The Yakuza series of games has entered its teenage years as a franchise. Its first installment, Yakuza, was released way back in 2005 on the PlayStation 2. It rarely strayed from Sony’s gaming platform, with the Wii U as the only other non-Sony console with the remaster of Yakuza and Yakuza 2 up until now. Yakuza 0, originally released last year, brings the franchise to the PC and becomes the first Yakuza game to be released on the platform. It’s also probably the best starting point given that Yakuza 0 is a prequel and takes a look at the life of Kazuma Kiryu of the Tojo clan seven years before the events that took place in the original Yakuza.
Things start off in rather ominous fashion as Kazuma Kiryu stands over a badly beaten man who you initially learn owed a loan shark some money. Your task was to extract payment and set an example and so, job complete, you enjoy a night on the tiles with your good friend Akira Nishikiyama. This opening is full of wonderfully voiced cutscenes and in-game exposition and, alongside the glorious neon visuals of Kamurocho (a fictional district of Tokyo), sets the bar high and in truth this quality rarely drops. However, there is a lot of dialogue and incidental meetings which turn many of the quests from five minute jaunts into hour-long dramas. This isn’t a bad thing at all as the plot and story are very well written and makes Yakuza 0 more than just a standard action-adventure beat ‘em-up.
In fact, Yakuza 0 reminded us very much of Shenmue. Whilst you don’t quite have to wait until the in-game time elapses enough to advance the story there are other similarities. There are plenty of activities to do outside of the story’s plot line from playing classic Space Harrier in a SEGA Arcade, to ten-pin bowling and baseball. You will also encounter much of the life and depth of Kamurocho district through random encounters and side-quests that you will only discover if you explore your surrounds. We were only four chapters in of seventeen but we had already helped a dominatrix find her groove, a kid get his copy of a computer game back, aid a mother with her daughter lost to a cult and began our quest to woo a local convenience store clerk. This is in addition to they myriad of fights against local hooligans, grumpy Yakuza, some Men in Black and random people picking on average Joes.
There’s so much life beyond the main story that you can sometimes forget exactly what you were doing. Thankfully, if you let things idle for a moment, a helpful prompt from our two playable protagonists, the other being nightclub owner and ex-Tojo clan member Goro Majima, will remind you what you were up to before you decided to beat some poor guys to a pulp. As the story flips between Kiryu and Majima you start to learn the story behind the imaginatively titled “Empty Lot” dispute. As Tokyo is in the midst of a rapid expansion and modernisation real estate is quickly becoming a hotly contested market. As such an empty plot in the Kamurocho district becomes the key to sealing a big real estate deal and with it, control. The boss of the Tojo clan promises that whoever can acquire a deed to the land will be promoted to second-in-command. As it happens, the gentleman Kiryu was beating to within an inch of his life earlier is found dead right in the middle of the empty lot and Kiryu is the prime suspect. Each of the Tojo clan’s aspiring Lieutenants think Kiryu knows something and as such, things take a turn for the worse.
Things don’t look too much better for Majima who after being exiled from the Tojo clan is treated as a lapdog, and despite running a successful nightclub, realises he is under constant surveillance. He’s given one chance to redeem himself and is tasked with an assassination but, when it comes time to complete his task, he cannot go through with it. Instead, he decides to figure out why a defenseless blind girl became a target for the Yakuza. Both stories are equally tragic but with an excellent script and wonderful, native voice acting, the story is given weight and authenticity that makes the long cutscenes and exposition a joy to sit through.
That’s not to say there’s not fun and frequent silliness. Along with some odd side missions such as the dominatrix needing help there’s also the way in which you earn money. Whilst both Kiryu and Majima can earn money through business dealings you also earn money by beating the living daylights out of your foes. In every fight that you have each heavy blow forces whoever you’ve just dispatched to drop money. Depending on who you’re turning into mush the amount earned can vary but you can quickly earn millions of yen just by starting plenty of fights. To curb this there are a group of tall, burly men who people call Mr Shakedown. They’re much larger than most other enemies and are harder to take down mostly due to a large health bar and devastating attacks. If you lose, they will take your money but if you win you get whatever they had on them. Until your fighting is more refined you’re better off running away but there’s always that temptation to make an easy buck by taking them on.
Speaking of fighting, Kiryu and Majima have three main fighting styles that you can switch between during fights. They all have their advantages and disadvantages and if you’re anything like us, you’ll find one particular style per character will suit you the best. Once you’ve found your favourite you can then plough the money you’ve earned into upgrading your skills and thus making you a more formidable foe. There is also a legendary fighting style for each character which you can unlock by completing the side businesses for both Kiryu and Majima.
There are only really two major complaints we have with Yakuza 0. Chief among them was an awkward bug we encountered where, after a long time spent in the pause menu, our camera would continuously rotate around Kiryu. No matter what we tried, from disconnecting the controller (the recommended way to play Yakuza 0) to restarting the game, the only thing that would fix it was completely rebooting the computer. Whilst a modern PC doesn’t take too long to boot, the fact it required this resolution was disappointing. In addition, we had a couple of occasions where we would run in a loop but a quick wiggle of both thumbsticks managed to snap things back into order. These control issues were infrequent but the fact that they occur at all is disappointing.
The other issue we had was that of save points. Most games use an auto-save system and so to come across one that doesn’t is quite a surprise. Yakuza 0 relies on the player saving the game by using phone booths. If you forget to visit one during your playthrough you can end up losing many hours of work just by forgetting to place a call. Whilst each phone booth is marked by a giant ‘S’ on your mini-map we don’t recall the game expressly telling the player that this is the only way to save progress. Once you get in the habit it’s not too bad but the shock of losing your progression the first time around is something that could be entirely avoided.
Yakuza 0 gets a lot of things right and the things that it doesn’t tend to melt away the further you get. With plenty of side quests there are easily thirty-plus hours worth of content to be explored. Yakuza 0, just like Shenmue, is a game that’s built to deliberately encourage exploration as by doing so you level up your fighting skills and appreciate the world that’s been built for your enjoyment.
Not everything you’ll come across will tickle your fancy but with the number of random encounters out there, there’s a good chance something will happen that will become a keystone memory of your playthrough. Whilst there’s no word on whether any other of the Yakuza games will be making an appearance on PC the fact that we started with the prequel Yakuza 0 starts things off on the right foot. Sure there are a few niggles here and there and one very annoying bug, but Yakuza 0 is a fun and enjoyable romp with more depth than you would think.
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