Yakuza 0

Yakuza 0 is one of the few games to aim high and knock everything out of the park. A prequel to the Yakuza franchise, it introduces Kiryu Kazuma and Majima Goro 17 years before the main events of the first game. Their individual stories start with no clear connection – Kiryu is accused of murder on a vital plot of land in Tokyo while Majima is working his way back into the Shimano family in Osaka. But as the finale approaches, the thread holding everything together becomes apparent, bringing both stories on a collision course.

The main story is rife with cliffhangers, interesting plot twists, and plenty of engaging characters. Of particular note are Majima and the Dojima family lieutenants. Beneath a calm and collected façade, Majima is a very unpredictable man, but he is dead-set on one thing – he wants to rejoin the Shimano family that he had been cast out from. While resolute in that desire, the moments when his gut decisions conflict with it, and how he comes to term with the results of those decisions, are consistently some of the most enjoyable parts of the story. The three Dojima lieutenants – Kuze, Awano, and Shibusawa – each play integral roles as antagonists aiming for the same goal. With their own personal approaches and ultimate objectives, they act as interesting foils to Kiryu and Majima.

With an interesting cast to bolster it, the general story, how it builds, and how it is presented all remain captivating from beginning to end. Oddly enough, one of the most unexpected yet effective strengths of the presentation is transitions into boss battles. Going from plot events to battles is always smooth, done in a way that ramps up the tension, and especially for the final few boss fights, the transitions bring things to another level before combat has even started.

Tonally, the main story is very serious and played completely straight. The substories are the exact opposite. While Kiryu and Majima fight to overcome their positions in Japan’s world of organized crime, they can often peel off to visit the disco or arcades, or they can help people like a young boy trying to buy porn, or a girl coerced into a cult. Surprisingly the stark contrast between the light and dark sides of the game is never an issue. Even if they appeal in completely different ways, they balance each other out and coexist without causing whiplash.

The single biggest chunk of side content is each character’s business endeavors. Kiryu works in a real estate firm, investing money in local businesses while letting the profits flow in. Majima manages a cabaret club, scouting girls and running the floor during business hours. Unfortunately, the greatest flaw of the game is the reward you get for completing each of these – not because of the rewards themselves, but because of how long it takes to get them. The businesses are very time-consuming, and by the time you finish, chances are that you’ve taken care of most of the other content in the game. Yet the rewards you’re given are each character’s “legendary” fighting style. By the time they’re unlocked, you’re left with a great reward without any good way to put it to use outside of New Game +. Majima’s “Mad Dog of Shimano” in particular is an absolute blast, so it’s a shame.

Leading up to the “legendary” styles, each character has three drastically different fighting styles to let loose in beat ‘em up combat. The highlights are all on Majima’s side, with the baseball bat-centered slugger and actual breakdancing breaker. Swapping between styles offers plenty of easily-accessible variety, keeping combat from becoming tedious as the game progresses. The various skill and stat upgrades are actually paid for in cash, which becomes a non-issue once you start beating millions of your opponents and get the businesses rolling. The oodles of minigames offer other ways to spend your obscene quantities of cash – bowling, shogi, darts, slot-car racing, mahjong, pool, and many more. While several come up in substories or the main story, they mostly exist as fun little options to do while exploring the cities. And then there’s the telephone club, where Kiryu tries to get a date. Sometimes he succeeds.

Aesthetically, this game screams, “It’s the 80s!” With bright neon lights, clashing color schemes, outfits that never looked good, and trash everywhere on the street, there is never any doubt to the era you’re getting a glimpse of. While they didn’t double-down and go for a sickeningly 80s soundtrack as well, the music does well enough to carry scenes, set the tone, and offer bone-crushing themes, even if not stylistically consistent. In fact, each fighting style has its own theme. Nifty. On the visual front, the character animations are a highlight, as many cutscenes use over-the-top animations to add a degree of appeal you wouldn’t expect. Facial animations also do plenty for scene believability. While a large number of side characters look very bland, main story dialogue tends to look very convincing – it’s not realistic to the point of the uncanny valley, but it’s heavily detailed and nuanced and accompanies the solid voice acting perfectly.

However, above all else, the most interesting thing about this game is the majority of the female characters. Or rather, their real-life models. Nearly all named female characters in substories and around town are based, both in appearance and name, on Japanese adult actresses. You know. “Adult.” You’ll find cards around town with their real-life photos, and upon completing their respective stories, you’ll unlock short videos in varying degrees of innocence starring them. Maybe you’ll recognize someone.

I did.

While dense and over-ambitious on first glance, Yakuza 0 is remarkably effective at pulling off nearly everything it sets out to accomplish. And with the individual components as solid as they are, the layers build up to further reinforce the greater picture. It’s a fantastic game, a great introduction to the series, and doubtlessly worth your time.

Recommendation – PLAY IT

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