A review of Yakuza 0 (PS4)

This month is now officially dedicated to game reviews only. I have quite a few of them to clear out, and it helps that I binged on games that I’d been stuck on for a while recently, finally getting through them substantially. Not at 100% completion, and not even close in the case of this post’s subject, but enough to get more or less the full experience of them.

And certainly, today’s subject is a massive game, though not in the same way as most other games usually described as “massive” are. I’m not sure that makes sense yet, but keep reading and maybe it will. No, I’m not sleep-deprived, why do you ask. Well, not extremely sleep-deprived anyway. Depending on how loosely you define “extremely.”

The city never sleeps, and neither do I. Kiryu does, though; he looks after his health pretty well as long as you ignore the cigarettes.

Yakuza 0 is a game more or less everyone knows at this point if they’ve spent at least five minutes on the internet. Released in 2015 in Japan and 2017 everywhere else on PS3/4, PC, and Xbox One as a prequel to the long-running Yakuza action series, it’s been played by most everyone and meme’d to hell in its few years of existence — if you’ve ever heard Baka Mitai, you already know something about this game even if you didn’t realize it. And as always, I’m late to the party.

Now on to the business, because there’s a lot of that to get into. Yakuza 0 features two protagonists, the first of whom we meet is the stoic-looking guy above. Kazuma Kiryu is a young yakuza member in the Kazama family headquartered in the Kamurocho ward of Tokyo, a unit of the larger Dojima family, which is itself a subsidiary of the Tojo Clan (this shit gets complicated pretty quickly, so it may help to create or refer to a chart.) Kiryu is indeed a stoic guy, aiming to emulate his direct boss and mentor, the Dojima family captain Shintaro Kazama. Unfortunately for both Kiryu and his fellow Kazama family member/best friend/sworn brother Akira Nishikiyama, Kazama is doing time in prison, and the three lieutenants of the Dojima family below him are all aiming for his job.

So it’s maybe not a great surprise when the murder of a debtor that Kiryu roughed up but certainly didn’t kill is pinned on him. Kiryu and Nishikiyama realize that this puts both of them and Kazama himself in the crosshairs of the higher-ups, and Kiryu takes an extreme step to try to protect the Kazama family from its enemies by asking big boss Dojima to let him take the fall by expelling him from the yakuza.

Not the standard staff meeting

After first being required to beat the shit out of nearly every man in the Dojima family office up to and including one of its lieutenants, Kuze, Kiryu is allowed to leave the family (and Kuze is left less a pinky finger for his loss, classic yakuza-style.) But matters aren’t quite so simple. As Dojima says, Kazama is still on the hook with regard to his responsibility for Kiryu. And of course, Kiryu is also still wanted by police in connection with the murder he’s been framed for.

After going back to Kamurocho and wondering what the hell he should do now that he’s just about fucked, Kiryu is met on the street by a wealthy real estate developer named Tetsu Tachibana who takes him in. Tachibana claims to know and to be working with Kazama for a greater goal and says he needs Kiryu’s help to carry out his plan, which involves tracking down the unknown owner of the “Empty Lot”, a tiny patch of land in the middle of Kamurocho that the Dojima family is after in order to complete their Monopoly same-color property line and start a highly lucrative rebuilding project.1 The murder victim Kiryu is being framed over just happened to be roughed up and later shot dead in the Empty Lot, complicating matters for everyone involved.

Talking it over with Nishikiyama back at Kiryu’s dumpy apartment. Apparently the yakuza is basically politics with more openly violent tendencies? Maybe that’s true of all organized crime.

Kiryu is naturally suspicious about the new arrangement, but he opens up slightly after Tachibana gives him a keepsake from Kazama, one that he couldn’t possibly have without the connection he claims. After doing his own research into Tachibana’s company the next day (involving more punching, of course, because that’s how you usually solve problems in this game) Kiryu decides to accept Tachibana’s offer and joins his company as a real estate agent, going on the straight and narrow — for now, at least. Tachibana’s massive wealth and influence can temporarily protect Kiryu from the police and from the Dojima family he’s now openly antagonizing in order to support Kazama, but for how long?

