YARE YARE BRAWL REVOLUTION
For the majority of us, Yakuza 0 is the first proper introduction to the batshit insane series by SEGA. Having started way back on the PS2, Yakuza is probably best described as Streets of Rage combined with Shenmue--a strange bizarro world representation of 1980s Japan crossed with a soap opera story, brutal brawling, and hundreds of side activities. It would also be correct to describe Yakuza 0 as a real estate and cabaret simulator with breaks to play darts, shoot pool, and smash bicycles over the heads of an entire crime syndicate. After all is said and done, you retire to your home office to write letters to a radio show in the hopes your stupid tale about helping a dominatrix restore her confidence will make the air. Also, your best friends are a man in a diaper with acute priapism, and a debt collector woman who destroys people with milk crates.
Yakuza 0 deals with the ascension and fall and ascension of two different crime mens: Kazama Kiryu, a strong chinned man who loves karaoke and hates kinkshaming, and Goro Majima, a yakuza-turned-cabaret manager with a fondness for blind chicks, baseball, and breakdancing. A murder happens, people are blamed for it, betrayal and sexy honorbound battles occur, and manly tears are shed over the course of a multi-chapter epic wherein you will switch back and forth between Kiryu and Majima.
The core of the game is a hodgepodge of factors, but after the narrative it's the fighting system. Although not as transitional in nature as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, Yakuza 0 gives you a wealth of combo options, grabs, and counters. The upgrade system, as explained by a drunk American wino/trainer, is tied to "investing" the monies you earned into any of the 3 fighting styles each character has. Being able to switch to each style with the control pad is quite intuitive, especially if you use one style as a "battery" to build up Heat for another. Heat is what you'll be using to strengthen normal attacks and pull off brutal finishers, which number things like curbstomps, smashing fruit in a dude's face, twisting (breaking) somebody's neck, or treating someone like a fucking lawn dart and piledriving them into the concrete headfirst. Combat is by and large quick, exceedingly painful-looking, and an absolute spectacle, especially when your Heat meter is off the charts and you're throwing around motorcycles like the fucking Juggernaut. Equally as fun are the many skills to unlock and upgrade, which give access to some truly neat counters and context-sensitive actions that might save your ass in the thick of the tougher encounters. Don't forget that block button, kids.
I'd call this game "a bit like Shenmue" because it's not a "true" open world, and honestly, thank god for that. Unlike sandbox games like GTA, Yakuza 0 trims the fat and the meandering drives towards fuck-all; there's very little filler here and little time wasted from one event transpiring to the next. SEGA instead has created a smaller hubworld for each character with restaurants, shops, random sidequest encounters, and recreation centers around, with random thugs sprinkled around to test your resolve. It has a distinct arcade feel, densely packed in a small but lovingly crafted city rife with places to visit and experience. Since the city is such a contained sphere, it's easy to simply run around and discover new things to do and partake in, many of which are humorous side-stories that usually require hilarious dialogue challenges.
I love taking a break from burying people's faces into concrete to help a poor little kid purchase a porno mag, or help a band achieve its big break. The more sidequests you complete, the more letters you can write about them to a radio show. You'll also be able to recruit some of the people you've helped into Majima or Kiryu's side-business games. There's nobody I'd rather trust with my property investments than a guy known only as "Masochistic Man."
That being said, how is the actual storyline for the main game? In a word, it is the GREATEST STORY SINCE METAL GEAR SOLID 2. This is a MANLY COURAGE tale, one inhabited by love, loyalty, and danger. Kiryu, the strongest human in the world, will do anything to honorably clear his name and restore honor to the imprisoned man who took him in as a child. After being thrown out of the yakuza, Kiryu proceeds to become even stronger and more diligent than the clan itself--a paragon of unrelenting, unyielding machismo and halfway-heroism. On the other side of the coin is Goro Majima, a yakuza broken and beaten but accepting of his assigned role as a stewardly manager of a cabaret. A hitman unwilling to execute the innocent, Majima slowly ponders ditching his one-time family of cruel criminals and creates a new identity as the "lord of the night," a dutiful manager of hostesses who doesn't even know how to return to the life he worked so hard to get back. It's interesting that Kiryu is the protagonist that changes the opinions and reactions of those he comes into conflict with, enticing respect and friendship---whereas Majima is morphed and moved around constantly by the people he fights and protects. Majima's story is fraught with enemies who become friends, whilst Kiryu has made a family clan the enemies. That Kiryu is willing to burn down the institution of the Yakuza to make things right while Majima views his destiny to profit or suffer eternally within his caste is as telling as their fighting styles; one man is an unstoppable force centered on brute force while the other is one rooted in strangely different styles, all adapted solely to advance his one goal with any means: winning a way back into the only life he ever knew. There are so many twists and turns and dramatic soap-opera beats that you'll likely be engaged for the entirety of the ride, and left with some new favorite characters to love and hate.
