In as little as three months, 2017 is gearing up to be one hell of a year for mainstream gaming. Between Resident Evil 7, Horizon Zero Dawn and Mass Effect Andromeda it really is hard to believe that it has only been a mere three months – some of gaming’s heavuest hitters are bringing out all the stops to make the droughts of 2015 and 2016 seem a little less, well, droughty.
However, it brings a tear to my grizzled, stubbled cheeks that one of these heavy hitters won’t be making it to the grand ball of mainstream gaming’s loving bosom of praise and admiration, and that is the Yakuza series.
In every generation of gaming, there has always that one darling of gaming that commercially never went anywhere, but always had a secret hardcore base of fans that would fight anyone and their mothers to defend these games or franchises to the death. In fact there’s a cluster of games, such as Earthbound and Shadow of the Colossus, that are lorded as the “kings of the cult games”, but I’m willing to bet my imaginary Porsche and a stack of French porn that not a lot of gamers think of the Yakuza games when it comes to a contender of the throne, but humour me and I may buy you a bag of potatoes – we all need potatoes, they’re the staple of every diet.
A crash course on the series first, before we jump into the meat of Yakuza 0. Out very simply, Yakuza is a beat ‘em up. I know, I won’t be winning any awards for “best plot explainer” anytime soon. But it’s more than just a beat ‘em up: it’s open world, you can interact with people, play classic Sega games and teach children the values of a dominatrix. It’s actually very hard to describe the essence of a typical Yakuza game, many gamers would deride it as a Japanese Grand Theft Auto clone and you’re welcome to that opinion, but you are so wrong on so many levels. Originally titled ‘Ryu ga Gotoku’, roughly translated to ‘Like a Dragon’, and directed by Toshihiro Nagoshi, the series are his giant love letters towards the crime thriller films and literature he consumed as a child. The story mainly focuses on the rambunctious Kazuma Kiryu and his many exploits against the Yakuza. Tt would appear that ever since leaving the organisation (several times, I should point out), trouble follows our friend like a bad case of the trots.
Using basic RPG engines and beautiful move sets, our hero overcomes these obstacles and sticks two fingers to the Tojo clan or any other Yakuza clan that thinks it’s a good idea to step up, like lambs trying to stand up for the awful working conditions in a kebab shop. However, with a franchise that spans almost 15 years and several games including several non-canon games such as Yakuza: Dead Souls, which is the same game, but with zombies. I never said this franchise never had its low points, and you would be forgiven for feeling just that little overwhelmed.
So Yakuza 0 is the perfect place to either start or maybe start again if you had picked up a Yakuza game in the past, because as the title suggests it is the first ever story in the franchise. Set in 1988, you take on the role of not only hunky, luscious Kazuma Kiryu, but also fan favourite, the charismatically charming dandy Goro Majima. Both are desperate to escape from under the thumbs of their Yakuza overlords, playing out their roles in fictionalised recreations of Tokyo’s Kabukicho Shinjuku Golden Gai areas and Osaka’s Dotonbori areas respectively. The one thing you need to get used to quite quickly when picking up a Yakuza is that everything, and I mean everything, ends in a fight. Find an escort mission, it’ll end in a fight. Taking a leisurely stroll on the streets ends up in a punch up. Bump into a drunk, yep, they fight you too. The one thing that thankfully keeps the fighting from being too dull and repetitive, as you will need to put up with a lot of these fights in order to gain money for level ups, is that both characters will eventually learn and master three unique fighting styles to experiment and mix around. This makes every fight potentially fresh and exciting with special moves that will make you scream in agony as you build up your heat meter. But some fans of the series may argue that the true meat and the veg doesn’t really come from the main plot, nor maybe all the fun fighting, but rather from the side quests and activities that litter the streets of both Tokyo and Osaka.
Side missions really bring out some of the game’s more twisted yet hilarious humour that’s sprinkled with that unique charm Japanese culture has to offer. Missions such as the aforementioned ‘How to train your dominatrix’ where you have to teach a dominatrix how to be really good at her job, which involves a cringeworthy scene where you are given dialogue options on how to explain her job to three children. Or ‘A Taxing Issue’, where you literally have to give tax advice to a government tax advisor. Both of these side missions are merely a sip of the soup in terms of the bonkers, bipolar personality that is the Yakuza franchise. Though side missions are tricky to find without a handy guide on your side, they are seriously worth the hours of plunging tirelessly into the game and getting acquainted with some of the strangest, daftest individuals you’ll ever have the pleasure of doing a side quest for.
There are also tons of activities to keep the hours ticking way over the 30/40-hour mark. These include arcades, where you can play some of the classic Sega games, karaoke that can end up turning into an amazing acid trip of a music video, and dance contests, which to be fair really does hack me off to no end. You may also pay a visit to take on Mr. Shakedown: a goliath of a man who can drop yen in the hundreds and thousands. Later on in the game, both characters will gain businesses, achieving more yen to top up your fighting abilities, making the random encounters a little easier to walk away from. For a completionist, this would be either your Mecca or beautiful disaster as with most Japanese games there is plenty to collect, find, and fight your way towards a 100% completion, but buyer beware there are a few niggling snags one may have to endure. One of my biggest gripes towards the game is its terrible targeting system. Typically you will stand to fight a minimum of three people and you can use the R1 button to target an opponent, but it’s very easy for that system to be a little hit and miss, in the respect that sometimes it locks onto thin air and leaves you vulnerable to a chain attack that can devastate your health if you don’t block fast enough.
Another bit of deadwood I also have to hang to its tree of woe, is how it actually delivers its storyline. Even though you can easily forgive its entire Japanese subbed story and even grow to respect the idea, the cutscenes are trivial, with different styles ranging from CGI cutscenes to scenes full of text to scenes with dialogue with animation but no moving mouths or blinking like bizarre HD mannequins; every department store worker’s worst nightmare. It’s a bizarre design decision and sometimes can almost threaten to derail the main plot in a heap of confusion. However, these nitpicks are just that, ramblings of an old fool that can’t leave anything alone.
While Yakuza 0 already came out in January to rapturous critical acclaim, the fact that it unfortunately is almost near drowning compared bigger, more exciting western games, makes me well up as a child who just discovered pineapple on pizza, or the first time I listened to Little Mix. I cannot stand by to watch another gem in this crown of a criminally underrated game go to pass. Consider me as its avenger for the superb and the sublime, fighting the good fight, for the good of bizarreness, insane charm and humour, the downtrodden, and the men who hang in gentlemen’s clubs dancing in their underwear.
Or just consider me a time waster. Either way, have I convinced you on that bag of potatoes now?