A good maxim to keep in mind

Meanwhile, in the Sotenbori district of Osaka, our other protagonist Goro Majima is hard at work as the manager of the Cabaret Grand. Majima is known around the popular entertainment district as Sotenbori’s “Lord of the Night” for his great success as a club manager (which we get to see a bit of in maybe the flashiest character introduction in a game ever created.)

Despite this achievement, Majima’s life is pretty lousy. We soon learn that he’s an ex-yakuza who was held for a year in confinement, tortured (hence the missing eye — it didn’t go missing by accident) and then expelled from his family for disobeying his boss in support of his sworn brother. Even so, Majima is desperate to re-enter the Shimano family, his old yakuza association, and so he works to make them money as a “civilian” at the Grand.

Unfortunately, he’s so good at his job that his old boss doesn’t want him going anywhere — in fact, Majima is constantly watched to make sure he never leaves Sotenbori, his “gilded cage.”

But soon enough, an opportunity comes up for Majima when his yakuza handler Sagawa communicates an order from his boss: a hit on someone named Makoto Makimura. He’s told this Makimura is a guy who deceives and draws unwilling women into sex work, so he doesn’t really have to feel too bad about putting an end to him. Better still, if he kills this guy, Majima rejoins the family, no more bullshit civilian work required.

He’s never killed before, but Majima accepts the job and is determined to perform it properly. However, when he discovers the true identity of Makoto Makimura, he finds himself unable to carry out the hit. Can Majima deal with his personal feelings and ideals while also avoiding getting killed by his old family for disobeying orders once again?

And what in the fuck is “HAIR MESSAGE LOVESONG”?

Before going any further, I should note that this is my first Yakuza game. Before playing Yakuza 0, I was just aware of the series’ existence but didn’t take much interest until I heard enough good things about 0 that I finally caved and went for it. At the time, I had a vague idea that this was something like “GTA but in Japan” — probably the same idea a lot of first-time players had. Makes sense, since both series are mainly action games set in large cities that center on organized crime.

But it was the wrong idea, because Yakuza 0 (and I’m assuming the rest of the series probably) isn’t much at all like GTA. Aside from the surface similarities, the two take such different approaches to both gameplay and story that they can’t really be compared. The first obvious difference is that there’s no Auto in Yakuza 0 — there is a bit of driving in the story, but you’re not the one doing it, and almost all the action is confined to the streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori that are open exclusively to pedestrian traffic.

The settings themselves provide another example of this difference. Kamurocho and Sotenbori are called “cities” in the game’s translation, but they’re more like districts or wards than cities in themselves, both parts of the massive metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka. Based on the real-life entertainment/red-light districts of Kabukicho and Dotonbori, both are relatively small in comparison to the entire cities featured in GTA games. But despite their comparatively small sizes, these two districts offer just as much if not more entertainment than the cities in GTA, packed as they are with clubs, bars, restaurants, shops, arcades, and various other entertainment for Kiryu and Majima to enjoy.

And I don’t mean that just in a general sense, but specifically: many of these spots offer the player healing in the form of food and drink and distractions through minigames. These diversions include but are not limited to (because I couldn’t put a complete list here even if I wanted to): pool, darts, mahjong, shogi (which I still can’t figure out how to play), bowling, poker, blackjack, baccarat, roulette, cee-lo (which I only know from Kaiji, and this one has some extra weird rules I wasn’t aware of), cho-han, underground no-holds-barred fighting, and perhaps most absurd and frustrating, racing tiny cars on a track against a bunch of children.

There are also dancing minigames, the only time/place you’ll ever catch me dancing.

In addition to these diversions, Kamurocho and Sotenbori are filled with side characters the player can interact with. Some of these characters have their own stories that Kiryu or Majima can get involved in, usually either by helping them out with a problem or getting roped into a bizarre situation that they have to resolve.

A lot of games feature sidequests that may just feel thrown in as a matter of course, because they’re expected by the player or to fill out time. The side stories in Yakuza 0, however, aren’t simply thrown in — all those I’ve played so far are so entertaining that they’re well worth the time spent. You don’t really have to go seeking them out, either; for the most part you’ll run into all these citizens and hear their problems out while exploring Kamurocho and Sotenbori.

