Saturday, March 09, 2024

First Play Review: Yakuza 0 [2015] [PC2018]

At the turn of the century and the failure of it's  Dreamcast console, SEGA pivoted to become a third party game developer. Game producer Toshihiro Nagoshi pitched a Yakuza game for SEGA to develop for the Sony PlayStation 2. His idea was simple: an action-adventure RPG-lite brawler with mini-games in that the player would live the everyday life of a member of the Yakuza and be an open world in the same vein as Shenmue (a Dreamcast game Nagoshi had worked on) but obviously exploring more adult themes. SEGA immediately rejected the idea as it had traditionally made games for younger audiences and violence between humans was something rarely explored in Japanese video games. Despite this resistance (and from Sony for similar reasons) Nagoshi was relentless in his pursuit to the point where he offered to resign if his game failed. Yakuza was eventually green-lit and needless to say achieved remarkable success - in Japan.

Until the Western release of the prequel Yakuza 0 in 2017, despite the popularity of the multimedia franchise that spawned around it, the Western market needed some additional convincing. The Yakuza series had been a very niche product in the West never translating into blockbuster territory. After SEGA purchased the localisation studio Atlus and put them to work on the Yakuza series, the tide turned. A 2018 shareholder report stated that Atlus understood both Japanese and American games and is "able to localize Japanese games in a way that accurately conveys the unique worldviews of Japanese titles to local gamers." Seven years on I suspect there are few Western gamers who have never heard of the Yakuza franchise. Last year Mark Twomey insisted I play Yakuza 0 as the franchise was being released in bargain bundles in advance of the latest instalment. I knew it was time...

You can often use environmental objects to fight with

Yakuza 0, although the sixth mainline entry in the franchise, is a prequel to the original Yakuza game and so marketed as an ideal starting point ahead of remakes/remasters of the original Yakuza games for the PS4/XboxOne/PC. It's set in the late 1980's when the series' main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu was just 20 years old and is framed for a murder of a loan shark's client in an abandoned property lot at the center of a land grab by powerful interested parties. The game also switches perspective to reveal the origin of Goro Majima, a series regular who, as an expelled Yakuza, is given the opportunity to return to the family once he performs an assassination which he is reluctant to do.

Gameplay involves you as either protagonist navigating two fictitious representations of real life Japanese city districts Kiryu in Kamurochō, Tokyo and Majima in Sotenbori, Osaka. As you progress you are forced to combat literally hundreds of enemies using martial arts of varying styles. As you eliminate enemies you gain their money which is not only currency with which to purchase goods and services but is also the games XP and used for levelling your fighting skills and abilities. As you explore you encounter, various NPCs which can be interacted with. They either advance the plot, sell goods, reveal new mini-games or of course want to kill you forcing you into mini combat situations. Many NPCs however are there for side-quest purposes and revel new stories outside the main narrative and flesh out the world and can be to completed or ignored as you desire.

Shit gets weird sometimes

This game wasn't really like anything I've played before. Combat is brawling but more complex than in  Batman: Arkham. Navigating bustling streets reminds me of early Assassins Creed games but without parkour. It's heavy on the epically long cutscenes like in MGSV: The Phantom Pain and Final Fantasy XIV but this tale is more grounded in reality. The sheer amount of extra content provided by the game's additional systems and mini-games that have little or no bearing on the central plot are staggering and I've never seen the like. As I write trying to compare it to anything I know, I feel it's a misrepresentation, Yakuza 0 really is its own thing in the action-adventure genre and that's a strength when so many games are similar to one another.

