Review: Yakuza 0

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The arc of open-world games curves towards ever-vaster maps and ever more points of interest, and it’s hard to argue these features really add all that much value on their own. Despite what some very pointed consumers will tell you, playing something longer does not necessarily make it better, evidenced by the market filling with empty worlds and nigh-endless checklists of doodads to collect and challenges to attempt. I’d rather have compelling stories to keep me exploring a world, and Yakuza 0 might be one of the best examples of that so far. It might not be the biggest or most detailed world to explore, but it has the most heart and it turns out that counts for more than anything.

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Kazuma Kiryu is a low-level yakuza enforcer, fresh off a simple collection job. Something about it has gone drastically wrong, though, putting him on the outs with his family and on the inside of a conflict over a small empty lot in downtown Kamurocho. Because of Japan’s insane zoning laws, this empty lot is the key to a massive project that will determine control of a key section of Tokyo for not just the yakuza, but some shadowy interested parties as well. Meanwhile in Osaka, Goro Majima appears to be running the biggest cabaret in Sotenbori almost effortlessly, but in fact is struggling with his old, bloody ties to the yakuza there. His connections will draw him into an assassination plot and eventually cross his path with that of Kiryu as lives are lost and alliances are broken, all for about 20 square feet of dirt in a seedy back alley.

If all you know about the Yakuza series are karaoke gifs and awkward dominatrix situations, that might sound like a pretty grim synopsis. Indeed, the core narrative of Yakuza 0 is a gripping crime drama following the twisted lives of two men caught up in the intrigues of the Japanese mob. Every high-intensity scene you can imagine is here, from tense staredowns to car chases to impassioned speeches and the rending of expensive suits to reveal the badass tattoos beneath. Like many story-based games out of Japan this one is thick with cutscenes, which threatens to make it drag in the opening hours especially while expanding the real estate plot. But once you get to know these characters and immerse yourself in their seedy world of betrayal and vice, you’ll find yourself gripped by each new cutscene if not actively eager for the next.

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It all comes down to the characters, as any good story does, and Yakuza 0 has some of the finest the genre has to offer. Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima are two troubled souls with hearts of gold, each beholden to terrible interests but doing all they can to bring some small justice to the world. Their struggles are incredibly engaging, and for me I absolutely fell in love with Majima’s rough divide between losing himself in yakuza feuds and doing right by the folks that come to depend on him. Both Kiryu and Majima get complete character arcs over the dozens (if not hundreds) of hours you’ll spend in the game, so much so that I can hardly believe they go on to start in six more games. Not only that, several of the supporting characters get more development than some main characters in other open-world games.

As much meat as there is to the main story, it can be a tough meal to stomach at times with all the drama piling up. Fortunately Yakuza 0 is rife with side stories, nearly a hundred in all, and they strike a very different tune from the crimes and tragedies elsewhere. Kiryu and Majima often find themselves the odd men out in the many strange dealings of their neighborhoods, from helping a band with its image to saving a girl from a strange cult. There are some incredible finds here, like the purple-haired old lady that always gets the better of Majima and the dominatrix who comes to pure-souled Kiryu for help. Most of the side stories follow very simple gameplay structures but it’s the stories themselves that are so memorable, and provide welcome levity when the main story is pounding you in the feels.

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Speaking of pounding, you’ll no doubt be shocked to learn there’s a fair bit of fighting in this yakuza street-brawling tale. Your main mode of interaction during stories is to beat the shit out of someone, whether it be street punks, rival yakuza, or drunk assholes who think they can take you. Tooling around Kamurocho or Sotenbori you’ll run into random packs of punchable faces, and pretty much every side story has at least one fight in it. The main story sets up some magnificent brawls through office buildings and yakuza compounds, with bigger and bigger melees leading to climactic boss showdowns. Combat runs off of basic combos with light and heavy attacks, grabs, and context-sensitive finishers, and believe me when I say those finishers finish the fuck out of people. You can smash people with traffic cones, signboards, bicycles, and more, all across multiple combat styles suited for all kinds of throwdowns.

Your combat styles can be expanded by training with certain characters, and also by completing the big side business for that character. Kiryu and Majima each have a side gig you can spend dozens of hours working through, and while Kiryu’s can get a bit grindy, Majima’s is so good that it easily could have been an entire game unto itself. That’s hardly all there is to do if you tire of story content, too, as Kamurocho and Sotenbori are rife with bars and discos and clubs with their own fully-realized activities. You can learn to play mahjong or shogi, shoot billiards or throw darts, race slot cars, fight in underground tournaments, collect phone sex cards, and watch softcore porn. The game rewards you with points to unlock new abilities for doing just about everything in the game, but trust me when I say going to karaoke or the disco is its own reward.

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Honestly there’s just not much to knock about Yakuza 0 if you’re cool with the tons of cutscenes and side gigs. Kamurocho and Sotenbori are not big places but they’re chock full of stuff to do, so don’t come here looking for the sprawling lands of Just Cause or Red Dead. It’s a Japanese game, which does mean an odd propensity for invisible barriers and odd collisions, and that will make a difference at times like with one of Majima’s combat styles being stopped by walls. I also had some performance issues with the game locking up in specific areas, not a common issue but one that seems to afflict people randomly. And it’s worth mentioning that some of the fights can be incredibly challenging depending on how developed your character is and how much you’ve mastered the combat system, so this isn’t really the sort of title you can coast through for the story.

But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that would prevent me from whole-heartedly recommending Yakuza 0 to just about anyone. It all comes back to heart, the undeniable earnestness and richness of the characters, that makes this title so incredibly compelling. Yes, the fighting is rowdy and the side stories are hilarious and there’s a million crazy things to do, but all of that is worth doing because the characters are just so great to tag along with. Kiryu and Majima (especially Majima) are some of the greatest protagonists to come out of the genre, interesting and flawed and dynamic and expertly-written. It’s not every day you find characters so intensely gratifying to play along with, and any game that has not one but two of them deserves all the recognition in the world.

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