Dated Review - Yakuza Zero

Dated Review - Yakuza Zero

Before I get too excited (or, more excited) I just want to say:

Boy oh boy, wowee.

If you cannot be arsed reading a two-thousand word blog article about a video game, the cliff's notes is that you should absolutely play Yakuza 0. You owe it to your palette as a purveyor of video game products. Yakuza is just different. It's deep and emotional, yet fun and upbeat. Unlike most video games, it has a range. Set amidst the colorful, exotic and utterly unique backdrop of 1980s Japan, you'll experience an almost undescribable richness. At least outside of a Japanese Roleplaying Game.

Late eighties and early nineties Japan is a fascinating place. Whilst Japanese animated television programs are widely consumed, there's not a lot of thought put past that to Japan's rich history. Eighties and Nineties Japan is, despite its recency, an obscure time period. Much like the tiny slice of time in the west of the United States, there's a block of time in Japanese history, before the dominance of video game companies and post economic miracle, where life was just... different.

Anime like Initial D and Wangan Midnight gave us a window into Japan's fascinating car culture. Yakuza tackles the period in such a unique and different way. It shows a window to a world that seems so alien and yet we know by geography and culture, is not so far away from modernity. Yakuza 0 also a prequel, so you can be sure I've handed out lavish praise where it hasn't really been deserved - but I don't care.

Like Persona 5 Royal, Yakuza Zero made me feel something special.

When I was initially recommended Yakuza, I was deep in the grip of Persona 5 Royal, another outstanding title. There are some interesting similarities to be drawn between the two titles. Both have depth of content, well-developed and written characters (or writing that is self-aware enough to sell the audience) and engaging and progressive core gameplay loops. It suggests to me that Japanese mid-tier video game studios are still king (or perhaps Emperor?) of skillfully assembling their component parts to make a complete experience, unmatched by the finest of "Triple-A" western video game studios.

Of course that's not fair, as Triple A has long since abandoned anything that would be close to Yakuza 0 or Persona 5 Royal. Also, Konami exists.

Meta-commentary aside, Yakuza 0 puts you in the comfortable suit and well-heeled shoes of Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. Inserted into the bright lights and disco atmosphere of Tokyo and Osaka in the late 80s, both men find themselves at the heart of a story involving a power struggle amongst the elite of Yakuza's Tojo Clan and a public works project involving a tiny plot of land at the heart of Kamurocho, a pleasure district within Tokyo.

Before the story even starts, the player is struck immediately by Yakuza 0's visuals. Like a beautiful, yet haunting window into the past, scenes, venues and locales within the game blend bright flashing neonsy with the muted browns and greys of the paved streets. This is an adult playground, but this is not paradise. This is eighties Japan.

Along the way you'll meet a host of interesting and well written characters and experience a multi-layered and rich gameplay experience. The story is expertly constructed and paced, capturing emotional investment early and never releasing it. You ride the waves of emotions the characters do and like a good book, you're desperate to find the next big plot twist, but still enjoying the journey as well as the destination.

I have always thought the highlight of an excellent story is one that makes you empathise for the villain as much as the hero. And whilst the platinum standard for that will always be P5R, Yakuza is filled with a rogue's gallery of antagonists, that provoke genuine empathy and understanding of their objectives - if not their methods. The nature of the gameplay and the narrative, revolving around a gradually intertwining core group of characters, combined with the game's length, gives each primary character plenty of room to develop and allows the narrative to mature nicely.

Yakuza's story strikes a balance in its complexity. Whilst it's clear you aren't being shown everything and there are forces at play outside your control, the story never got so out of hand it became incomprehensible (hello, Bioshock!). At the same time, the plot is never so simple or packed with condescension as to feel like you're being spoon-fed.

Outside of the main story, there's a whole world of content. There's a host of side content, from mundane content like Bowling, Disco and Pool, to more elaborate and developed activites like Pocket Circuit Racing. But more than just being injected into the game to pad out content, most of these side activites have additional narrative storylines that are entertaining and engaging and make for a palette cleanser. They're often off-the-wall, quirky experiences that entertain and delight, keeping the mood and tempo of the game up.

It's not all mundanity, though - and there are some dreadfully creepy side activies you can partake in, which partly I felt like I should be arrested for partaking in. but I also felt like giving the developers credit for trying to display all facets of a pleasure district and not sanitise it. Both Kamurocho and Sotenbori are pleasure districts, after all.

In particular I have a soft spot for Majima's secondary gameplay loop, operating a Hostess Club. Kiryu has a similar loop, operating as a real-estate mogul.