The game suggests you use a controller and I'd certainly understand that considering the console origins but I tried with KBM and while a bit finicky at the beginning it became fairly fluid. However while the fighting was OK it's not gameplay that I'm too enamoured with. One major issue is the saving method. The game has no autosave nor the ability to save at any time. To save, one has to direct your character to a pay-phone which allowed saving/loading and some inventory management. This was a terrible design as you couldn't save just before a combat encounter and if defeated you may be forced to play from a point too far earlier to be 'fun' after repetition. I became tired the combat in general before long, especially during boss fights where I'd die or my fingers would get too tired before the boss' health bars (yes multiple) would run out. So rather pausing for a rest which would break immersion, I countered the game's flaws using a memory hack that gave my characters invincibility and permanent heat (stamina). While this trivialised basic encounters, it also shortened the boss fights (which were still awesome) and made it irrelevant to waste time traversing to a save point as I could no longer be defeated. I enjoyed the gameplay much more when I did this. The actual brawling and fighting isn't the main draw for these games however, in fact it's not considered great by most players, instead the real draw of the Yakuza series is the plot and side-content/mini-games.

Mini-games include dancing

While the main path of Yakuza 0 is deadly serious to phenomenally dramatic proportions, the side content splattered throughout the world is genuinely bizarre, cringe and hilarious in equal measure. There are minor side-quests scattered throughout the world that you could easily miss but if you find them you will be rewarded with a fascinating insight into Japanese culture and all that comes with it. Some quests I found were to help a small boy get his video game back from a bully, assisting a new aspiring dominatrix be more dominant, and having a drink with a government advisor giving him ideas on how to increase taxes and what percentages should be charged. Side games like playing mahjong, remote-control car racing or singing karaoke can be played. Other side-games include ways of accumulating greater wealth such as managing a real estate empire by buying up land and putting rivals out of business or managing a cabaret club by hiring girls to provide an evening's companionship. The depths of most of this content were fascinating but ultimately would have taken too long for me to explore, perhaps I will do so in later entries.

Yakuza 0 is is a character driven game with a movie quality, branching, arching and twisting plot that despite starting out pretty weak, soon blossoms into one of the most well written, surprising and incredible stories I've ever witnessed in interactive media. From other Japanese games I've played I'm used to a concentration on a strong lengthy narrative more than is done in the West. This game is no different and easily has hours of cutscenes including an epilogue that finishes 40+ minutes after the 'final boss' and so you basically sit and watch without any interaction for that length of time. For some this level of non-interaction will be too much but for me the 5 or 10 minutes of well acted, fully motion captured narrative every once in a while allowed me a rest from the button mashing combat. Had this been a visual novel game I'd probably have enjoyed it just as much. The only gripe I have is that there must be over 100 characters, all with Japanese names that can't be easily remembered especially as so many begin with the same letter; e.g. Shimano, Sera, Sagawa and Shibusawa are four very different people!!

The drama is portrayed with cinematic-level techniques and quality

Final Verdict: Yakuza 0 is unlike anything I've ever played. I've never enjoyed a game where I've found the combat so weak but this is a unique situation where experiencing the game is a greater reward than actually playing it. The developers' love of Japan and its eccentricities are obvious and exploited for our entertainment. It is easily one of the best narrative experiences ever to be digitised and was a huge success for SEGA with the original PS4 release selling out in Japan. I'm now looking forward to what the rest of the series has to offer.

Technicals: 33.5 hours through Steam on Windows 11 with an RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440 175Hz.

Bugs: One crash recorded.

Purchase Options: Available on Steam or GOG for €19.99 and often found in a discounted bundle with others in the series. Review copy purchased from Steam for €6 in July 2023.

Yakuza/Like A Dragon franchise (only PC releases shown)

  • Yakuza 0 [2018]
  • Yakuza Kiwami [2019] 
  • Yakuza Kiwami 2 [2019]
  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon [2020]
  • Yakuza 3 (Remastered) [2021]
  • Yakuza 4 (Remastered) [2021]
  • Yakuza 5 (Remastered) [2021]
  • Yakuza 6: The Song of Life [2021]
  • Judgment [2022]
  • Lost Judgment [2022]
  • Like a Dragon: Ishin! [2023]
  • Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name [2023]
  • Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth [2024]

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