Usually in December each year I start to look at some of the games I’ve bought over the last few months but never finished. There then follows the concentrated effort to see the end credits of each before the year is out. Breath of the Wild, which I bought in the summer just after getting my Switch, still needs finished off as only Ganon remains standing. Shovel Knight could do with some attention and the Doom reboot that I picked up for a tenner still has some demons left in it.
Back in March last year I picked up Yakuza 0. It was the last copy in the shop and even then it was second hand. I’d played the original Yakuza game back on the PS2 and enjoyed it so was very interested in playing the prequel. I ended up playing a few hours, getting through the opening three chapters before something else came along and it was relegated to the sidelines. A few nights ago I figured I’d put Yakuza 0 back on just to remind myself where I was in the game. What followed was two weeks of playing the game each night to drink in the story of the power struggles within Japan’s criminal underworld. After finishing the game I have to say I had a wonderful time with it.
Plenty of people who perhaps haven’t even touched a Yakuza game will look at it and dismiss it as a Japanese version of Grand Theft Auto. It’s true to say that both series feature you playing as characters and meeting people with dubious moral backgrounds and, much like Rockstar’s opus, it is played from the third person perspective. Whilst GTA often portrays a cartoon version of America that’s played up for laughs, Yakuza gives us a realistic world from a culture we perhaps don’t see much of. There are no restaurants in Yakuza named after dick jokes.
This is hardly to say there are no jokes in Yakuza. One of the game’s greatest strengths is keeping a rather fine balance between the serious business of hitmen, killings and main characters who have been tortured for months on end alongside moments of pure comedy. It’s quite possible to be using a bicycle as a weapon in a street fight to smash somebody’s head in one minute and then having your character sing a cheesy karaoke croonfest complete with a rock star fantasy playing out in the background. It should be a jarring change of pace but it never feels that way. There’s an atmosphere in Yakuza that is comfortable with both. Most characters in the series play it dead straight and never feel like they’re a overemphasised stereotype of the culture they inhabit.
The Yakuza games are (mostly) set in a fictional district of Tokyo called Kamurocho based on the real life suburb of Kabukicho. As far as map size goes it isn’t that big. Even at walking pace you’ll probably get from one side of the map to the other in around ten minutes. By the standards of today, with games such as The Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild, it seems impossibly small. The key to keeping Yakuza going in how densely packed the location is. In amongst the doorways and side streets sit whisky bars serving a range of real life brands, Majong parlours, pool halls, ramen restaurants, underground women’s fighting leagues, dance floors, baseball arenas, bowling alleys and phone clubs for those who are feeling a bit frisky. Around every corner there are landmarks that begin to take root in the memory. Kamurocho becomes a familiar stomping ground for the player and it ages throughout the series. Building projects in the 1980’s set Yakuza 0 become explorable places in later games. The street layout remains the same yet the features change with the times. Like a lot of the characters caught up in Yakuza’s story, Kamurocho is changed by events for better or worse.
What characters they are as well. Yakuza 0 actually tells two stories each with their own lead character. Goro Majima begins the game as an outcast from the Yakuza having been forced out to live life as a civilian. As ‘punishment’ he runs a Hostess club and the opening chapter of his story sees him battle a club customer who has been touching the girls in an inappropriate manner. Majima’s desire to uphold the club’s rules means hitting customers is frowned upon. There follows a battle in which you must block and dodge and drunken man’s flailing fists until he injures himself punching walls or furniture. All of this whilst the in house band plays tunes in the background. It’s a period of violent flamboyance, much like Goro himself.
In a reversal of Majima’s story Kazuma Kiryu starts in the Yakuza but leaves of his own will with no plans to get back in any time soon. He cuts a slightly less flamboyant figure than Majima (he struggles during a shopping trip to find a suit that he feels comfortable in for example). He might come from a criminal organisation but Kiryu always seems to have a strong moral compass. Unlike some of his fellow Yakuza members he doesn’t treat women like dirt and always seems willing to help people who might need him. In many ways, to use the Rockstar comparison again, he seems very much like John Marston of Red Dead Redemption. Kazuma is trying to go as straight as he can but parts of his criminal past still come back to haunt him. He’ll defend the weak and downtrodden using exactly the same methods he has been taught during his early years in the Yazuka family. As such his character is a compelling one and it was certainly a pleasure to play as him during the game’s running time.
Add to this the side characters you meet on the streets of Kamurocho. Fathers who have been estranged from children, journalists who are trying to go undercover in order to expose arms deals, government officials who are in town for a conference on tax and want the opinion of a ‘man on the street’ and people who are so desperate for the latest RPG console game that they’ll attack people walking out of games shops for it. The side stories of Yakuza 0 might be strange but they’re never overblown or painted with heavy brush strokes. No matter how ridiculous some of them are there remains a sensibility to them all.
With this combination of the serious overall story, the comedy side notes and the cultural differences it’s obvious that Yakuza shouldn’t work yet somehow it does. Yakuza 0 is, storywise, a fantastic starting point in the series for anybody who has yet to catch on. It might seem daunting to begin with but once you’re in then it’s very hard to leave.