I’ve never thought about joining the Yakuza. Through playing years of GTA, it always sort of glorified a life of crime. Sure, it’s dirty and violent, but boy you can live like a king! The Yakuza though – they really know how to live. Built on honor, respect, tradition, the Yakuza fill their time by becoming producers of TV food shows, teaching Dominatrix how to dominate and by singing karaoke… err, what?
Let’s get this out of the way – Yakuza is insane. Insane in a really, really good way. It’s essentially two games in one, a serious open world crime saga, and a collection of outright mental mini games or side quests. Your first hint that this isn’t the game you thought is on the main menu before starting – where there is an option just to go straight for the mini games, or even play them online with friends.
Before we get to that, if you’re new to the series you’re probably here because you thought this was a Japanese GTA. It isn’t really. Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the renowned Yakuza series, and in doing so makes it a fantastic jumping on point for just about anyone, as the history of the series and complicated family and political dynamics all begin here. It’s set in the 1980s, and follows two characters – Kiryu from the Kazama family, and Majima from Goro. There’s a central story which links these two, the battle for the ‘Empty Lot’. In essence, the Yakuza are buying up all of the property and plan to raise it to the ground to turn it over and make a ton of cash. However this one small lot remains in the middle, and unless the owner can be found and it bought by the Yakuza, they can’t sell the whole thing. So they have a lot of tied up and wasted cash.
Both characters are very different down to their situation and personalities, but the overarching power struggle within the Yakuza links their blights. What comes across as ‘open-world’ initially reveals itself to not really be that open. Instead, the open-world map is a decorated set level, where you have some free-roam but is restricted by the linearity of the quest you are doing or where the game wants you to focus. There is some incredible background and decoration lining the city, however this is just that – decoration. There are some shops and stores you can interact with on the way, but if you strip away the decor then you are in essence in a level hub as you’ve seen in many games before. Yakuza does a great job of hiding this however as it looks like you are in bustling Japan, from people in the streets to the lights and branded stores around.
A trait of many Japanese games is evident here as you are running around – random encounters. You will get into fights – a lot. But for my money this is the weakest part of the game. Combat is simple; light attack, heavy attack, guard and throw/guard block. There are combos between these you can do but expect to be mashing the buttons quickly, and a lot. Different fighting styles offer some variety, from a heavy hitting brawler to a quick, flurry ‘rush’ style. This adds some much needed depth although I found myself often gravitating to one style and only really switching when I became particularly unstuck in a battle. You’ll find yourself up against many enemies at once, and whilst there is an enemy lock on, you won’t really need it as your flurrying is able to hit many baddies at once. Mess them up and you collect money. This is one of your best source of earning cash, certainly in the early game.
Encounters are often triggered by running into people, or seeing folks get rough-housed in back streets. Often you’ll win a fight only have the baddies apologise and thanking you for helping them realise the error of their ways, or tremble at your Yakuza presence. This is hilarious and sets the scene of things to come. Finally, a ‘heat’ mode rewards frequency of attacks which acts as a sort of special attack power. It wasn’t quite enough for me but that’s more personal preference of fighting styles than this combat system being bad, which it isn’t. This money is used to ‘invest in yourself’ – essentially levelling your character up.
Despite the size of the maps, the density is high in terms of things to do. And this is where Yakuza’s personality comes through. There is a lot to do – a massive amount. From mini games to side quests, and each are loaded with personality, humour or are just out and out strange. You can go to Sega World and play classics like Outrun and Space Harrier, where a young girl might ask you to win a toy from a crane game for her. You may be approached by a man in his pants known as Mr Libido. You can go dancing, play Mahjong, do karaoke, watch some women in bikinis and this hasn’t even touched the surface. Perhaps you want to run your own hostess bar down to the outfits the women wear? You can here.
Perhaps it’s the setting but women are very much objectified here and don’t have an especially strong presence. Bit of a shame, especially given the trends in recent years but perhaps this is the issue with a prequel – you have to adhere to some of the precedents previously set. Should you however not want to engage in lot of this backstory – you don’t have to. The main story has an interesting and deep plot which I’ve really enjoyed. It is here that Yakuza swings back from the silliness, still retains its strong sense of character but delivers an intricate and gritty story. There is an awful lot of reading though, so that may put some people off (and the voice acting is, of course all in Japanese – although fans will notice a host of famous faces littered throughout).
There is frankly an incredible amount of content here and things to do. Many will in fact probably not be encountered until the story has been completed and those who have enjoyed the experience will continue to play – with more than enough to keep them busy. Early signs point to lots of stores selling out too, which bodes well for future western releases – and that is a great news.
Reviewed on PS4