What better way than to start off playing a series than from the “beginning”? Taking place before the original Yakuza, Yakuza 0 acts as a prequel to the already established series and having only played Sega’s Judgment, there was no better way to start the series before jumping into the Kiwami remakes of the first, second and the revamps of 3-4-5 before the current 6.
Prior to sitting down to Judgment over the summer, I had been under the impression that while the Yakuza series entries were some very highly recommended brawlers / beat ‘em ups, that that was all that they were. From that point and seeing the depth of story and storytelling with plenty of characters, and believable characters at that, I had set out to collect the revamped versions of one through six. Having beaten me to the punch of starting, Yakuza 0 fell into my lap as it launched for the Xbox One and I can fully attest that this is a well worthy time sink. Just the opening four chapters for both protagonists will bring you anywhere close to 8-12 hours depending on the side quests taken. There are a total of seventeen chapters…
Taking two different paths in different parts of 1988 Japan, both of your protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima will be fighting for reasons similar enough, yet so different, that it requires actual recaps as you switch between them. Kiryu who has just recently been framed for murder, tries to leave the Yakuza so that it will not affect someone who he holds in high regard even if it means that it could cost him his life. Leaving the Yakuza and becoming an “ordinary citizen”, it isn’t long before he joins up with a real estate firm that seems to be much more than it publically lets on to find out who’s really behind everything.
In contrast to Kiryu, Majima finds himself running a high end hostess club and is revered by those that offer patronage to the establishment. Smooth as silk with his words and his dealings with even the most unsavory of customers, Majima only exudes a calm demeanor in which the customer is king and that’s all there is to it regardless of how they behave. Being nothing more than an excellent mask, Majima too has been put outside of the Yakuza’s walls from having disobeyed an order from his superiors and running the club is his punishment. Like Kiryu though, it doesn’t take long for real trouble to find him and while Majima will have cool moves inside of the club, outside, he’ll willingly put anyone down that gets in his way.
Now because this is my first in the series, I can’t compare to how the systems and the narratives differ or mesh together with two protagonists and three separate fighting styles each. What I can offer however is that what is present is almost mind blowingly good at how well its written and how well the gameplay flows for hours upon hours of play. Often it felt like you’ve been playing for fifteen or twenty minutes only to find out that you’ve been brawling for half an hour and going through the story for hours once you’ve checked the time on the clock. The blending of the two is fantastic and the voice acting is spot on for just about every character. While there are no English voice overs, I was perfectly fine with it because of where the events are occuring. I honestly need to go back to Judgment to experience it in the same way.
While their stories offer very different perspectives, the executions of these stories, the dialog and the combat follow the same patterns. When things become very serious, the story is told through high end rendered cutscenes. When things aren’t as serious, the camera will still pan around but it’ll be within the gameplay engines’ graphics and you can often hit a button to move the dialog along faster if you would rather read than allow the characters to fully voice their lines. Finally, you have the basics that are almost stills of the characters in which you absolutely have to hit a button in order for the dialog to move along. The last of these doesn’t happen much after the first hour or so, but the blending of walking around and then chatting up the various peoples? It works.
While not talking to people or possibly punching their faces in, you get to walk around either of the cities that Kiryu or Majima find themselves in. Large boulevards, small back alleys or shopping arcades with restaurants and corner stores. You can move at your own pace and often it’s really dependant on you. You can walk slowly and barely nudge a person if they come close. You can move at a decent pace that will bump a person in a fairly rude fashion, and then you can all out sprint for a little bit which will almost knock someone on their ass. Some people won’t like any of these, some will obviously not like the last one and then there are those just spoiling for a fight so what’s a person to do? Give it to them!
Men in black suits, other Yakuza members, biker gangs and just general wannabe punks, they’ll all want a piece of you and often they’ll come in a groups of three. They tend to be fairly easy to dispatch, but, as time goes on and even as you level up your abilities with the hard earned Yen taken off of these foes of yours, there can feel like there’s a gap that isn’t quite being crossed and it wasn’t until I just bought some stuff in a corner store that I realized that, you can have equipment. This equipment? It raises your attack, your defense to fists, gunshots and blades. Having only noticed this AFTER the first MAJOR boss, I realized that I had been playing on hardmode. Once you find this out? Between leveling up your abilities for hundreds of thousands and millions of Yen, you’ll be on the best of terms for almost anything that can be thrown at you short of the big guys that exist only to take your money and make you literal millions if you can actually take them out.
While all six fighting styles are different from heavy punches, to flurries of blows or using items in the environment or break dancing, the core of each is the same. You have your normal attacks, you have a heavier attack that can lead into what is called a Heat Blow if you have enough Heat charged up, and then you can either kick with the style or grab hold of someone to punch them or throw them. The system is fluid. Either Kiryu or Majima can switch between these styles and it’s just as efficient if you’re fighting against a boss, three street goons or a horde of Yakuza on the way over to their boss. The only issue to look out for is that it’s easy to fall into a groove with one style but you have to be willing to change it up as there’s no one solution and often, switching from heavy blows with a stick to break dancing was all you needed to tackle a downward battle with some well trained enemies.
Once you’ve survived all of this, it’s a rinse and repeat but because of the dialog only ever moving forward with new trials and challenges, it doesn’t feel repetitive. Only helping to alleviate this are the side quests that are some of the most random things that I’m not even sure I could make up if I tried. Some are normal enough like pretending to be someone’s boyfriend to get their dad off of their back. Others? Helping a Dominatrix become more dominant so that she doesn’t lose her job. Meeting somewhere in the middle are teaching a bunch of nerds how to be tougher because of the music style they chose or taking over a director’s role because the director didn’t show up. Only a bonus, these events can take up twenty or thirty minutes at times so they are their own little side stories only adding to the crazy adventures that these two protagonists are already on.