|Platforms||PC, Xbox One, PS4 (Reviewed)|
|Release Date||January 24, 2017 (PS4)
August 1, 2018 (PC)
February 26, 2020 (Xbox One)
I love Japanese culture. Starting when I was a teenager, I’ve been utterly fascinated by the art, language, music, architecture, history, and so much more that flows out of the island kingdom. I’ve made more than a few ill-fated attempts to teach myself Japanese, memorized more anime openings than I care to admit, and in the past spent hours drawing Kanji (Japanese writing) on my arm and walking around like I was the coolest guy in the world. After hearing all that, you might think I’m a huge dork, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but I’m hardly the only American who feels this way. As the country has opened itself up to the world over the past few decades, scores of so-called “Japanophiles” have consumed art and media flowing out of the country at a truly astonishing rate. Yet, despite my deep love for everything Japan, I have to admit that I don’t fully understand it.
My multiple attempts to learn Japanese have resulted in little more than me being able to stumble through some simple greetings. Most of the media I consume originates from and represents only small parts of the country, and there is a myriad of cultural nuances I may never fully understand since I wasn’t raised there. This cultural disconnect is common to the majority of Western audiences, and poses an immense challenge for Japanese creators trying to communicate their ideas to an international audience. In 2014, this disconnect had nearly driven the Yakuza series completely out of the international market. Since the series was set in Japan and featured extremely Japanese characters and concepts, localization had proven incredibly messy. The first game in the series attempted to solve this problem by dubbing the game in English, featuring a cast that included Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame. However, many of the concepts did not translate well, the acting was jarring and low quality at points, and fans generally preferred subtitled versions of the games. Even with subtitles, Yakuza struggled to achieve Western success with later games. By 2014, the English fanbase had nearly died out thanks in part to the commercial flop of the zombie-themed spinoff Yakuza: Dead Souls.
It is in this vacant space that Yakuza 0 took center stage and did something truly remarkable. The dauntless task of localization was given to a team from Atlus USA, who then spent the next year and a half working tirelessly to produce a Yakuza game that would wow Western audiences. This monumental effort included translating over 1.8 million Japanese characters, nearly twice as many as the average JRPG. Additionally, many of the playable minigames were not familiar to Western audiences, which resulted in the team having to write 34 pages of instruction for Mahjong alone. This hard work resulted in a game that managed to revive the Western Yakuza fanbase, serve as a fitting successor to the games that came before it, and bring a remarkably vivid picture of Japanese life to Western audiences. Instead of toning down Japanese culture, Yakuza 0 revels in it, from the slight differences in accent between regions to the way a salaryman stays one step below his boss on a staircase as a sign of respect. The work that’s gone into this game is impressive to say the least, and as soon as I picked it up I could scarcely wait for it to download before diving right into the world of Yakuza.
Violence: Nearly all the major characters in Yakuza 0 are members of criminal organizations, and as such frequently commit brutal acts of violence. These include shooting characters, amputating fingers, gouging out eyes, vicious torture with a sledgehammer, stabbings, car bombings, snapping necks, and prolonged beatings. Much of the more violent actions are seen through cutscenes, so they are rendered graphically with fully visible blood and gore. More than one character describes being brutally tortured and sexually assaulted over the course of several months. Several of the villainous characters commit murder in cold blood, and show remarkable disregard for human life, including civilian women and children. One of the main plot points involves several characters attempting to murder a young blind girl. However, the main characters do not kill within the story, and you are unable to attack civilians unlike other open world games. The two protagonists commit violence mostly through the fighting gameplay, which is less realistic than the aforementioned violence, and always ends with opponents being merely knocked out. This can include kicking, punching, battering with objects such as bicycles or traffic cones, pressing nails into an opponent’s face, or throwing them into nearby walls. The main characters can also use weapons to shoot, stab, or slice opponents in these segments. This produces some blood, but is not as graphic as depicted in the cutscenes, and always ends with the opponents clearly still alive.
Sexual Content: The game’s open world takes place in 1980s Japan, including red light districts that feature a variety of mostly optional sexual content. The main character is capable of collecting a variety of “telephone cards” which feature pictures of real women seductively posed in lingerie. If they collect enough of them, they are able to watch a “sexy video” in an adult film store they can visit. These videos feature no nudity, but do include women posing in lingerie. During these segments, masturbation by the main character is implied but not seen. The main character can also talk to “call girls” and go on dates with them, but no sex is implied or seen. Several side stories involve sexual themes, such as BDSM, pornography, and panty selling. All the above content is optional to the story and does not need to be completed, though. In the main game, the character will often encounter women walking around wearing clothing that exposes some of their cleavage or a significant portion of their leg(s). One of the main characters runs a club where men are seated with women wearing somewhat revealing clothing, and a man fondles one of these women under her clothing in two scenes. During a portion of the game where you run the club, you are able to choose how these women are dressed, including some more revealing outfits. One of the main story lines involves a character who was sexually assaulted in the past, and you can occasionally encounter women on the street about to be assaulted, but neither of these is shown graphically.
