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Late to the Party: Yakuza 0

Honor. Loyalty. Slot car racing. How does one begin to describe Yakuza 0? It’s both an intense crime drama and a game where you help a dominatrix learn to assert herself.

The Yakuza franchise debuted for the Playstation 2 in 2005, spawning several sequels and spinoffs. Yakuza 0, which launched in 2015 for the PS3 and PS4 (and later Xbox and Windows), serves as a prequel and jumping on point for newcomers. Set in the year 1988 in Tokyo’s Kamurocho district and Osaka’s Sotenbori district, the plot primarily resolves around two men: Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, who you’ll periodically swap between over the course of the game.

The plot begins with Kiryu framed for murder in an empty lot in Kamurocho. This empty lot serves as a major driver of the plot, the last piece of land needed for the Tojo yakuza clan to claim control of the area and cement their power, influence, and wealth. Kiryu becomes embroiled in a power struggle between different factions of the Dojima family, a smaller piece of the Tojo clan. The story twists and turns as Kiryu’s story intersects with that of Goro Majima, an ex-yakuza member offered a chance to rejoin if he commits an assassination.

Although the stakes may seem relatively small – this is no globe spanning adventure – the game plays it all deadly serious. No character passes up the chance to ham it up in increasingly over the top confrontations. Yakuza plays its story intensely and dramatically, and the body count rises as it races toward its dramatic climax.

But that’s only half the game. The other half has you dancing the night away, singing karaoke, and stopping a pants thief. In between major story missions, you have the chance to take on sub-stories, side missions in which you assist the people of Kamurocho and Sotenbori. The best way to describe them was articulated by a friend, who said “they contrast the plot, but Kiryu doesn’t seem to notice.” He approaches acting in a music video with the same gravity that he does helping his sworn brother escape the clutches of rival yakuza.

That is the magic of this game. It would not work nearly as well if it acknowledged the absurdity or the contrast. By playing it straight, the sub-stories become some of the funniest things I’ve encountered in a video game. The stakes are vanishingly small, but by taking them so seriously, I couldn’t help but become invested in these personal stories. Of course I’m going to help Shizuku solve a crossword puzzle to find a hidden marriage proposal from Kosaku. To do anything else would be shameful.

However, that also potentially makes the game an acquired taste. You’re either fully invested in its bullshit, or you’re not. And if you’re not, the gameplay might not be enough to get you through. As an action game, Yakuza is a fairly standard 3D brawler, with simple combos that you can gradually upgrade over the course of the game. The ability to swap between different combat styles adds some spice, but ultimately, I found the combat serviceable rather than engaging. As I tore through yakuza headquarters, I mostly found myself wanting to get to the next batch of sub-stories to see what antics awaited me.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to break up the action. Yakuza 0 is also packed with minigames. From classic Sega arcade games like Outrun to rhythm games and more mahjong that you could ever want, the game never lacks new things to try to break up the action. I spent a huge chunk of the game’s impressive length (How Long to Beat pegs it at over 60 hours for completing the main game and extra content, which is probably about how much time I spent) just playing different minigames, whether as part of the story or to rack up “Completion Points” that give you new perks.

The two major minigames in Yakuza 0 are Real Estate Royale and Cabaret Club Czar. As Kiryu, you can become a real estate mogul of Kamurocho, buying up properties across the district, fighting rival real estate tycoons, and racking up obscene amounts of cash. As Majima, you can train up hostesses to become the most popular entertainment spot in Sotenbori. These minigames can be endlessly addictive in that “numbers go up” fashion, and I found myself sinking more time into them was strictly necessary just for how enjoyable they were. 

I missed the boat on the franchise as it was releasing, and the main Yakuza series starring Kiryu has ended (Yakuza 0 came after Yakuza 5, making it one of the last installments of the main franchise before Kiryu’s story ended with Yakuza 6). But Yakuza 0 was definitely a fun ride, and served as a great introduction to the world of these games and to Kiryu. Will I continue on for 6 more games to see what happens to Kiryu? It’s hard to say.

On one hand, I really did fall in love with Kiryu and the silly substories of the game. My writeups can’t really do them justice. You really have to experience the absurdities of the scenarios, and Kiryu’s reactions to them, firsthand. And while I appreciated how earnestly over the top the main plot was, I found myself tuning out and generally growing tired of the combat. Yakuza 0, for better or worse, seems to be what Yakuza is: a mix of really fun and funny moments wrapped up in an incredibly average brawler.

It’s also hard to talk about this game without talking about its depiction of women. There’s a willingness to leer at women that is downright uncomfortable. As you go across Kamurocho and Sotenbori, you can collect telephone cards featuring pictures of scantily clad women, and unlock video clips of women lounging around in bikinis. While this material is side content, if you want to complete all the sub-stories you’re forced to engage with them on some level. It was genuinely uncomfortable! 

Ultimately, Yakuza 0 was some of the most fun I’ve had with a game in a long time mixed with a lot of moments that ranged from dull to gross. And for better or worse, that seems to be what the franchise is. I think the best moments of the game outshine the worst, but it’s not a franchise I’ll readily binge. Still, I think the remake of Yakuza 1 will call out to me sooner rather than later, and even though I’ll still be late to the party, Kiryu won’t leave me behind.

Bonus: Here are some screenshots with no context