Yakuza 0 review: Dramatic narrative, whacky and brawling fun
The Yakuza series is new to me, and I started with the prequel game Yakuza 0, which follows the stories of Kazama Kiryu and Goro Majima as they get caught in the maw of Japan’s underworld in the boom times of the late 1980s. Kiryu is framed for a murder he did not commit, and Majima is assigned to kill a young woman named Makimura Makoto who he ends up protecting. Their individual stories revolve around a small plot of land in Tokyo and the machinations in Japan’s murky underworld. In spite of this serious (and at times convoluted) narrative, the game remembers it is a game and that games should be fun. Good thing that Yakuza 0 delivers fun by the truck load.
Yakuza 0, at its most base and surface level, is something akin to the old beat-’em-ups from arcade and 16 bit consoles past. It has elements of RPGs, as Kiryu and Majima pour money (literally) into their fighting skills to increase their health and unlock special moves. Both characters can switch between 3 fighting styles that can be best described as light (quick hits that do less damage), medium (decent mobility and decent power), and heavy (strong blows with a good wind up time). Players can button mash (as I did when I first started), but learning to get the timing right (maybe half a second between button presses) helps players pull off combos and use their special moves to their fullest potential. Even using the simplest of combos using just 2 or 3 buttons is fun and rewarding.
The special moves are called “heat moves.” “Heat” refers to the 3 power bars each character has. Depending on full the bars are, what combos have been pulled off, and whether or not Kiryu or Majima has a weapon determines what the move will do. For example, their most basic moves involve stomping or kicking a downed enemy or hitting them with a sign or banner. Enemies fly and flip like toys on a trampoline. Other moves require unlocking on the skill circle. For example, one of my favorites is Kiryu’s flying punch. After pulling off a certain combo and maximum heat, Kiryu leaps at a downed foe and launches a mighty fist into their mouth. The enemies always appear comically and theatrically distressed upon seeing a white suited 20 year old flying to knock their teeth out. Majima’s heat moves are more reaction based; for example, he ducks behind an enemy after they throw a punch at him and then cracks their neck. These special moves always satisfy due to their over-the-top-ness and audacity. The enemies get absolutely pummeled, but they never die so you don’t feel horrible about blackening their eyes and taking their front teeth. Plus, they accosted you on your casual stroll, so beat the livin’ crap out of ‘em! Teach them a lesson they will never learn!
While the combat system is the main component of the game, the minigames are arguably more fun and break up the fights. One thing I find about video games as I get older is that combat become increasingly monotonous after a two or three hour long play session. The minigames in Yakuza 0 are plentiful and varied. Players are guaranteed to find at least one they enjoy and will keep coming back to consistently. I favor darts and the Pocket Circuit racing game. Darts is a lot of fun because it requires a steady hand and keen eye, and isn’t erroneously random or difficult. Pocket Circuit racing involves building toy cars to race against other toy cars. While somewhat random, the appeal behind it is seeing just what builds will work to overcome the opposition. And Pocket Circuit Fighter’s commentaries are a joy to listen to. When I first discovered Pocket Circuit, I played it for a half-hour straight and giggled the entire time. Other mini-games include the hilariously cheesecakey Japanese Catfight Club in which bikini and lingerie clad babes battle it out. Some may find the premise objectionable, and I understand why, but I think we’ve all seen and heard worse in other media and in real life. Game play wise it’s not very good because it feels too random, but it’s kind of fun to watch (and is something of a guilty pleasure. Sue me, I’m a red blooded male that likes cheesecake sometimes).
Other minigames are more involved and branch off into sidequests (called “sub-stories” in Yakuza 0). Pocket Circuit is a good example of this as Kiryu befriends other racers. But the most involved sidequests are Real Estate Royale and Club Sunshine business sidequests. Kiryu handles real estate in Kamarucho and Majima manages a cabaret club in Sotenbori. These minigames help players by allowing them to earn large sums of money to upgrade the characters’ fighting skills while having a fun cast of supporting characters and villains in their accompanying sidequests. Kiryu’s Real Estate Royale is more passive and grindy, but it helps unlock a secret fighting style and earns crazy money after its completion. Majima’s Club Sunshine is more involved, requiring players to manage a hostess club. Tasks include assigning girls to tables, reading their hand signals to provide better customer service, and employee training. Both games are a lot of fun, and I would argue Majima’s business is the more fun one to partake in because it breathes a lot of life into Sotenbori and feels less grindy.