Language: The entire game is voiced in Japanese, so no English swear words are audibly said. However, several words are translated from Japanese and can be read in the subtitles, including somewhat frequent uses of d**n, f**k, g*dd***it, s**t, b***h, and taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Spirituality: The main character can exchange points for items at a shrine, though it is not clearly established what religion the shrine is affiliated with. One side quest involves interacting with a fortune teller who gives a detailed picture of your future, though it is unclear how accurate she really is or where she gets her power from. In one side quest, your character infiltrates a cult that claims to have healing powers and the ability to grant great wealth. However, this is shown to be completely fake. Overall, while some aspects of traditional Japanese religions exist in the game, it is generally fairly devoid of spiritual content.
Substances: The main character is capable of going to bars and consuming alcohol, though it does not render them visibly drunk. You are able to encounter some characters that are visibly intoxicated.
Negative Themes: Rape, murder, brief references to child molestation, assault of minors, theft, corruption, drug use, theft.
Positive Themes: Both main characters stand out as remarkably positive role models, given the setting. Though they are criminals who commit acts of violence, they maintain a strict moral compass that informs their actions throughout the game. For example, players are unable to randomly attack civilians, and the main characters regularly question their actions when faced with dilemmas like whether or not to kill an innocent to move up in the organization. The game places a lot of emphasis on the value of human life. Neither protagonist has killed at the beginning of the game, and this contrasts starkly with the wanton violence of the villainous characters, who are willing to commit coldblooded murder with barely a second thought. The good characters in the game frequently model sacrifice and loyalty, and show themselves willing to put their life and career on their lines because it’s the right thing to do. Because most of the protagonists are male, there is also a strong theme of masculinity. The characters show that masculinity not by acts of force, but rather through empathy, emotion, and kindness to those around them.
Have you ever stumbled upon a work so extraordinary, so impactful, that you wonder how you possibly went so long without knowing about it? Yakuza 0, and by extension, the whole Yakuza series, is that work for me. I’ve been playing video games since I was barely knee high to a grasshopper, and when I wasn’t playing them, I would be scouring the internet for the next big thing to beg my parents for. Not to sound too snooty, but I would consider my taste fairly varied. I would play everything from the latest AAA shooter to retro NES classics to one-man indie concept games. But somehow, I had never heard of the Yakuza series. Perhaps some YouTuber had done a brief video on them, highlighting all the whacky things you could do, and I might have chuckled and then moved on to whatever caught my eye next. At some point, it went on sale, I said “Hey, I remember that looking pretty fun”, and started booting it up. What I expected was a colorful ride through 1980s Japan interspersed with your typical gritty crime drama—a “GTA but in Japan” as I had occasionally heard it called. What I got, however, was so much more.
Yakuza 0 starts off much like you would expect of a series about a violent criminal organization. Your protagonist, Kiryu Kazuma, has just finished brutally beating someone in service of a loanshark, knocked out a couple of drunkards, and is now drinking in a bar with his sworn brother, Nishiki. In many ways, this echoes the traditional format used in games like Mafia or GTA. Your protagonist will commit horrible acts of violence, then spend some downtime engaging in pleasurable activities with other sleazy criminal types. However, Yakuza 0 surprised me right off the bat with two things I have found to be somewhat lacking in this genre. For one, crime themed games tend to sell themselves as power fantasies. They promote the idea of being able to commit wild acts without being held accountable, and any “downtime” serves simply as a vehicle to move you from one action setpiece to another. Instead of immediately jumping to another fight sequence or car chase, Yakuza 0 defied my expectations and slowed to a crawl. Kiryu and Nishiki had a heartfelt conversation about their time growing up together, Nishiki goaded the stoic Kiryu into a fantastic karaoke sequence, and the two old friends enjoyed a casual stroll around town.