One example of the many problems you can help fellow citizens with

Many of these side stories involving using your fists to solve problems as is so often the case, but not all of them — sometimes, you’ll need to find the right words instead. A lot of the character of both Kiryu and Majima come out in these stories: Kiryu as the ultra-stoic but also somewhat naive guy, and Majima as also serious but sarcastic (quite a change from his character in successive games.2) The side stories feature a nice mix of everyday mundane life problems and bizarre/absurd situations, with mostly pretty memorable NPCs, some of whom can even show up later to help Kiryu/Majima out with their own ventures.

This side story is up there with Majima’s cult infiltration as one of my favorites.

Speaking of those ventures, not only are there a load of minigames and side stories to enjoy in Yakuza 0, but also two business simulations for each protagonist: Kamurocho Real Estate Royale, in which Kiryu has to take ownership of prominent businesses in various neighborhoods of Kamurocho piece by piece, and Sotenbori Cabaret Club Czar, in which Majima is tasked with taking a small failing nightclub and propelling it to the top club in town just as he did with the much larger Cabaret Grand. These simulations are sort of extended side stories in the sense that they also involve a lot of talking to people around town, sometimes having to find the right words (more in Majima’s case) and sometimes having to beat down hired muscle from rivals (more in Kiryu’s, but also in Majima’s.)

How Kiryu buys real estate. No need for a lawyer or a closing or any of that shit. Just flash a suitcase full of money while standing in front of the place.

And of course, with all this running around and fighting, you’ll have to get into the combat. If you strip all these extra elements away (not that you’d want to, though) Yakuza 0 is a beat-em-up game at its core. Throughout both the central plot and the side stories, you’re required to beat the shit out of hundreds to thousands of men who come at you. Many of these are yakuza grunts going after either Kiryu or Majima, controlled by a higher-up who you may also have to take on in a boss fight. The very first super-extended fight sequence at the end of Chapter 1 is a good example of this arrangement, with Kiryu having to fight through all of Dojima HQ, even taking on a recurring mid-boss sort of character before beating on the lieutenant Kuze.

Kiryu and Majima each have a few fighting styles they can learn and switch between freely in combat, ranging from slower and more powerful to quicker and lighter. Some styles allow the player to pick up and use certain objects like chairs, tables, crates, and even bicycles and motorcycles to smash enemies with. Beating on these guys also raises the player’s Heat bar, and at a sufficient Heat level Kiryu/Majima can unleash their true power with finishing moves — a large variety of them, many involving those objects you can pick up or certain weapons you can take off of fallen enemies or buy at stores.

This is by far one of the most satisfying beatings you give out in the game.

Yakuza 0 isn’t a difficult game, or at least not on its normal or hard modes. Kiryu and Majima have plenty of ways to deal with any situation they might find themselves in, even when surrounded by many enemies at once. Hell, that’s just when they get started — especially Majima when using his Breaker style, which turns him into a breakdancing human tornado. And if there’s a motorcycle anywhere near Kiryu, every one of those enemies will be on the ground within just a few seconds after he rips through that crowd with it.

The game also allows you to stock up on healing items. You get plenty of inventory space as well as an unlimited item box to send extra items to storage. Your item box stuff can only be accessed at certain save points, but that’s not a problem — as long as you have a full supply of energy drinks to raise your health and your Heat meter, you should be able to rip through the long plot-related battles without a problem, even if you’re shit at action games like I am. You can even cheese the boss fights by pausing to recover from the beating you’re taking, though I subscribe to the idea that if the game lets you do it, it’s not really cheating.

If these dumb assholes had also gone by the drugstore on the way here to stock up on Staminan Royales, they probably could have killed me pretty easily. Not my fault they failed to prepare.

Of course, you can also play the game in a more serious way by actually trying to block, dodge, and use tactics instead of just going all out offensive in every fight. Legendary Mode also unlocks as an option once you’ve gotten through the final chapter, so those who want a second, more difficult swing at Yakuza 0 might enjoy that. Either way, I wouldn’t suggest playing on Easy, given that Normal (the mode I played my first run through) is already pretty easy, though it’s an option as well if you just want to have a good time with the story and with Kamurocho and Sotenbori in general.

