This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Yakuza 0.

Transcript Edit

It's official: the Yakuza series is now the long-running Yakuza series. There's quite a few of them now, and this month saw the release of its long-awaited zeroth installment, Yakuza 0, a prequel in which we discover how Kazuma Kiryu went from being a sharp-dressed man with a brick for a face who likes disco-stomping people into a sharp-dressed man with a brick for a face who likes disco-stomping people in a slightly different suit. We also learn how fan-favorite series regular Goro Majima went from being a sharp-dressed man with a brick for a face who likes disco-stomping people into a boggle-eyed weirdo who dresses like he woke up naked in the pet cemetery.

And frankly, I'm a little disappointed, 'cos I was hoping we'd have the opportunity to learn where Kazuma Kiryu got his ideas about what members of organized crime families do all day, because he doesn't seem to think it involves committing crimes. I mean, when Kiryu sees gangsters shaking down passersby for cash, his first instinct is to polish his shoes with their nose cartilage. Kiryu, that's what you're supposed to be doing, you giant prat! I mean, what's the baseline Yakuza activity? Extorting money from local businesses, right? Well, Kiryu spends a lot of time in Yakuza 0 handing out large sums of money to local businesses. Fucking hell, man! On your first day, did they accidentally play the induction video in reverse?

I am fond of the Yakuza games, but honestly, I have trouble articulating why, which is a shame, 'cos that's me fucking job. Yeah, the combat makes you want to squirt with glee every time a very serious-faced man in an expensive suit violently suplexes another serious-faced man in an expensive suit into a mailbox, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a game model packed with more superfluous bullshit. In between the harrowing plot about deception, betrayal, murder, and conspiracy, we are invited to potter about, playing with fucking skill tester machines and trying to eat every meal at every restaurant, which is classic 100% completion bullshit because there's no gameplay or extra content involved. Whatever you order, all you'll get is a two-second cutscene of our man hunched over his dinner, with his back to camera, so he could be dining on the contents of his nasal cavity, for all we know.

It's certainly unique, and I get a flutter of nostalgia every time I hit the familiar streets of Kamurocho again, but by Christ, do these games bang on! 90% of the bloody plot is cutscenes of intense, understated conversation, and there's about twelve different varieties of it. Sometimes it's text-only, sometimes it's voiced but you can still skip the lines, sometimes you can't skip the lines and all the characters talk with their mouths closed for some reason, and every now and again, they're doing a fully-animated cutscene so you can really appreciate the sheer nanoseconds of work that must have gone into animating Kazuma Kiryu's facial expressions.

But at the end of the day, I always come away satisfied from a Yakuza game once I push through to the end, probably because they backload all the dramatic car chases and inevitable shirtless punch-ups in the second half, and it's the incredibly slow-paced buildup in the first half that tries my patience. Maybe it's the "Elite: Dangerous Principle": the occasional disco-stomping spaceship battle is all the more enjoyable when they're spaced out by huge expanses of the black, cavernous void of pachinko parlors and people making very serious faces at each other.

Still, I'd be the first to admit that the games do get kind of samey, even beyond the fact that they all take place in the same four or five blocks of downtown Tokyo. They usually start with a murder, of which odds are good someone we like will get falsely accused, we proceed to pick apart the threads of a scheme to take over the Yakuza so convoluted that the Riddler would suggest toning it down a bit, and there'll be a female character we have to protect because they've been victimized by the bad guys to a point that borders on fetishistic.

In Yakuza 0's case, Kiryu is accused of murdering someone he merely disco-stomped six or seven times (which he couldn't possibly have died from, because this is Yakuza, where everyone's face is carved from antique wooden furniture), so he's forced to leave the Yakuza and become an estate agent, the kind of estate agent that dresses up in a disco suit and resolves tenancy disputes by stomping groups of four or five serious-faced men. Meanwhile, Majima is being punished for past fuck-ups by being given a glamorous high-end nightclub to manage - Fuck, better toe the line, Majima, mate; next time, they might punish you with a key to the executive toilet! - until he's ordered to kill someone and ends up trying to protect them, since he's also a bit unclear on this whole "organized crime" thing.

And so begins another contrived dance of twists, wrong turns, and growly discussions broken up every five minutes by four or five angry, overconfident men getting decanted into the room from the inexhaustible supply for the sake of token combat. On which note, what's new is that both playable characters can switch between three different combat styles on the fly: one fast, one strong, one pansy-ass in-betweeny middle ground for all you ineffectual saps out there. But Yakuza combat has never been particularly sophisticated, and I got through the whole game pretty much only using strong-style combat just to prove I could. Majima's combat in particular was a cake walk, 'cos his strong style gets a permanent fuck-off baseball bat and the nunchaku twirl combo that I used to spam my way through every boss fight, 'cos all the motherfuckers could do was stand there violently nodding their heads, like my baseball bat was confirming all their extreme political views. I only ever died in combat in the last few random fights when the motherfuckers have guns, which are really hard to dodge and make you roll around on the floor like a cat with a piece of duct tape on its back.

The other new mechanics are weirdly financially-focused, but then, it is set in the 80's, and I was surprised that at no point do we use the cell phones of the time as bludgeoning weapons. Kiryu has to run his real estate enterprise by buying up local businesses, another in a long list of 100% completion collectible sidequests, made slightly more obnoxious because there's no way of knowing which businesses you can buy until you run up and press your face against the window, and if there's one or two left you haven't bought, the game has no way to tell you where the fucking things are, so I have to run up and down the street leaving a greasy smear all along the frontage. Meanwhile, Majima has to run a cabaret club with one of those restaurant management casual games that your mom likes almost as much as living next door to the dockyard, which isn't the kind of thing I want to do in a disco-stomping crime thriller, but you know what? You could say that about the vast majority of the content of a Yakuza game, and they just wouldn't be the same without it.

So my final word is, it's another Yakuza game, long-winded and weirdly hilarious in a way that only a scowling, hardened gangster attempting a neon-colored dancing minigame can be: long periods of dull, if weirdly comforting, mundanity broken up by occasional reminders of why we're putting up with it, like a water slide connecting two floors of a DMV office.

Addenda Edit

  • Child of the 80's: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
  • When you think about it life in general is like a skill tester machine programmed to have a 10% success rate
  • Yes I am aware my Japanese pronunciation sucks ass
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