It is this ebb and flow that perfectly encapsulates the wholly unique experience Yakuza 0 offers. In one moment, your heart could be racing as Kiryu trades blows with an army of rival yakuza intent on ending him, and in the next, you might find yourself sharing some takoyaki with a young girl just trying to make sense of everything going on in her life. Yet, these moments do not drag the story down. A lesser game might have added trailing missions or needlessly long missions to pad the game out, all while claiming that they help the “pacing”, but Yakuza 0 comes across as a story that was meticulously thought out and carefully had a game formed around it, rather than the other way around. Though the cutscenes can often stretch on and there are a handful of lengthy walks around the city, no moment is wasted. Rather than eagerly waiting to get back into the action, I often found myself setting my controller down and sitting back to marvel at the beautiful, artfully crafted, captivating storytelling. Nearly every moment in Yakuza 0 feels justified, and just when you think an aspect of the story isn’t going somewhere, Nagoshi finds a way to tie everything together with a masterful flourish that left my jaw on the floor more than once.
One of the things that helps elevate the story from simply “enjoyable” to “deeply impactful” would be the stellar voice acting done by pretty much everyone involved. Voice acting is one of the aspects of games that, at least for me, is more noticeable when it doesn’t work than when it does. Sure, if I were to think back on a game like Fallout New Vegas, I could talk for some time about how the acting helps to create a fully realized world, and the game would likely be worse off without it. That being said, voice acting usually ranks fairly low on my list of “things to excitedly rant about while trying to sell this game to someone”. However, Yakuza 0 simply would not be what it is without the talents of Takeya Kuroda, Hidenari Ukagi, Hitoshi Ozawa, and many others. I don’t speak a word of Japanese, so most of my time in the lengthy cutscenes was spent with my eyes rapidly bouncing back and forth between walls of text and the tense scene unfolding above it. In many circumstances, this might hinder a game’s story, decreasing the emotional power behind lines and rendering voice acting as merely a second thought. Yet the performances in Yakuza 0 are so raw that they nearly transcend the language barrier. The villains snarl in gravelly tones or chuckle snidely in a way that makes you want to reach through the screen and knock them out. The heroes express emotional highs and lows in such a guttural fashion that it borders on hammy, but somehow manages to be incredibly moving instead. These actors clearly put in a lot of work and, combined with gorgeous visuals, create a story that rivals the best cinema has to offer.
But of course, Yakuza 0 isn’t just about sitting around drinking sake and talking about “the good old days”. After all, Kiryu and Majima are still hungry young yakuza in a 1980s Japan full to bursting with random street thugs who will fight you for any reason or none at all. Wander around the streets of Kamurocho long enough, and you will inevitably find yourself staring down a small army of punks with knives in no time at all. So how exactly does Yakuza 0‘s combat hold up? Well, in a few words, immensely satisfying. In a few more words, a bit of a headache. Between the two main protagonists, there are six different combat “styles” that you can swap between mid-fight. Each style utilizes a similar control scheme, with a fairly standard combination of light attacks, heavy attacks, grabs, and throws. However, these styles wildly vary in how they control and the speed and power of attacks, and they even shift core attributes of the character you’re controlling. For example, one style focuses on a quick offense, boosting how fast you can dodge and trading in more powerful attacks for swift jabs. Another style emphasizes holding a strong defense, with slow yet powerful attacks and the ability to heavily reduce knockback from enemies when holding the “block” button. The core concept for this is pretty simple to pick up, and the game keeps it easy by having you slowly unlock each of the styles as you progress through the story.
Before long, I found myself grinning from ear to ear as I dispatched snot-nosed street punks with a combination of crushing blows, brutal super moves, and the occasional nearby bicycle. Like many open world fighting games, Yakuza 0 keeps combat fresh with “Heat moves”. As you fight, your “Heat meter” charges up, and when it’s at one of three levels, you can unleash cinematic moves that use nearby objects or the environment to damage your enemies. These flow together really nicely, and quickly took my enjoyment of the combat from “Eh it’s pretty fun” to “Impish childlike glee”. I remember at one point, I watched in awe as Kiryu dunked a thug into a nearby urinal, broke the urinal with his head, then drop-kicked him out a window. Maybe I’m a bad person for enjoying that this much, but I grew up watching Monday Night Raw, so the bombastic, ridiculous combat was a major selling point of this game for me. Remarkably, these sequences don’t suffer from the same “cutscene fatigue” that one would imagine they might. It would be extremely easy for these cinematics to become stale, but they maintain an excellent variety and drop you back into the action so fast they don’t have time to get old.
