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Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: Yakuza 0 (Sony PlayStation 4)

Yakuza 0 review

Review by Matt S.

In Yakuza 0, a typical night out starts with a wander through a red-light district, eventually dropping in at an adult video hire place that allows you to watch softcore gravure videos of your favourite ladies. Then you’ll wander over to the other side of town to check up on your business interests and top up your cash balance. You’ll need that soon enough. You beat up some street punks, pad that wallet out a little bit more, before hitting up the local slotcar racing studio for a bit of speedy car action. After that you’ll wander over to the highly exclusive catfight arena to watch girls in swimsuits beat one another up, while gambling millions on the results.

Such is the life of the yakuza.

Related reading: The previous Yakuza game to be released in the west is actually Yakuza 5. Matt's review of that, on PlayStation 3.

Yakuza 0, as with all Yakuza games, is so overloaded with things to do - be that the stuff I’ve mentioned above, or anything from Mahjong to classic arcade games, karaoke to disco dancing - that it’s quite easy to forget to do the stuff you’re meant to do. So often do I get stuck in loops playing minigames that I forget about the main quest for hours.

And then, when I decide to take a crack at progressing the narrative forward, I get sidetracked over and over again by the side missions, which are the most interesting bunch of side quests that you’ll ever encounter in a game. It’s not that you’re necessarily doing anything in them that you don’t do in other games, but rather, it’s the way they’re presented. When you’re helping a young dominatrix improve her customer satisfaction, you’re just selecting a couple of different dialogue options to tell her to recite. If you pick the right ones (and it’s really obvious what a dominatrix should say), then she’ll do a good job with her client and it’ll be a successful end to the side quest for you. I usually skip by side quests in games, but in Yakuza I find myself getting distracted over and over again by every little thing I come across.

Part of it is that each game is so utterly immersive, I find myself hugely entertained just being in the world. While my experience in Japan’s various red light districts is quite limited (no, I’ve never been to a hostess club, let alone the seedier things that you can get up to in these places), the aesthetics of the city, as well as the sense of vibrant activity, is exactly what I associate most with my time in Japan. Especially at night, the ability to go and do a dozen different things at any time makes the Japanese cities (especially Tokyo) a perfect playground, and the Yakuza games recapture this atmosphere and aesthetic like no other game.

None of that is to suggest that the game’s main narrative is in any way poor, mind you. Quite the opposite. Yakuza 0 weaves a masterful tale that immediately has the game rating highly for our game of the year and narrative of the year awards to come at the end of this year. It’s an origins story, giving us a backstory for both Kiryu Kazuma and Goro Majima, two yakuza who have been carefully developed into fascinating characters over a number of games now. In Yakuza 0 they’re merely low-level peons. Fresh in face, brash in attitude, they have the confidence of the yakuza, but are ranked lowly enough that they don’t really have the resources to back up that attitude. Both of them find themselves caught in deep webs of intrigue being played out by their higher-ups, and this is a very different kind of position for these two to be in than we’re used to. People who have come from Yakuza 5, where Kiryu single-handedly takes down an entire mob of yakuza, will really feel that his combat prowess is lower here. Whether he could technically take on 40 low-level grunts is irrelevant; narratively speaking it’s clear that he’s just not up to that, and for the most part, especially early on, the combat in Yakuza 0 is between far smaller groups of combatants.

While I’m nowhere near experienced enough with the yakuza to say whether the narrative itself is authentic (though there is a journalist who had the brilliant idea to ask actual yakuza what they thought of the game - I really recommend reading that), one of the most appealing things about the game, up front, is that it is authentic to the various yakuza fantasies that are popular in Japanese media. Rather similar to how we have B-grade action heroes in the west, like Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude van Damme and Chuck Norris, in Japan they have specialist B-grade yakuza film actors, and this game is filled with painstakingly accurate renders of them. It won’t mean too much to most westerners that Hitoshi Ozawa, Riki Takeuchi and Hideo Nakano are named in the credits, but it’s significant for establishing Yakuza 0 as a real-deal, hardcore yakuza story.

In many ways, the yakuza story is Japan’s contribution to the noir tradition. It’s not that they’re stories, films, and games about detectives running around solving mysteries (though there’s certainly an investigative undertone about Yakuza 0), but rather, the same sense of moral conflict and the exploration of the dark underside of society that is so critical to the noir genre is very prevalent to yakuza stories.