In a sign of just how much thought Yakuza has in it, both loops pit Kiryu and Majima against a series of secondary antagonists. But it's more than just a creepy side activity or a money generation mechanic. There is real, well-written story here for the consumption.

Majima's Hostess club is certainly the stronger of the two, having you act as a father figure of sorts to a growing collection of hostesses - each one with their own trials and tribulations in life. It's a really mature understanding of the subject matter, elevating them above sex objects and makes them flawed and sympathetic.

I won't blame you if you still think I'm a wee bit creepy for playing it through to completion, though.

Of course, a game needs gameplay. Besides moving between story-driven minigames, the core of the game revolves around a simple third person brawler engine. It starts off simple and acquires depth through the unlocking of additional styles, RPG-style upgrades and working with masters of each individual style to unlock hidden abilities. I do have a gripe, in that some styles aren't as deep as others. But, work has been put into making each style feel unique in its own way.

The combat visuals and responses are visceral and satisfying, without being overly gory and in-depth. The combat actions feel punchy, and there's a pleasant feeling of contentment from figuring out how to string different components of a given combat style together. The game isn't afraid to ramp up the difficulty relatively quickly and challenge the player, though and it doesn't take long for encounters to demand more of the player than mashing the basic attack button and hoping.

Which segues me to my next point - the bosses. Rarely have I experienced such a perfect blend of atmosphere, gameplay challenge and emotional payoff than in the moments right before, during and after a Yakuza Zero boss fight. I don't make as much of a deal of the "Man Fight" as I have in the past - mostly because doing so in print is difficult - but let me tell you, man-fighting is one of my favourite media tropes and Yakuza 0 nails every detail.

The narrative lead-in. The music. The fight itself. The adrenaline surges, Kiryu or Majima barks a challenge and you slip into this trance, where the only thing that matters is the artful dance of two men in a contest of strength as old as time. Good versus Evil. Two men enter, one man leaves (well, kind of.) There is no better experience than a well devised man fight - and Yakuza is just packed to the gills - all memorable, all noteworthy, all important. If you don't believe me, just, listen to some of the game's audio:

Oh yeah - that's music you feel.

In case I haven't made it completely obvious, Yakuza Zero's sound design s incredible. I'm not an audiophile, I'm not that big on making music sound perfect. But Yakuza 0's soundtrack is packed to the rafters with bangers. Not just that, but you can tell that the sound engineers and designers have thought about how the music will fit together with different parts of the gameplay. There's a clear understanding of how music can enrich an experience, build atmosphere and generate immersion, but also how the absence of music can build anticipation, appreciation and enjoyment of musical sequences.

A practical example of sorts is that whilst you're exploring the world of Kamurocho (or Osaka's Sotenbori), there is no music - just the sounds of the world. You hear the tinny crackle of pre-recorded promotional jingles. Car alarms, spruikers out the front of businesses - you feel like you're in 80s Japan. It's an utterly immersive experience. Until you catch the eye of the local hooligans. Then as soon as a fight starts, the music starts up with fanfare and your brain shifts gear - you're brawling out in the streets to a kickass soundtrack and then you put the last guy down.

And just like that, it's over.

Just two paragraphs before I said that sound design wasn't my forte and I rarely noticed it. That should give you an indication of the quality of sound engineering and accompanying music on display here. Yakuza Zero is one of the only games I think I've picked a fighting style based on my favourite music. Which, in this pundit's opinion, is worth every sub-optimal or more difficult fight scene.

If it sounds like I'm gushing, it's because I am. Some folks say they enjoyed Yakuza, but couldn't put their finger on why. Well, let me be the first to spell it out for you.

Yakuza Zero is an amazing sounding, cleverly written, utterly unique masterpiece. Filled with memorable characters, engaging storylines and well-developed combat and side-activity core loops. Set under the visually spectacular bright lights of Tokyo. Assembled from start to finish with care and craft by a developer that clearly understands what the core of this particular game should be and how to take such a title to the next level.

Do I want more? Hell yes. The good news is that I already have the Yakuza Kiwami remasters. And I'm so bloody excited.

Catch you next time,
Vulkan

Critical Information Summary:

Review Platform: PC
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku
Publisher: Sega
Cost (At Time of Publish): $25 AUD

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Rowan Naveau

About Rowan Naveau

I'm Rowan (Vulkan) - and this is my blog. Here you'll find a stream of consciousness about video games, wargaming and just about everything else.