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Yakuza 0 came out in Japan way back in early 2015, but it was just released in the West at the beginning of this year. A prequel to the five other games in the longrunning franchise, Yakuza 0 embodies a desire to “re-set” the series and make it accessible for new players. So, it’s a perfect entry point for people like me who’ve always been interested in the Yakuza games but never played one. It doesn’t disappoint: Yakuza 0 is an entertaining, rich, and textured experience, and although its flaws hold it back from true greatness, it nevertheless serves as an excellent introduction to the Yakuza universe.

Yakuza 0 is set in late 1980s Japan, taking place between two fictionalized versions of famous entertainment districts in Tokyo and Osaka. The story follows two young Yakuza, Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, who fall foul of the underworld hierarchy and are pulled into a high-stakes power struggle revolving around the “Empty Lot”, a tiny piece of derelict land in Tokyo. Competing factions are fighting over the land in hopes of securing control over the lucrative redevelopment of central Tokyo. It’s an appropriate plot device, considering the prominent role real estate has played in commerce and finance since the mid-1980s. But even most property developers would baulk at the lengths the Yakuza will go to, to get their hands on the Empty Lot.

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Yakuza 0’s story consists of 16 chapters, the perspective switching back and forth between Kiryu and Majima every couple of chapters. The story advances through long scenes of earnest dialogue and exposition, normally punctuated by some brutal fights. But most chapters also give you plenty of freedom to explore downtown Tokyo or Osaka, where you’ll find a rich variety of minigames, and a number of sidequests. This content provides much of the game’s colour and enjoyment, and it’s a wacky and occasionally lurid paean to Japanese urban culture. Some of the minigames are excellent, notably karaoke, which features some great (and as far as I can tell, original) songs, and some very funny and well-choreographed videos featuring the main characters. Others, like pool and darts, are merely serviceable, while a few (notably the arcade games) feel pretty disappointing. But the variety on offer means there are copious distractions, and it’s easy to spend hours at a time just messing around with optional content.

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But far and away the best minigame in Yakuza 0 is the hostess club management simulator. This is part of Majima’s story arc and is one of the most well-realized and addictive minigames I’ve ever played. It rivals something like Gwent in elegance and execution, and it could easily stand as a separate game; a free-to-play mobile version of this game could do very well indeed. At a certain point in the story, Majima takes control of Club Sunshine, a “cabaret club” frequented by men to enjoy a drink and some conversation with hostesses. It sounds a bit seedy, and in reality it probably would be; but the atmosphere and energy in Club Sunshine is so wholesome and positive that it just comes across as good clean fun, and it’s very much a co-operative partnership between Majima, the owner, and the women who work there.

In the course of his business around Osaka, Majima meets women who he can recruit to work at his club, and as the game progresses you will have access to more high-level hostesses. The best (“Platinum”) hostesses can actually be customized, and T. and I had a lot of fun giving some of our hostesses makeovers. You prepare for shifts by assigning hostesses to the rota, trying to ensure you have a balanced roster to meet the interests of the clientele in the area you are targeting. Each hostess has different characteristics, with some having a higher “Beauty”, “Cute”, “Sexy”, or “Funny” rating; and they’re also rated according to Skill, Conversation, Party, and so on. Once you’ve chosen your team, you can open for business, at which point a three-minute minigame begins in which customers visit the club, and you assign a hostess to each of them. Different clients want different things, and you have to try and find the best match so that the customer will spend more money. As your club grows, you’ll start to attract richer customers, but they’ll also be more demanding, and sometimes will ask for a specific girl.

Managing the hostess club has its own story arc, which involves going up against the “Five Stars”, a criminal cartel who control the local cabaret club market. Club Sunshine’s rivalry with the Five Stars provides a sort of dramatic structure for the minigame, as well as the sense of rhythm and progression which is an important part of the feedback loop. Nevertheless, it’s a surprisingly lengthy and rich storyline. It’s helped along by the fact that Majima has a lot of interaction with his main hostesses, including through “special training” which consists of long conversations and taking them out on dates. Oddly enough, these interactions showcase some of the best writing to be found in Yakuza 0. We probably spent 20 hours or so on the hostess game, and to be honest, we would have gladly played a full-length game based around it. It’s outstanding.