Overall, Yakuza 0 has plenty to do. The combat is fun due to the fighting styles, letting players mix it up a bit, but it can become repetitive (but maybe that’s just me, so take my “repetitive” with a grain of salt). Minigames are abundant and fun, and players are likely to find one they’ll enjoy.
Yakuza 0 almost feels like an anime at times with some of its exaggerated characters and design choices (I’m looking at you Shimano), but it is firmly grounded in reality with a flair for the fantastic that urban landscapes can create and provide. Kamarucho in Tokyo is glitzy on the streets and worn in alley ways. Bars are located in little holes in the wall. There are piles of rubbish, beer crates, signs, advertisements, and noise everywhere on the streets and sidewalk. People walk about alone or with their significant others or groups of friends. Drunks stagger around at night and will fight you if you bump into them. Businessmen walk around glancing at their pagers. Women chat with their girlfriends on their walks. While you cannot interact with many of these people walking around, some of them stick out more than others. Like the guy dancing in his underwear. Or the kid jumping yakuza members because he’s a wannabe vigilante. I didn’t dislike anything about how this game looked. It’s meticulously designed and colorful. Nothing looks out of place. Everything feels right where it needs to feel. And while the world itself is small, I never tired of it because after a while, it felt familiar. I actually said to a friend over the Discord that the game reminded me of my time in China and it made me want to return to 2015/2016 when I was living in Asia. The design of the game is so good it makes me want to go back to Southeast Asia!
Sotenbori isn’t quite as big or winding as Kamarucho. It’s actually more square, but that’s because the player spends more time in Kamarucho than Sotenbori. Not to say Sotenbori is an afterthought; it isn’t. That district is just as alive as Kamarucho, but it’s not as busy. The river in Sotenbori gives players a chance to do some freshwater fishing and getting into riverside street fights is really fun (especially when you throw some poor sap over the fence into the water). Other sights include the restaurant with a giant crab over the awning and the alleyways and various shops and restaurants the player can visit.
The game is fun to walk around in and explore and look at it. I found myself entertained by some rather juvenile graffiti written on a sign of a waitress outside a Sotenbori business. Other times I would walk around either one of the main maps and just see what I could see. My roommate would notice signs written in English and I found myself trying to read hirigana on the signs, trying to make out what syllables I could. Whenever a game is fun to look at, then the designers did more than something right.
Yakuza 0 has lots of noise. All of the characters speak Japanese, and some even speak Chinese. Hardly any English in Yakuza 0. It really sells that the game takes place in Japan. It’s more immersive, and that’s a word I don’t like to use often when it comes to games because I think too many people want to forget they’re playing a game whereas I like to play a game for the sake of having some healthy distraction in my life (maybe that’s another op-ed in the future). Shops blast advertisements, beckoning people to come in. The bowling alley in Kamarocho (in addition to other places) plays a little tune reminiscent of Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love.” I’m sure other Japanese songs from the 1980s found their way into little tributes in the game too.
On the topic of music, Yakuza 0 has some of the best, most upbeat, fun-to-listen to music I’ve heard in a game in a long time. I love Kiryu’s Brawler and Majima’s Slugger themes. I would switch to those fighting modes just to listen to the music. Each punch and kick lands with a good pow and enemies usually end up begging for mercy midfight and let off plenty of yelps and hollers while our boys Kiryu and Majima pound them into piles softer than cake batter. Other songs are more contextual and just as catchy. I remember looking up the OST and listening to songs just to find the one that played when Kiryu fights off the mafia sent after Bacchus.
The voice acting is amazing, too. The cast can switch between dead serious to light and fun depending on the scenario, so kudos to them. Overall, pretty good.
The main narrative of the game isn’t so much Kiryu’s story or even Majima’s story. Not to say that their stories aren’t important (they are), but they’re part of a large narrative surrounding an unfortunate young woman named Makimuri Makoto. Spoilers ahead.
