Many people hold up the GTA series as being the pinnacle when it comes to crime games, but for me that honour has always gone to the Yakuza franchise. Although never as expansive or open as the GTA games, the Yakuza series concentrated more on a compelling narrative, larger than life melodrama and likeable flawed protagonists who do the wrong things for the right reasons. Yakuza may be gritty in its depiction of the criminal underworld but the games are all about hope and redemption – soap-operas of machismo and barely supressed emotional turmoil in which every problem can ultimately be solved through a good bit of the old kickety-punch.
If you’ve never played a Yakuza game before or didn’t want to jump into an extremely lore heavy franchise part way through, this is your perfect entry point. Yakuza 0 takes the action back to the 80s, predating everything that happened in the numbered games aside from a few flashbacks in Yakuza 4. There may be a few bits of foreshadowing or references to events that happen in the numbered series that new players won’t pick up on, but that won’t matter. They’ll be having too good a time kicking the snot out of street punks and dishonourable criminals to notice. The combination of serious narrative and goofy, stylised and alarmingly brutal melee combat (in which everyone walks away at the end, no matter how badly pummelled) shouldn’t work, but thanks to the achingly sincere delivery of the story everything melds together in a bizarre harmony that is addictive and hugely compelling.
This time around, players take control of two young Yakuza, one in Osaka and the other in Tokyo, or more precisely the Red Light districts of both. Kazuma Kiryu, the hero of the Yakuza series isn’t quite as interesting in his origin story as fans of the series may have hoped. He’s a cool, tough guy with deadly fighting skills. When players first see him he’s striding down the neon soaked streets of Tokyo, smoking a cigarette. There’s blood on his face but it’s not his. He’s tall and tattooed and stoic, but not as nuanced as his character will become later (earlier) in the series. Rather than the world wearied warrior uncomfortable with his place in the criminal organisation and what he has to do to keep alive and honourable, Kiryu is instead a young up-and-comer framed (as always) for a crime he didn’t commit). The other protagonist, best described as a frenemy of Kiryu in the rest of the series, Goro Majima is almost the exact opposite. Known as Mad Dog in the numbered series, Majima is insane and a simmering pillar of rage after having endured a year of torture before being ordered to make ¥100,000,000 running a cabaret to essentially buy his way back into the Yakuza.
The story, despite being set in Japan in the 80s is strangely resonant with today’s Australia, as it deals with a housing bubble and much of the underlying plot details the struggle of Yakuza families trying to control property and the vast amounts of money it generates. Compared to the heists and shootouts of Western crime games, this backdrop may sound sedate, and in many respects it is, but the hushed conversations over cigarettes and whiskey that often lead to shirtless tattooed men punching on. If it wasn’t so earnest the whole thing might come across as a homoerotic parody, but Yakuza 0, and the series as a whole manages to skirt the line of the ridiculous without going over.
While basic combat system remains basically unchanged from previous games, with each character having a light and heavy attack, a grab, dodge and block all of which can be combed together in a large number of canned combos that can be unlocked or extended via training with masters, Yakuza 0 mixes things up by giving each character access to four different combat styles (three unlocked through training and the fourth unlocked after completing the game once), each with a unique feel. In keeping with his stoic character Kiryu’s beginning combat style, Thug, is pretty straightforward, with big looping punches and kicks. The two trained styles are at the opposite ends of the spectrum, with Rush being all about fast combos but no grapples and throws, and Destroyer being dominated by strength moves and improvised weapons. Although switching between styles is definitely possible and probably advisable, Destroyer and its ability to automatically pick up improvised weapons is so much fun that it’s hard to even think about any of the other styles.
Majima’s combat styles are a little more balanced in terms of appeal. The basic style, Street Fighter comprises smooth, fast combos, and has the ability to dodge twice in a row. Slugger gives the one-eyed madman an unbreakable baseball bat and strings of great combos but doesn’t allow Majima to grab improvised weapons or opponents. Dancer is a fighting style perfect for taking on crowds of enemies, but the reason you’ll find yourself coming back to it time and again is the fact that the style sees Goro Majima, an insane Yakuza, breakdance fighting and making Michael Jackson noises.
New skills in these fighting styles are unlocked not through normal experience but instead through cash money. It’s only a small change from previous games but it makes all the difference when it comes to the feeling of progression. Nearly everything the characters do earns them money, whether it be playing the property market, beating up thugs in alleys, spending time in a casino or completing story missions. Simply playing gives players the currency they need to have steady progression, so even grinding for a bit more cash when you know a big fight might be coming up doesn’t feel like a chore.
There’s so much more to say about Yakuza 0. It’s a game that feels so full of content that there is enough for a number of games. Japan in 1988 is a world you can and will get lost in. It’s sublime and ridiculous in equal measure. Just play it already.