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Unfortuntely, Kiryu’s minigame – a real estate management simulator where you acquire an interest in local properties, develop them, and watch the profits roll in – isn’t as good. There’s no interactive component comparable to opening the cabaret club for business; you just set your collections, and check back later to collect your profits. There is a story associated with this minigame, too, but it takes so long to get started that you’ll probably miss out on it completely unless you make a concerted effort. The disparity in quality between Kiryu and Majima’s minigames reflected how we felt about the game as a whole, as we soon found we had a strong preference for the chapters with Majima.

Kiryu is the Yakuza series protagonist, while Majima is more a recurring character with an eccentric personality. Yakuza 0 shows how Majima ended up that way, and it’s rather tragic, as here Majima is an inspirational, humorous, and eminently likable character. He’s a more rounded protagonist than Kiryu, who sticks rigidly to a comic deadpan register. This lends itself to some comedic situations – particularly considering the often ludicrous scenarios which Kiryu gets caught up in – but it also limits the potential for character development.

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Combat is an important part of Yakuza 0, and you’ll spend a lot of time squaring off against groups of thugs. Kiryu and Majima have access to several fighting styles, and cash acquired through minigames or defeating bad guys can be spent on upgrading their abilities. Combat is generally good fun, but the mechanics are far from perfect. You can build up “Heat” as you attack enemies, and spend it on more powerful, often savage-looking attacks; while you can also equip lethal weapons, use the environment, or improvise weapons from everyday objects, to try and gain the upper hand. But control always feels a bit loose and imprecise, and it can prove frustrating, particularly when the erratic camera conspires with your opponents to obstruct your view of incoming attacks.

The Arkham games laid down a high bar for beat ’em up action, and Yakuza’s combat doesn’t really feel taut or polished enough by comparison. Although it packs a punch, it’s not as satisfying or cinematic as one would like. On the other hand, it weirdly mirrors the Batman games in that Kiryu and Majima never kill anyone. This makes sense lore-wise, as they are both supposed to be sympathetic, and murder is built up in-universe as a pretty big taboo; but it’s a bit incongruous when you see your character repeatedly using lethal weapons, or beating the hell out of people time and again, only to see their (admittedly deserving) victims get up and scurry away afterwards.

Fighting is still fun, generally, and the best sequences are the multi-part gauntlets which the game refers to as Climax Battles. These are fights significant to the story which see Kiryu or Majima go up against dozens of enemies, fighting their way through enormous buildings like hotels or office blocks, often with some well-framed bridging scenes. But it’s a shame that, outside these fights, the story rarely captures the same kind of excitement, and the plot and dialogue story tends to be one of the game’s weaker features. While Kiryu and Majima both build some touching relationships and have some moving encounters, they both have a penchant for dubious decision-making which tends to undermine their interests in predictable ways. It’s particularly annoying to see Kiryu, time after time, refusing to kill maniacal opponents who have tried to kill him and/or his allies on multiple occasions, and who he knows are going to come after him and his defenceless friends again. It’s tiresome because this is, after all, a story about gangsters and violent men, and in this context the story’s insistence on non-homicidal main characters feels emotionally unrealistic and dramatically unsatisfying. In the same vein, Kiryu has an irritating tendency to hear out the endless, tedious justifications of his flagrantly amoral, violent, sadistic, exploitative and selfish opponents.

Because Yakuza 0 was first released a couple of years ago (indeed, in Japan it was released on PS3 as well as PS4), the graphics now feel a bit dated in places. While the character models are generally very good, and the cutscenes are excellent, some of the environments and animations are less impressive. The game’s soundtrack is a high point, with some really catchy and memorable tunes, particularly those encountered during karaoke and the hostess game. It’s a surprisingly long game, too, and my playthrough was almost 75 hours. That’s more in line with what you’d expect from an RPG than an action game; and to be fair, Yakuza does have significant RPG elements. It’s an interesting splicing of genres, with a wide appeal, particularly among those with a taste for the absurd and an affinity for Japanese culture. That said, it’s not a game for the easily offended, as it does have some sleazy content, featuring sexualized women’s wrestling, a telephone dating club, and a video parlour where you can watch poorly-filmed short movies of young women posing in lingerie. But this is all optional content, and it’s done in a self-deprecating and vaguely apologetic style.

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Yakuza 0 seems to have served its intended purpose. Commercially and critically successful, it paved the way for a series of remakes of the earlier Yakuza games, and re-invigorated interest in the franchise. I just wish we could see more of the version of Majima we encounter here – as well as a fully-fledged hostess club game.

8/10

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