A masterfully composed mix of farce, melodrama and diversion.
The tale of the noble scoundrel is one that humanity tells itself constantly. Yakuza 0 tells a Japanese version of that story using the preferred video game format: the open world crime game. The game is set in 1988 Japan, specifically in fictionalized versions of entertainment districts in Tokyo and Osaka. The setting is part of what makes the game interesting because Yakuza 0 manages to capture the feeling of that time incredibly well. The backdrop for the game also sets it up as a prequel to the Yakuza series of games which includes at least one prequel already. That’s game development in 2017, ladies and gentlemen.
Yakuza 0 is a more of a salad than a stew when it comes to presentation. The game is a collection of various types of game modes and storytelling methods thrown together with just a game map connecting them for the most part. There are fully voiced and animated cutscenes with lots of action, smaller conversational vignettes which are fully voiced but not animated, fully voiced cutscenes using gameplay graphics, and other cutscenes that use the gameplay engine but are not voiced. Each of these techniques is used for a specific storytelling purpose, but the transition between them is sometimes a bit jarring, which the game often uses for both dramatic and comedic effect.
Speaking of comedic effect, it is difficult to overstate how funny Yakuza 0 is. Satirical humor is becoming a trope in the open world crime sub-genre of games. So much so, that it is difficult to name a game like this that is completely straight-laced. What makes Yakuza 0’s humor so effective is the way it is balanced and grounded. Everything that is over the top wacky in this game happens to the protagonists who effectively play the straight man of the act. Another cool aspect of the humor in Yakuza 0 is the positivity of the jokes. Other satirical work often feels like it hates its subject matter or at least actively disdains it. When Yakuza 0 makes fun of something, it almost always feels as though the joke is coming from a place of affection for humanity. It is a lot less “Look at how dumb those people are” and much more “Look at how dumb we all can be”, which is a small but important distinction.
Yakuza 0 has two protagonists, Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. Kiryu was the main character for the previous Yakuza games while Majima was a chief antagonist. Their stories are as different as they are intertwined. Kiryu is just beginning his career as a yakuza while Majima is living in disgrace after being brutally punished for defying his yakuza leaders. Kiryu’s story is about conflicting loyalties while Majima’s is about how far someone will go to gain freedom. Over the course of the game Kiryu and Majima chase separate threads of the same plot and pass by each other by as they travel between various locales scattered across fictitious Tokyo and Osaka. The narrative accomplishes what a good prequel should, which is to flesh out the backstory of the characters of the previous work without damaging the existing story while winking and nodding to the audience along the way.
Out of all the various storytelling devices in Yakuza 0, the partially animated cutscenes are the most evocative of the time and place in which the game takes place. These scenes are grimy and grainy in a way that late 1980s video was. The camera angles and lighting are very reminiscent of 80s movies, as is the editing. Characters in these scenes don’t really animate outside of breathing and blinking, but smoke rises from cigarettes and billows out of noses and mouths when a character exhales. The technique is used exclusively in dialogue heave scenes, and if it weren’t so gorgeous and well voice acted, it would seem like a shortcut meant to save money.
The core of gameplay in Yakuza 0 is pretty classic beat-em-up action. As players walk around, they are accosted by a variety of thugs, bikers, and rival Yakuza who all want to beat Kiryu or Majima to a pulp. Both of the characters have three distinct fighting stances which can be upgraded to give Majima and Kiryu new moves or make them stronger in general. The fighting in the designed story encounters, especially the boss fights, is solid and satisfying. As the main characters get powered up, though, the random battles get somewhat repetitive. As combat systems go, Yakuza 0 is very meat and potatoes. Nothing here is astonishingly original or innovative, but the combat is pleasant and gets the job done. One standout of combat in this game is the use of quick time events that do not usually result in death when failed and are occasionally used subversively for comedic effect – like when one quick time event is used to hand over a business card quickly, for example.
In addition to the main story and random battles, Yakuza 0 contains a wide variety of minigames and side stories, and these are where most of the humor of the game resides. Some of the chapters of the main story have funny moments, but for the most part, the main narrative is a melodrama of the highest order. As Majima and Kiryu go about their ultra-violent soap opera, though, they are frequently stopped on the street by the wacky inhabitants of their respective communities. Overall, these side stories add to the feeling that the neighborhoods depicted are alive as much as the graphics and design of Yakuza 0. That said, it can be irritating to get stuck in a two minute long dialogue tree with an NPC while simply walking to a payphone to save the game.
Yakuza 0 is a game best played in short spurts as opposed to marathon sessions. The story is broken into discrete chapters, each with a beginning, middle and end. The game clearly expects players to take breaks between chapters as each time the game switches between protagonists, players are treated to a story recap via cutscene.
The quality of the visuals in Yakuza 0 depends on what you’re looking at. The cutscenes look amazing. The gameplay looks good, especially considering the number of characters on screen throughout game. The UI, on the other hand, is a bit rough around the edges in spots, particularly in minigames where the PS2 legacy of the series starts to bleed through. The camera can also be a pain in this game the way it was in games of the PS2 era.
The sound design in Yakuza 0 is also a bit hit-or-miss. The overall score is good, especially when it covers and sends up J-rock or 80’s pop music. When it comes to background music and sound effects, the game could have used some polish. In some cases, though, the game uses sound effects and overall sound design to punctuate comedic moments in some really cool ways.
One of the things about open world games that led to their popularity over the years is that they can provide a number of activities for players to partake in that is unmatched from other kinds of single player games. Yakuza 0 continues this tradition. The sheer variety of things to do in this game is astounding. There is mahjong, shogi, darts, billiards of several kinds, batting cages, bowling, fishing, crafting, a pervy phone club mini game, RC car racing, a dating sim, a real estate management strategy game, and more. In addition to all that, Yakuza 0 has two separate new game plus modes: one with story and one without.
Ultimately, Yakuza 0 is a game where you can run around the streets braining fools with a baseball bat, save someone from a goofy but also creepy cult, chat with a sweet young lady, and go fishing in the same fifteen minutes of gameplay. Not a lot of games will let you do that.