Unfortunately, even the finest vases are liable to crack at some point. While Yakuza 0‘s combat is extremely enjoyable, parts of it definitely started to show some wear and tear after a few hours with it. For one, I quickly found myself gravitating towards the combat styles and techniques that were most efficient, particularly in handling large groups of enemies. Instead of rapidly swapping between 3 different styles and pushing myself to refine my abilities and try new ideas, I took the easy route of simple yet effective combos. This is further incentivized by the somewhat confusing upgrade system. There is one upgrade wheel per style, and you fill it out by spending money on new abilities. However, parts of each wheel are locked with no clear directions on how to unlock them, there are multiple pathways with little guidance given on how to navigate them efficiently, and it comes together to create a semi-frustrating experience. This is further compounded by the fact that in-game currency is used for upgrading your abilities and for everything else, from investing in important quests to stocking up on health items. So, while you could put in the time and money to learn the systems and carefully balance your styles, it is much simpler to put money into one or two styles and only upgrade your basic moves. By the end of the game, I found myself with 300,000,000 Yen in one style, and a mere 60,000 Yen in a style I had barely used. Soren Johnson, designer of Civilization IV, once said: “Given the opportunity, gamers will optimize the fun out of anything”. I feel that, as well designed as this system is, it unfortunately lends itself towards an exploitation of it that leads to players missing large portions of the combat design. Though this doesn’t take away much from the game as a whole, it was a bit disappointing to finish the game and have barely touched a key portion of it.
So, I’ve talked about combat mechanics, storytelling, and overall “feel” of Yakuza 0. What else is there to cover, aside from all the meaningless side content stuck in there for the completionists? Well, to my surprise, the side content was actually the highlight of Yakuza 0 for me. Don’t get me wrong, the story had me on the edge of my seat and the combat ignited my inner child in a way few other games have. Yet, when I start ranting about this game to anyone who will listen, those aspects of the game quickly take a back seat to the shockingly high quality optional content Yakuza 0 has to offer. I am not a completionist by any means; my ADHD means that I’m 10 times more likely to run after a new game like a hyperactive dog than spend hours hunting for collectibles or doing side quests. But something about Yakuza makes these segments feel almost…essential. Perhaps it’s because the game designers seem to encourage you to explore. There is more than one point in the story where you are told to wait around for something to happen and take a walk around the city in the meantime. And unlike GTA or Mafia, you are completely unable to attack anyone that doesn’t try to fight you, so you can’t just spend this time running from the police and creating mayhem. Instead, the game pushes you to take a journey with your protagonist through the heart of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, and discover the many colorful activities and characters contained within.
When it comes to open world games, I have often thought that many of their worlds have a much greater width than depth. While they may boast sprawling deserts or gorgeously rendered skyscrapers, they often feel hollow and empty. Yakuza 0 delightfully subverts this, and instead presents a picture of 1980s Japan bursting with life and color. Taking away the player’s ability to wreak havoc on the city pushes them to engage with it instead, and this paves the way for dozens of beautiful “slices of life” that the character can step into. Instead of just being a mild distraction, the RC car minigame can lead to an impactful friendship with a man who’s just happy to have another adult he can talk to about his favorite hobby. Regularly visiting the local sushi restaurant presses the chef to open up about his fears of not living up to his father’s legacy. Encounters like this wait around every corner, and not one of them feels wasted. Rather, each of them serves to tell the stories of these side characters but also to expand Kiryu’s own. Playing through these slowly unveils a man who is sensitive, kind, a bit awkward, and so much more than just a violent thug. These moments contrast drastically with a story that is serious and immensely dark at points, but they serve to further bond the player and the protagonist. Are you weary and a little upset after fighting for hours and watching someone you care about die? Kiryu probably is too, and would enjoy spending some time playing darts, tearing it up on the dance floor, or struggling with the claw machine to get a doll for a little girl. Personally, I found one side story so moving that I shed a tear inadvertently. Yakuza 0 has succeeded in creating a world that is beautiful, whacky, and worth spending hours exploring.
This review is already nearing 4000 words, so if you’re still reading, congratulations! I promise I’m almost done. And yet, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of Yakuza 0. I’ve barely talked about the delightful secondary protagonist Goro Majima, the wonderful cabaret and real estate quest lines, and how you can win a chicken to be your bowling manager. But at this point, I’m going to let the game speak for itself. It isn’t perfect by any means. Combat can get tiresome quickly, localization means some parts of the game are lost on Western audiences, and lack of clear notifications can lead to you wandering for long periods of time trying to find certain buildings. When it comes down to it, though, Yakuza 0 is one of those “once in a lifetime” games. Every few hours, I kept finding myself saying “How on earth have I not played this before?” It might be cliche to say, but there really is something for everyone here: Tight combat, an enrapturing story, and an open world with a life of its own. So if you’re looking for something a little different, stop right now and go buy this game. It’s only $20, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself pining for that next trip back to Kamurocho in no time.
The Bottom Line
Yakuza 0 suffers from a few bumps here and there, but like its stalwart protagonist, it stands up and doesn't let those stop it from being a truly superb experience.