Earlier this year I played through Yakuza 0. It was a Christmas gift from Mir. She thought I’d enjoy the Japanese brand of silliness present throughout every fiber of the game. She was correct. Let’s dive into 80’s butt rock the video game.
For those not in the know Yakuza is the Japanese word used to describe an organized crime syndicate. It is essentially the Japanese mafia. And similar to how Western media glorifies the life of crime within films, Yakuza 0 glorifies the lives of those within the Japanese crime syndicate. You’re immediately introduced to the long-running series protagonist Kiryu as he indulges in the night life of Kamurocho following a shakedown. He is a greenhorn and has yet to learn the implications of his chosen career path. This will change.
The opening scene turning heel from criminal activity straight into lighthearted debauchery sets the tone for the remainder of the game. The story is incredibly serious and features fantastic dramatic moments, but ten seconds after a cut-scene ends you might be running errands for a man who is wearing nothing but an adult diaper. This creates moments of tonal whiplash, but that makes the game oddly charming. If Yakuza 0 was nothing but tense drama it’d be exhausting, so moments of silliness outside the main story are a welcome reprieve.
That’s not to say the story is bad. Quite the opposite. I really enjoyed the writing, which is a rarity for me. Most of the cast are grizzled veterans with a history of crime and violence etched into the very pours on their faces. They’re alliance with one another is tenuous as they always have their own self-interests at heart. The whole of the story is a series of betrayals and the dramatic tension that precedes them. While some are fairly obvious, never knowing the who or when had me at the edge of my seat throughout Yakuza.
That said, it’d have been nice if the writing wasn’t so willing to pull punches. Characters are repeatedly framed as being killed off only to appear perfectly fine in the next scene. Moments of convenience like these momentarily took me out of the story, but were never able to fully undo the investment I had in seeing what would happen next.
This is largely due to the strength of the various characters within Yakuza 0. With the exception of Kiryu each of the characters is incredibly well realized. Many of them have depth and motivations that, while you may not relate to, can be easily understood. No act is committed without purpose or intention. The cast is also morally ambiguous as even the heroes of the story do unsavory deeds to meet their ends. This goes a long ways into making the characters feel like people instead of a cast of cartoon villains.
On that note, the only reason Kiryu lacks the same charisma as the rest of the cast is because he is designed similar to a silent protagonist. While he does have a bit of a personality, he is largely present as a lens through which the player sees and interacts with the world. The rest of the cast has more than enough charisma to make up for Kiryu though.
It is also worth pointing out that half of your time will be spent with the game’s second protagonist Majima. He is the main antagonist of the first Yakuza game, which Yakuza 0 is a prequel to. He is much better written and far more interesting than Kiryu even if Majima’s gameplay is weaker by comparison. It is also fascinating to see how the story beats of both characters start independent, but slowly weave together into a wonderful crescendo. While they don’t actually meet until after the events of the game take place they both constantly complicate each other’s lives.
It should be plain to see that I think the story of Yakuza 0 is reason enough to play the game, but if you’re still not convinced let’s delve into what you’ll be doing when you aren’t watching a bunch of criminals back stab one another.
Yakuza, as a franchise, is infamous for its side content. There is an avalanche of side quests which aren’t terribly involved, but have a Japanese style of quirkiness to them. I don’t know how better to describe it than that. How many Western developed games do you know where you have to help a man who was mugged of his pants? Or shape future tax laws? Or rescue a widowed mother’s only daughter from a group of cultists? You can’t. It’s this intrinsic weirdness that makes the side quests so interesting.
And you have to understand, normally I wouldn’t have bothered with any of this. The gameplay content of the side quests is minimal. You’re almost always chasing down something so you can run it back to someone. This is the absolute worst quest design in video games. But the chance that some bizarre happenstance would occur egged me on. And if a quest turned out to be as mundane as it appeared there was always a chance it’d end with some wholesome chicken soup for the soul style send off. Even though the quests were worthless from a gameplay perspective it was, once again, the writing that kept me engaged with Yakuza 0.
But what if you need a break from the serious, silly, and wholesome moments. What if you just want to have some good clean fun? Well Yakuza has that covered too.
Yakuza 0 has a plethora of minigames to occupy the players time. That’s no joke either. More than half of my playtime was spent on these things. Most of them are casual fun and based on their real world counter parts. Do you like bowling? How about Majong? Poker? Yakuza has you covered. There are also more involved games such as one where you run a real estate business and another where you run a cabaret club, both of which have their own side stories. Provided you have the want to be distracted, Yakuza will find a way to keep you busy.
And it should be stated that the side content is completely optional. You can engage with as much or as little of it as you’d like. I went down the rabbit hole completing a ton of side challenges, but eventually grew tired of that at which point I railroaded through the second half of the story. Having this freedom to start and stop engaging with side content as I saw fit helped to keep it fun rather than exhausting making it a huge strength of Yakuza 0.
Plus if that isn’t enough there is also beat-em up combat. It is exactly as dumb as it looks and I mean that with the highest of praise. Every action and reaction is dialed up to eleven making the fights look as realistic as two action figures smashing into one another. It doesn’t have a lot of depth, but the spectacle keeps the fighting interesting.
I really enjoyed Yakuza 0. It’s many disjointed pieces come together to form a somewhat odd, but thoroughly enjoyable package. The story alone is worth experiencing, but the variable array of side distractions and charm are what make those moments between the heavy hitting story beats so memorable. If you’re a completionist Yakuza might be a nightmare, but if you’re in the market for a story about some morally ambiguous characters repeatedly backstabbing one another and some Japanese quirkiness than Yakuza 0 is likely up your alley.