The Yakuza games have always been immensely popular in Japan, so much so that their central protagonist, Kiryu Kazuma, is considered a mascot of PlayStation. However, they unfortunately have never found their footing here in the West and are largely unheard of. If, like me, you have never played a Yakuza game before, please right that wrong by playing this game.
Yakuza 0 is a tale centred around two protagonists and acts as a prequel to the other games. Kazuma Kiryu, the protagonist of the entire franchise, is a brash and naïve young man who recently joined the yakuza. In a simple money collection mission gone wrong, he is framed for murder and ends up embroiled in a massive turf war between parties that seek to take over Tokyo. Meanwhile, Goro Majima, another mainstay in the franchise, is a one-eyed ex-Yakuza living in Osaka as the manager of a cabaret, as punishment for a crime he committed. To gain favour with his boss, he agrees to assassinate a person named Makoto Makimura, though his life takes a sharp turn when he finds himself unable and unwilling to do so.
These stories are gripping and extremely well told, despite some melodrama. However, this is easily overlooked as the performances are phenomenal; the voice acting, completely in Japanese, is incredibly good and is able to sell the weaker parts of the story. There are instances of surprising emotional depth; for instance, my sister came in to watch a section of the game for the first time just as an important cutscene was playing. Fifteen minute later, she was in tears and completely hooked. The game benefits greatly from focusing exclusively on the plights of Kiryu and Majima, with the paths of both protagonists ultimately converging.
The gameplay is simple, and the beat-‘em-up combat is brutal yet fun. Each protagonist has three distinct fighting styles, which can be switched on the fly and can be upgraded individually. Kiryu has his standard Brawler style, a quick and nimble Rush style as well as a slow but powerful Beast style. Majima on the other hand, has his typical Thug style, a break dancing Breaker style as well as a bat-wielding Slugger style. Each style for each character shines in specific circumstances; for instance, Kiryu’s Rush style is great for taking on certain large enemies by darting in, dealing a few hits, then darting out; while Majima’s Breaker style in incredibly good for taking on and demolishing large crowds of people. There are no experience points, as everything in the game revolves around a single currency: Yen. The same money that you use for buying items and everything else is also used for upgrading your skills and abilities, which leads to interesting decisions about which abilities to upgrade early in the game. However, soon the money begins flowing in, making most decisions trivial.
However, playing through the story is just scratching the surface of Yakuza 0. The side missions are among the best parts of the game, though they will initially throw players for a loop. This is because there exists a massive tonal change between the main story and substories; you can go from an incredibly emotional scene involving a surprising reveal to a wacky substory within minutes. One of my favourites involves a person you meet in a dark alley selling mushrooms. You assume he is selling magic mushrooms but he is in fact just selling normal mushrooms. Whenever you visit him, he is constantly being accosted by yakuza who want magic mushrooms, much to his bewilderment. Another of my favourites tasks you with helping an American popstar called ‘Miracle Johnson’ shoot a music video involving zombies, while in yet another you stand in as a producer for a TV advert. These substories are incredibly entertaining and once you accept the wildness, you are in for a massive treat as they provide the most amusing parts of the entire game. Yakuza 0 is truly amazing, and with the release of Yakuza Kiwami, the remake of the first game, soon, there has been no better time to jump into this franchise. This is a great entry point and it proves that even with an inconsistent tone, a game can deliver a fantastic experience. You owe it to yourself to give Yakuza 0 a try, as it is one of the best games this year.