Obviously, on an objective level, what these people do - and the way they are portrayed in games like Yakuza 0 - cannot be called “good”. Beyond the violence they commit towards one another, each character in Yakuza 0 gets up to a wide range of illegal activities; rather than resolve disputes through the legal channels, even with the more legitimate business activities they’re involved in, they instead engage in corporate espionage, intimidation, and other underhanded tactics.

PlayStation 4 Yakuza game review

And yet, as anti-heroes, we’re meant to quite like the protagonists of Yakuza - and even the antagonists. There’s a distinct code of behaviour that they all adhere to; a thick, imaginary textbook of codes, rights and responsibilities of each member of the family or clan. One of the critical ones is not to go after “civilians” (non-yakuza); a code that the yakuza in the real world also believe in. Wars between yakuza is one thing - to bring civilians into it would be to encourage the wrath of the police, and that’s no good for the yakuza at all. In the world of moral debate, one of the great conflicts is between Aristotle and Kant. The yakuza very much reflect an Aristotelian view of morality: that the purpose of being moral is to create happiness for yourself. The yakuza code of ethics largely revolves around doing things that allow them to continue operating without drawing the police down on them (thus making them “happy”), but whatever the reasoning behind it, it does mean there’s an odd nobility to what these characters get up to. Especially the ones who end up taking on the more corrupt members of the clans, as Kiryu and Goro do.

This complex web of morality and counter-morality is one common theme to the noir genre. The other is that of decadence; of beautiful femme fatales, of the playgrounds of the rich (and thus the corrupt), and where it both contrasts and overlaps with the seedy underbelly of society and all the raw sex that involves. Yakuza games are infamous for their portrayal of stunningly beautiful women (models take their auditions very seriously to get into these games), and Yakuza 0 turns all that up to 11. The catfights are downright erotic in tone, as are the gravure videos. Elsewhere the protagonists can use a phone service to call up girls - a phone-dating service, of sorts - where the goal is to seduce them to the point where they agree to meet up with the guy for a date, and then they end up at a hotel room. In contrast, there is the series’ customary representation of the sheer wealth and beauty in the high-end hostess clubs, complete with women dressed in the most luxurious clothes imaginable. While you could make comments about the portrayal of the women in Yakuza 0 (and every other Yakuza game, and the noir genre as a whole), much like the James Bond films, there is something undeniably entertaining about the game’s sexiness and sensuality.

Yakuza 0 uses split narrative techniques, where you’ll play a chapter or two with Kiryu, and then a chapter or two of Goro, set in a different city. These chapters actually tend to run on for a while (because you’ll get caught up doing side quests and the like), and this is quite effective in allowing you to concentrate on each character’s stories in even measures. I’ve got to say though that I am a bigger fan of Kiryu, and when his chapters ended on cliffhangers I found it occasionally difficult to get into Goro’s subsequent chapter, because I wanted to see how things panned out with the other guy. It didn’t take long to get over that though, as Goro found himself in some hilarious scenario or another that got me back into his character. The game has really good fun with the 80s setting at times, such as an extended side quest where I had to run all over the city looking for batteries so a guy could power his “cutting edge” portable phone, which came on a backpack so heavy it was hurting his shoulders.

PlayStation 4 JRPG review

Each character has his own fighting styles, too, and can switch between three of them at will. Some of these seem to be there more for comedy value than anything else - Goro has a breakdancing combat style which, as entertaining as it is, isn’t exactly as effective as when he wades in with a baseball bat. Each of these fighting styles is levelled up individually, and you’ll also need to complete challenges to unlock the upper echelons of skills. Unless you’re playing on the higher difficulty settings you won’t need to bother with any of that, but this series has always been known for offering an in-depth combat system, and it’s good to see SEGA continue to iterate on it in the right way.

Related reading: And for a modern riff on the B-grade Yakuza film, Sion Sono's Tokyo Tribe is essential. It stars Riki Takeuchi, too, who also appears in this game.

For all its humour, its intelligent noirish thriller narrative, and the sheer amount of stuff to do, Yakuza’s real strength forever remains in the little details that it gets right about its representation of Japanese cities. Kiryu wanders into a convenience store to buy health supplements (restorative potions, in the vernacular of other JRPGs), and I’m homesick for Japan - even the convenience stores are exciting shopping trips in that country, I swear. Goro wanders down a street, and the lighting from the signs on the street makes me wish I was back in Japan right there and then. Either of the men go into a restaurant to eat some ramen, and I find myself looking up airline booking sites. Every Yakuza game to date has been a genuine classic, and Yakuza 0 continues the fine form for a series of JRPGs that is right up there with the best of the genre. It’s completely essential.



- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
Review: Yakuza 0 (Sony PlayStation 4)
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