No worrying about money, either: it’s all over the fucking place. In addition to end-of-chapter monetary bonuses, you can also literally beat money out of people who very stupidly pick fights with you on the street (and I mean literally in the actual sense of the word; banknotes fly out of them when you beat them.) You also have the ability to pick fights with packs of jerks trying to mess with or extort money from law-abiding citizens — a task that’s well worth you time, as you’ll always get a reward for your good work, ranging from a healing item to a million-dollar diamond-encrusted plate. Not bad for a minute’s work.

Piss it all away at the Sotenbori casino; there’s always more. Too bad money isn’t so easily gotten in real life.

As for that central plot, it feels perfect for a gangster story like Yakuza 0. Some players might expect a simple “rise up the ranks” kind of story, especially considering that this is a prequel to the main series, but that’s not quite what this one is. While both Kiryu and Majima are working towards “professional” goals (if you can call being a yakuza professional anyway; the various clans and families in the game do seem to operate like corporations with hierarchies and division of duties) they’re really much more about Kiryu and Majima figuring out what their ideals are and how to live according to those ideals while still surviving in the dangerous world they’ve been brought up in.

This isn’t part of the central story, but it is another very satisfying beatdown involving the strong ideals of our protagonists.

It works, too; in contrast with all the bizarre/surreal/goofy parts of Yakuza 0, the plot does get quite serious at times, but the tonal shifts weren’t a problem at all for me. I’m not sure whether this trend continues after 0 (or before it, I guess, since the next game in line is Yakuza Kiwami, the remake of the PS2 original) but here it provides a nice break from the main action if you need it. Maybe too nice, since I did stall out on this game for a long time playing through that side stuff.

I’m still playing the post-game “Premium Adventure”, the part after finishing the final chapter when Kiryu and Majima have free rein over their cities — makes it a lot easier to continue those business simulations without having the plot on my mind (not to mention without having streets blocked off for plot reasons or having to run away from those Dojima assholes out looking for Kiryu every so often.)

No matter how many times I play it, I still suck at OutRun. I did fill up the scoreboard with three-letter-adapted curse words in true 10 year-old fashion just like we used to at the arcade, though.

But though I haven’t stopped playing it exactly, I now feel safe in saying that Yakuza 0 fully deserves all the praise it’s gotten, and I’ll gladly pile onto it. This game gets my highest recommendation. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s a prequel if you’re new to the series, either: I was new to it myself, and I understood everything well enough even if I’m sure there were references or maybe a bit of foreshadowing I missed out on.

I’ll see it in retrospect, maybe. Not sure how far I’ll get into this series, since there are several games that I expect are just as long as 0, but I have just started Kiwami, so we’ll see. I like the contrast I have between Yakuza and Atelier going right now, so I might continue with it. In the meantime, I’ll be coming back to 0 for more adventures in real estate empire-building, cabaret club management, and defending decent citizens from assholes and jerks.

I’ll be back for more punishment one day, I promise.

1 A little history here: Yakuza 0 takes place in 1988, right in the middle of the massive 1986-1991 real estate bubble that further heated Japan’s already hot economy. This is presumably why so much money is being thrown around in the game — you can even quite literally throw money with your “Cash Confetti” ability that lets you avoid unwanted fights; new combat skills can only be learned by “investing in yourself” with money, etc. In this context, it makes at least some kind of sense that these guys would be beating up and even killing each other over ownership of one tiny lot in the middle of a commercial district.

2 Though I was new to Yakuza when I started 0, I was already kind of vaguely familiar with “that crazy guy with the eyepatch.” Majima’s character shift still feels weird, even if an attempt to explain it was made at the end of the game. It feels a lot less like he’s actually crazy and more like he’s thought “well, this world is all fucked up and absurd, so I’ll be even crazier than everyone else” — I’ve heard from long-time fans that his treatment in 0 was basically a retcon. I do like the new (or old?) Majima, but I’ll have to get used to the change.