Organised Crime, Kinks and Strange Behaviour – Entering the World of Yakuza for the First Time
Yakuza is a venerable and well-respected series that has been entertaining Japanese gamers for quite some time now and while the games made it to western shores, they were quite often poorly localised and as a result, never reached much more than cult status. That is until publisher SEGA started to care about the localisation standards and put some effort into making sure those of us not attuned to Japan’s unique culture could make sense of the games. This started to happen around the time Yakuza 4 hit but wasn’t really perfected until the prequel Yakuza 0 was released. With 0’s release, those in English speaking countries finally had not only a perfectly translated game but a point of entry for the franchise’s long, involved and entertaining story.
This folks, is where I got on board. But even then I waited far too long. I had heard tales of the franchise from other Player 2 writers, those that swore by its particular brand of madness and entertainment. I was enticed with promises of amazing combat, compelling stories and unique adventures but I never took the dive. There was something daunting about entering the franchise for me. For one, I have never been particularly knowledgeable about Japanese culture, something that seemed to seep out of every Yakuza screenshot I ever saw. The other major reason was a little more intangible. There was just something about the franchise that pushed me away, something the seemed to indicate that this series wasn’t for me.
But not long ago, thanks to a tasty price on the Humble Store, I decided it was time to give it a lash, time to put my scepticism aside and find out for myself what this franchise, so loved by so many, was all about. Booting up the game I couldn’t help but wonder “would I get it?” Would this just be another title in my ever-growing Steam games list that will sit there with an hour of playtime and no chance of ever getting completed? Would the inherent culture divide be too much for my Western brain to handle?
After just a short time with the game, the answer was already apparent. It was abundantly clear that Yakuza 0 was a very, very good game from the first chapter. From the opening exchanges between series star Kiryu and his sworn brother Nishki, I cared about their fate. The writing was just pitch-perfect, to care about the characters in such a way, so early on in a game was almost unprecedented for me. I was invested and I had barely scratched the surface of the 30-hour story. What was even more impressive was that the story maintained this level of quality for the entirety of its runtime. Playing two chapters as Kiryu and then switching to Goro Majima for another two was a stroke of genius. These two, seemingly separate stories wonderfully wove together and intersected as the game progressed, leaving me breathless, smiling and wiping away tears on many occasions. A simple tale about organised crime and key real estate became a drama of epic proportions, one that had more twists and turns than the entire history of The X-Files. Many nights I found myself heading to bed at some ridiculous hour because of my need to just find out what happened next. Sleep became a secondary consideration when put next to Majima and Kiryu’s dark adventure.
But for me, I think the game’s greatest achievement is that it doesn’t forget that it is a video game. So often in virtual worlds, if the story is dark and serious, the remainder of the game is as well. All that darkness brings you down and things have a tendency to get very bleak and dreary. Yakuza 0, however, embraces the inherent madness of Japanese culture and proves that a little (or a lot as the case may be) light in the darkness is a wonderful thing. Absurdity abounds and yet it never gets in the way of the serious parts. I played classic SEGA arcade games, impersonated John Travolta in the local disco and belted out some dodgy love songs at the local Karaoke bar and it never felt out of place or tacked on. It just added to this slightly strange, slightly surreal 1980’s setting that, in my experience, has never been represented in gaming previously.
I found my time in Yakuza 0 so refreshing and I know that is a strange way to put it, but it is absolutely true. I am a big fan of sprawling single-player titles, but they all certainly seem to follow a formula in one way or another. From Spider-man to Horizon: Zero Dawn to Assassin’s Creed, there is a common strand of DNA between all of these titles, a familiarity that makes them easy to consume but sometimes easy to forget. However, in the case of Yakuza 0, nothing felt familiar, nothing felt like I had experienced it before. Sure it is a (sort of) open-world 3rd person action game but that is where any similarities end. This is a game that had me, within the space of 30 minutes, rescuing a kidnapped girl, assisting a Dominatrix that was too shy for her job and providing solid tax advice to the government. Did I mention there is a creepy looking clown that hands out free stuff? It is mental, yet that is its appeal. I was experiencing wonders every time I turned the corner, every time I spoke to someone. There were new gaming experiences on every in-game street. Often, as a games writer, it is easy to feel a little jaded, a little cynical. Here is another open world, with another bunch of similar quests. This made my time in Yakuza 0 rejuvenating, wiping away that built-in cynicism and reminding me why video games are just so damn good.
That isn’t to say I didn’t have problems with the game. From a technical standpoint, there are things I don’t like and there is a certain amount of culture shock involved with some of the mini-games and NPC’s (Mr Libido and that strange, strange telephone club mini-game… what’s up with that?) but it is so easy to overlook the slightly clunky and slightly tasteless for the sublime main story, its wonderful gameplay and a totally unique experience. So, if you are like I was and feel a little daunted, a little scared about diving into Yakuza, I implore you to shake that feeling off, grab a copy of Yakuza 0 and let yourself be carried away by a title that forges its own path, a game that does things its own way and makes no apologies for it. If you can give it that chance, I promise you won’t regret it. Kiryu-san you have a new admirer and just like Goro Majima, I am keeping an eye on you from now on.