immersion this franchise does so by well drawing you into the shadowy underworld of the Japanese mafia. That said, there were some missteps, most notably with the removal of uniquely Japanese elements from Yakuza 3 for its North American and European releases (in a misguided attempt to make it more appealing to Western audiences and concerns those in the West wouldn’t “get it.”) Even more alarming Toshihiro Nagoshi, in an interview with Kotaku last year said that SEGA is still struggling with how to appeal to Western gamers.
To be frank, nothing should be changed; except perhaps more marketing and promotion. While we are the smallest audience, I argue watering down Ryu Ga Gotaku for Western audiences or injecting Western sensibilities will, frankly, kill the franchise. What I and many love about the game is how immersive, accurate and uniquely Japanese it is. As a student of the language, history and culture, the Yakuza games are my way of getting a taste of Japan (granted a hyper-fantasized version of it) since I simply can’t fly out there whenever I want. If you’ve never heard of the games before, Yakuza 0 is the perfect introductory title to the series, so much so it has me on a mission to replay the previous 5 games in the series in preparation for the arrival of Yakuza 6 later this year.
That off my chest, just what is Yakuza? As I mentioned earlier (unless you skipped to here), prior to the release of the first game of the franchise, I heard it referred to as a “Japanese Grand Theft Auto.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. While it is an open world game where you can explore, play mini-games, interact with NPCs and get into some fisticuffs, Yakuza is more of a spiritual successor to River City Ransom or Shenmue than a GTA clone. Like with RCR and Shenmue you find yourself in a small microcosm of a city, this time in Japan, a red light district known as Kamurocho that is a realistic recreation of Tokyo’s Kabukicho. Honestly, pull up Google maps of Kabukicho and look online at maps of Yakuza’s Kamurcho and it is unbelievably mind boggling the level of detail and accuracy they’ve thrown into this fictional city.
If you are familiar with most third person action games (Musou/Warriors games, or any DMC title) you’ll feel right at home with any Yakuza title, especially with 0’s continued refinement of controls. Basic attacks are performed with the square button with power attacks/finishers performed with the triangle button. Shoulder buttons assist with lock on and blocking while circle allows you to grab and x performs your basic dodge.
While you can get by with button mashing, the fun is learning the combos and special moves across styles to add real flair to battles. While your fists and melee weapons ranging from knives to swords and bo sticks is the heart and soul of the games since the beginning, guns are present and while useful at times you’ll find yourself fighting moreso against gun wielding opponents than firing back yourself. Thrown into the mix are special moves and action sequences that have brief timed-button press quick time sequences for some visceral, brutal looking action moments. Unlike games in the past, the quick sequences are brief and only used in a few instances, and integrated so well into gameplay they neither distract nor diminish the experience, dare I say they are nice treats that adds some fun flair to important battles and a handful of finishing moves.
In Yakuza 0, this Kamurcho is actually a blast from the past. Set in the 80s, veterans of the series will find a more run down and rugged Kamurcho. Once again (or for the first time if this is your introduction to the series) you play primary series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, but this time your time is split also playing as Kiryu’s longtime frenemy, the maniacal and series fan favorite, one-eyed, break dancing Goro Majima. While character switches over chapters was something introduced in Yakuza 3, getting to fully revel in being Majima was long overdue and a sure seller for long time fans.
Given this is 80s, these are much younger versions of both characters. Those that played through Yakuza 4 will know the fallout from the events surrounding Majima’s missing eye, but Yakuza 0 does a good job of acknowledging that thread which, in my honest opinion, makes the pay off in 4 all the more rewarding, especially if newcomers playthrough the previous games in sequence. As such you’ll see the origins of Kiryu and Majima’s fighting styles and just how they were introduced to the quirky “masters” which rewarded new skills in the previous games. [Again, remember, the previous games take place later in time… can be confusing, but bear with me.]
This is an interesting period in the franchise’s since we learn in games that take place later in time (notably Yakuza’s 2-4) the 80s was a linchpin moment with events that transpire having repercussions in later games in the series. This is fascinating and clever on two fronts.
For one, veterans of the franchise will find that their memory of Kamurcho still holds up even in this earlier version of it. While it may sound stale revisiting the same city across 6 games, the amount of activities (and changes to the city over time) kept it fresh. Now seeing this city we’ve became intimately familiar with in a far earlier era before the “Revitalization Act” (think of Guilliani transforming New York’s Time Square) and the construction of the Millenium Tower (though the area where it eventually is built, that “lot”, is a driving force behind the events of this game) and knowing what unfolds later is a treat that will keep you hooked until the end.
Senryo Ave, The Champion District, Taihei Boulevard, and even Serena’s backlot are all there. As a period piece, the earliest setting seen in the games, it is remarkable to note what shops and landmarks made it to latter decades (Earth Angel, Yoshida Batting Center, Mach Bowl, the Sega Theater and Shellac to name but a few) and other landmarks yet to come (The Millennial Tower) Veterans will also take pleasure in seeing younger versions of a few characters that become important in Yakuza’s 1-5; including, bemusingly one particular “veteran” hostess who is of college age in Yakuza 0. (She’s a lot older than she let’s on in a later game of the franchise.)
For newcomers, this introduction to Kamurcho will hopefully inspire a playthrough of Yakuza 1 – 5. Get intimately familiar with every back alley, storefront, save point location and shop before moving on to “Yakuza” (first PS2 game) is an effort I highly recommend. Starting from this point, you’ll get a better chronological understanding of some of the initial catalysts that drive plots and betrayals for Kiryu and his friends (and frenemies) adventures across the 5 previous games in the series.