I'll leave the rest to you to discover but there is one other character--Tetsu Tachibana--who was very intriguing to me. Tachibana brings an element of xenophobia to the tale, being a half Chinese-Japanese man who was unwanted by both clans. A man desperate to make good by coming up from a life of crime, Tachibana fords a real estate front in order to reconnect with an ancient secret and prevent a city from upending into chaos. Moreso than even Punished Snake from MGSV, Tachibana is the real "Fallen Man" drawn by a unique phantom pain: the loss of his hand, along with his past, is the fuel that drives him to mentor Kiryu. In a world filled with dumb punk rocker bands and stupid salarymen, Tachibana's anger and sorrow driven by a dose of racism from his countrymen was a poignant point to take in. As much power as he wields, he cannot change the past, which defines both his failures he could have prevented, and the genetic code he could not.
The story beats and cinematics spare absolutely nothing, as we get not only fully-voiced high-def cutscenes, but also in-game cutscenes with voices, "motion-comic" stills with voices, and general interactions with text-only. At one point I think I went through all of these styles in one story moment, though it was followed up by a huge 3-on-50 gauntlet so I didn't really mind. Although it's not going to be mistaken for Naughty Dog anytime soon, the art and graphics are quite good and have a clean, colorful "SEGA arcade" feel. This is a great looking game, and one that sounds just as good, too--the mix of beat 'em up rock and techno fits well with every encounter and moment in downtime. There's a lot of cheesy buttrock, but it's the enjoyable kind. Personally, I loved the ridiculous karaoke song "Judgement" the most. Although it's Japanese-only dialogue with English subtitles, the professional inflections and excellent facial expressions go a very long way in building each character throughout their tribulations.
There is so much goddamned depth in this game that it's dizzying. Unlike other checkbox crap and boorish minigames inserted into every GTA clone on the market, Yakuza 0's side orders are as engaging as the main dish itself. I've spent hours just playing the various darts and cue sport minigames, both of them given a sheen of polish that most games would barely care about. That's the way it is with most of Yakuza 0's distractions and sidejobs; they could certainly be portioned off as very satisfying ventures on their own on mobile or handheld plaforms. It's an entirely new postgame activity in itself to go into Kiryu's real estate shakedowns and investments or Majima's recruitment and training ventures with his cabaret roster. There are entire storylines and cutscenes devoted to things like this, with more content constantly being brought forth. And yet, none of it is ever overwhelming, as you could do as much or as little as you want in the realm of combat training, weapon crafting, slot car racing, and more. You are getting the most bang for your buck, and without the bloat that most open world games bring with it in terms of long spans of nothingness partnered with needless grinding. With Yakuza 0, even the "grind" of your character stats is achieved by way of investing money in yourself; thusly, all your ventures in the game bringing cash will help you not only purchase items and plot macguffins, but also improve your abilities. It's a brilliant way to reward you for simply enjoying some of the non-fight related stuff, so when you do get back to busting up a 20-man gang, you're going to have a lot more fun and look a lot cooler doing it.
Yakuza 0 is a game that reminds me of that Dreamcast era where everything ran fast, looked beautiful, and constantly gave you fun things to do while handing you a ticket to the craziest ride you could imagine. It is a drama and a comedy, a fist fight caught in a twister of disco dancing and telephone clubs. Yakuza 0 boils down everything to its bare essence and slathers it with a saucy overdrive, demanding you give equal attention to epic showdowns and toy collecting. It's the Shenmue experience we never got in the following decades, a game that fulfills Sega's reputation of going big with the gameplay and unique attitude. This is one of the most enjoyable videogames I have ever played, combining the new era's narrative drama with the old era's arcade sensibilities--especially the long-dead brawler genre. Much like last year's DOOM, this game almost flawlessly packages everything you love about games into one experience.
Amazing and topical!