Thanks to the popularity of Grand Theft Auto, there’s been no shortage of attempts to bring crime drama to video games. They all want to be the medium’s answer to The Sopranos, but sadly, they usually end up looking more like Corky Romano. That said, we’ve been blessed with a few gems, and Sega’s Yakuza franchise is one of them.
Yakuza 0 is the latest in the series to be released in the West, and as the title suggests, it’s a prequel. Set in 1988, it offers a look at the early days of longtime Yakuza protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Majima Goro. At 20 years old, Kiryu’s a low-ranking foot soldier in the Dojima Family, until being framed for a murder turns his life upside down. Meanwhile, Goro is trying to claw his way back into the Tojo Clan after being tortured and exiled – defying orders isn’t something that the yakuza take likely.
In a lot of ways, the story that unfolds is a typical crime drama: there’s a lot of scheming, betrayals, macho posturing, tests of loyalty, and plenty of over-the-top violence. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, though. Like any good gangster story, it takes a critical, insightful look at a life of crime – the good, the bad, the ugly, and how all of that affects the people involved. It’s brilliantly written and directed, up there not just with the best crime drama games, but with the best crime dramas of any medium. In fact, a number of the actors who star in Yakuza 0 are best known for iconic yakuza films like Dead or Alive, and that’s company that Yakuza 0 – and the series as a whole – deserves to keep.
A lot of this comes down to the two heroes. Both Kiryu and Goro are flawed, troubled people, but they’re relatable in a way that the stars of crime games rarely are. Over the course of the adventure, you get to see all sides of them, from the bloodthirsty, revenge-obsessed gangster to the guy who takes time to help a kid retrieve a stolen video game. You see Kiryu and Goro at their happiest and at their most downtrodden; you see them having fun, getting angry, blowing off steam, falling in love, and in a wealth of other situations that show them as people.
It doesn’t hurt that for all its murky themes, Yakuza 0 doesn’t take itself too seriously. The main story is quite a sombre affair, generally speaking, but the plentiful side quests take the game to a lot of other places, from bittersweet stories of children caught in broken families to completely absurd exploits like meeting a date through toilet cubicle graffiti. A particularly memorable side story has you helping a dominatrix to be more domme – the awkward exchanges between Kiryu and Ayu as they role-play an S&M session in the park are hilarious, but there’s a genuine sense of humanity underlying it all. That can be said of almost all the side quests; they have the same calibre of writing as the main story, but with more freedom for creativity.
Special mention has to be made of the localisation job. Translation is always tricky work, especially for a game so steeped in Japanese culture, but Sega have done wonders. The script feels natural, to the point that it could be a native English game, but the all-important cultural markers are kept intact. It’s not often that a localisation can keep the nuance of the original language without feeling awkward and stilted, but that’s exactly what we have here.
Yakuza 0 is a game where narrative really shines, so it’s a shame to see the gameplay get in the way of that so often. It’s a beat-’em-up action game, so it’s a given that there’ll be plenty of combat, but it feels like more of a tedious distraction than a cornerstone of the game. Fighting is clunky, momentum and rhythm are hard to build, and it takes little more than a sneeze to interrupt your flow. In the early stages, this amounts to mildly fun button mashing, but as the game goes on and enemies get tougher and smarter, battles just become a chore.
The worst offenders are the boss fights. They should be the best parts of the game, since the combat system really feels designed for one-on-one fights instead of the hordes you’re usually thrown against, but the encounter design is so bad that they almost manage to derail the whole game. Even playing on the easiest difficulty, bosses button read to an extent that makes old SNK fighting games look honest – they dodge and block almost every attack you throw with lightning fast reflexes. Instead of interesting, creative fights that make you think on your feet, Yakuza 0’s bosses end up being endurance tests as you slowly chip away massive health bars with pathetic attacks that don’t land even when they should.
The most frustrating thing about all this is that it completely undermines the story– the best part of Yakuza 0 – by throwing pacing out the window. Late in the game, when the plot’s coming to a head and you just want to get on with it and find out what happens, you get to instead run through gauntlet after gauntlet of tiresome battles. I’m being entirely serious when I say that the game would be better if combat was removed entirely, and key action scenes replaced with quick-time events.
Luckily, there are plenty of minigames to distract yourself with, and they’re far better designed. Karaoke, a disco rhythm game, baseball, bowling, shogi, pool, darts, go kart racing, dice games – those are just some of the minigames available. There’s also a couple of large-scale management games, one for each hero, that are oddly compelling and can drain dozens of hours of your time if you aren’t careful. Goro runs a cabaret club, and managing it involves recruiting hostesses, training them, dressing them up, and matching them with clients to help encourage big spending. Kiryu, on the other hand, finds himself to be a property mogul – so you get to buy up and manage shops and other establishments, while competitors try to snake them out from under you. It’s hard to do them justice with mere words, but both management games are delightful.
If you can endure the clunky combat that pervades much it – and if I can, you certainly can too – you’ll find a wonderful game in Yakuza 0. It tells a captivating story in its own right, and it’s also a perfect jumping-on point for the series, especially with Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the first game, due out later this year. If nothing else, do it for the karaoke, hostess clubs, and the chance to make a difference in the life of an up-and-coming dominatrix.
Matt received a digital copy of Yakuza 0 from SEGA for review.