In Kabukicho there are a ton of activities to engage in. Like in RCR and Shenmue, there are shops you can visit to try a variety of unique foods, Japanese clubs where you can be entertained (and “befriend”) hostesses. Arcades where you can play SEGA game classics like OutRun and Space Harrier (Yakuza 5 was actually the first to introduce classic SEGA games as full fledged playable games in arcades with Virtua Fighter 2.) There is karaoke bars (where you can also take dates to), random NPC encounters with an eccentric cast of characters, and even Shogi chess and gambling parlours!
In the past games of the franchise and similar to RCR, these activities rewarded exp and Yen (money.) That’s right, XP. XP was used to purchase skills, new moves and enhancements for your characters from increasing your HP gauge to a new finishing move. Yen, of course was used primarily for activities (e.g. Karaoke isn’t going to pay for itself and you’re expected to splurge on the best if a Hostess is keeping you company), paying for taxis, buying restorative items, weapons and protective equipment. In Yakuza 0, things have been incredibly simplified. Yen serves now both as a currency and XP. “Invest in yourself” you are told early on, and the Yen you accumulate (from activities, running a business and beating up goons with style in the random and storyline fight encounters) is used to specifically buy the upgrades that once relied on XP. This move is something that makes sense and I approve of.
One of the complaints about the franchise in the past was its lack of intuitiveness. It wasn’t a hand holding title. I mean, in previous games you were forced to remember where a specific NPC was given the lack of quest markers for side quests, and the brief prose description in a note pad describing abstractly what you should be doing. While part of it was due to ok, but not great translations, the games expected patience and intelligence out of its players despite being on the surface an action brawler.
Yakuza 0, goes through great pains, a first in the franchise, to ease you into everything with a series of introductory/storyline missions that forcibly introduce you to several gameplay systems and mini-games. This also includes there now being markers for sub quests. While the game’s opening may feel like you are on rails, one of the trademarks of the Yakuza franchise is knowing that you aren’t are rails and can divert from the main story at any time, however how much you can do during those diversions of course increases with more activities (that are initially locked) as you progress through the main storyline. Again, part of the series charm is following the breadcrumbs through narrative the game wants you to follow, but also diverging from the beaten path and discovering distractions and side quests to indulge in.
My particularly favorite distractions are the “Mini Racer”, breakdancing and karaoke mini-games. It wasn’t until the 90s that the Japanese micro-racer craze reached North America, and I owned several of these cars; swapping tires, motors, etc. In Yakuza 0 you get to relive the hobby by building, customizing and racing your own mini-racer. While it is no replacement for the insane Taxi-driving racer mini-game from Yakuza 5, it, like every other mini-game in Yakuza, it’s terribly addictive. In regards to breakdancing, it is the 80s after all, and Goro Majima gained infamy across the previous 5 Yakuza games for a fighting style that mixed baseball bats, switch blades and breakdancing into a batshit insane kinetic fighting style. Sure enough, Yakuza 0 reveals that it was an encounter with “B-Boys” in the 80s breakdancing that introduces Goro Majima to breakdancing, and he ends up joining a B-Boy troop performing breakdancing fight-battles throughout the city. Lastly, while karaoke has been a long mainstay of the series, this time around you surroundings transform and you’re treated to a animated “Rock Band” cinematic sequence that pulls up appropriate 80s music video imagery (and costumes) as you play through the quite challenging rhythm mini-game.
If you’ve never played Yakuza 0, stop what you are doing, and purchase it now. If you are a veteran of the franchise, this is a no-brainer day 1 purchase that serves as a delicious flashback to the early days of Kiryu and Majima and a palette cleanser for Yakuza 6. With the amazing textures, facial animations, and overall engine enhancements including some meatier particle effects with blowing trash and debris on the streets, Yakuza 0 highlights the power of the original PS4 to take what were already stunning visuals the franchise got out of previous generations of the console, the PS2 and PS3, to entirely new levels.
Cameos from real life Japanese actors, another series trademark returns, will excite fans of Japanese cinema (I literally squealed seeing how faithfully they recreated Riki Takeuchi’s trademark scowling face) and the extensive and diversity of attacks during the brawling bits provides some of the best hyper-realistic (to borrow the concept from Quentin Tarrantino) beat-em-up action on the market. As if that wasn’t enough, the myriad of side-quests, mini-games (including full classic SEGA games) and easter eggs hidden throughout the game pushes it’s playing time well beyond the 60hr range into the 100+ if you are a completionist.
To inject some criticism, I would be remiss to point out that while die hard veterans of the franchise will revel in this trip to the 80s; there is the possibility it can feel like more of the same. Just how many times can Kiryu be drawn into a plot where, “through an unforeseen series of unfortunate events, he’s in the yakuza, but not in the yakuza, trying to help X do Y because, he’s a noble criminal.” As I mentioned earlier, the main city in the game, Kamurcho, is literally the same map from Yakuza’s 1-5. Yakuza 0 introduces a new meta-game in the concept of managing businesses, which I hope plays a bigger role in Yakuza 6. Quite frankly, I love Kiryu, but I am ready for him to stop beating around the bush and embrace being a Yakuza 100%; maybe building up and managing his own family in 6. Don’t get me wrong, if we find Kiryu questioning retirement yet again along with a new and returning cast of playable side characters in another conspiracy theory plot, I wouldn’t mind and would purchase immediately, but I can see it wearing thin for all but the most hardcore of fans.
JUST, SEGA, DON’T TRY TO MAKE A “WEST-APPEALING” YAKUZA AND KEEP IT UNIQUELY JAPANESE! CELEBRATE IT BEING UNIQUELY JAPANESE!