Makoto-chan is half-Chinses and half-Japanese. She was kidnapped and sold to sex traffickers by Oda, who is her brother’s best friend and business partner (he kidnapped her before he knew Tachibana-san: I realize this makes the story sound rather like a soap opera). She also happens to come into ownership of a small plot of land known as the Empty Lot in Kamarucho that the Dojima Family (a yakuza family) are after to revitalize Kamarocho and rake in major profits. Tachibana-san is also after the plot to reunite with his sister. Makoto-chan knows nothing about this until later on in the game.
Kiryu, as a low-ranking yakuza member, runs a shakedown for a loan shark in the Empty Lot and beats a guy near unconscious. Said guy later turns up dead from a gunshot between the eyes and Kiryu is framed. With few options, Kiryu leaves the Dojima family to turn civilian in an effort to clear his name.
Meanwhile in Sotenbori, disgraced former yakuza Majima of the Shimano family slaves as a cabaret manager under Sagawa-san. Kept on a short leash and teased with the carrot of being able to rejoin the Shimano family, Sagawa-san gives him a chance to expedite his membership by ordering him to assassinate a guy named Makoto Makimura. As it turns out, this guy is Wen Hai Lee, a former Chinese mafia hitman who found and rescued the real Makoto. Now near totally blind as a result of her traumatic past, Lee takes in Makoto and flees to Japan to open up a massage practice. Lee mentors and protects the blind Makoto, fighting Majima before more yakuza show up to kidnap her. In a change of heart fueled by panic and confusion, Majima gives chase after Makoto and her kidnappers, ultimately saving her and deciding to help Lee protect the young woman no matter what. Majima ultimately concludes the underworld has already chewed up poor Makoto, and he’ll be damned if it’ll eat her alive.
It is ultimately a tale of tragedy and redemption. And I’ll just leave it there. But the further I got into it, the more it felt like Kiryu and Majima were along for the ride just as much as I was. In some respects, the game’s main story feels more like Makoto’s story. She’s a sweet girl and a victim of terrible circumstances. Even though she doesn’t have as much agency as other female characters in other media, she’s still strong because she’s not necessarily broken by her experiences. All she wants is to be with her brother, her last remaining family, and live a normal and ordinary life. Eventually, she does try taking more action to various degrees of success and failure, but I won’t reveal how her story ends. The rest of the plot will be up to you to discover for yourselves if you choose to play the game.
As for the main leads, Kiryu and Majima, they are good anti-heroes. Both men work for criminal organizations and they are rather violent (the main draw of the game is the street brawls after all), but both men also have a sense of honor, duty, and morality. Kiryu is the more serious and straight minded protagonist, relying on his tenacity and brute strength to carry him through the story. Kiryu also has little patience for fools and foolish endeavors, evidenced by his dressing down of a kid who jumps yakuza members. He warns the boy he could get killed, but still comes to his aid when said boy is kidnapped by yakuza and further emphasizes the warning after saving his life. Majima is strong, but not as strong as Kiryu. He instead uses his wit and guile, often using dirty tricks in his Thug style and a baseball bat in his Slugger style. Majima fights to win, and he uses whatever tricks he can against his foes. However, he has a soft spot for girls and women. He befriends one young girl in a substory by winning her some stuffed animals from a crane game. As it turns out, this girl’s mother is on the bad end of a loan shark’s deal and he comes to their rescue, swiftly defeating the loan shark and his goon. He later employs the girl’s mother in Club Sunshine, giving her the nickname “Dolly” due to her daughter’s affection for dolls from crane games. These little things reveal that while Kiryu and Majima are on the wrong side of the law and are men no one wants to cross, at their heart, they are essentially good men who happen to do bad things. Their senses of honor and moral center keep them firmly in the “good guy” camp of gangster type characters. I personally don’t know if I (or anyone) should admire and idolize these romanticized figures of Japan’s organized crime world, but I’ll be darned if they aren’t fun to play as. Their characters and stories are engaging and intriguing.
Yakuza 0 is one of those rare games I wholly endorse for anyone and everyone to give a chance. For action-adventure fans, the game is perfect due to its combat and story. For those who enjoy a good distraction, Yakuza 0 has distractions galore. What problems I had with the game were personal nitpicks that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment, which is why I won’t mention them. The game is good old fashioned fun the way video games were intended to be. Buy it, play it, or continue to live your sad, dull, ordinary little lives! Either way, I have a real estate empire to tend to and fools to beat up.