Allow me – if you will – a quick anecdote. I was recently at a Periphery gig the night that X019 held its biggest ever Inside Xbox, but in between the support act and the main band, I did sneak a peek at what had been announced. I had been anticipating a Yakuza release on Xbox for some time, but seeing the announcement officially was the best thing I heard all evening. And while Periphery were excellent, I was just incredibly excited to finally have the series on Xbox. And if it sounds immature that a 30 year old man can still get childishly giddy about a videogame then I don’t care – the Yakuza series is simply that good.
The Yakuza series debuted on Western shores in 2006 for the PlayStation 2, featuring an impressive voice cast including Michael Madsen, Alan Dale and Mark Hamill. Sadly, the English dub wasn’t well received, and subsequent releases have all featured the Japanese audio only. Yet, despite all mainline entries releasing in the West, the series remained largely unknown, until the release of Yakuza 0 which saw the series hit the big time away from the land of the rising sun.
The Yakuza franchise is built on a number of pillars, features that are what the series has become known for: gritty Japanese crime drama with plenty of twists and turns, a deep and rich beat ‘em up style, small but incredibly detailed depictions of Japanese locations, more minigames than there are hours in the day, and some of the most bizarre and ‘out there’ side quests you will ever come across. To give you a taste of what is to come for Xbox owners with the debut of the series through Xbox Game Pass, we will look at these pillars one by one.
Yakuza 0 released in the West on 24th January 2017 and was in fact a prequel to everything that had come before it, representing a perfect place for new fans to jump in, myself included. Set in 1988 – when real-life Japan was experiencing an economic boom – the story centres around series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu and another playable character called Goro Majima; more on him later.
Kiryu has been the centre of the franchise since its inception. A member of the Tojo Yakuza clan, he is best described as a gentle giant, only using his fists when absolutely necessary. Sadly though, for those that cross him, he just happens to be very good at combat. In Yakuza 0, Kiryu finds himself at the centre of an internal yakuza conflict over the ownership of a small area of land known as ‘The Empty Lot’. Whoever can find the deed to that land has been promised a promotion to second-in-command of the Dojima family – one of the many sub-factions of the Tojo Clan – but it just so happens that the man Kiryu was collecting money from has been found dead on The Empty Lot, making him prime suspect and subjecting him to a lot of questions.
Whilst all this is going on, the other playable character, Goro Majima – a former yakuza exiled from the Tojo Clan – is given a second chance at re-joining the clan if he assassinates a woman by the name of Makoto Makimura. After hearing why she is being hunted down though, Majima goes out of his way to protect her.
All this plot is found within the first few hours of the game and takes on many twists and turns in the following hours. The two characters may not know the other one exists at this stage, but their stories are on a collision course straight into each other.
Plenty of enemies stand in your way before you can get near to any sort of conclusion. Yakuza may be an open-world game – albeit a small but densely packed one – but danger lurks around every street corner and you could be whisked into a fight at almost every opportunity. Yakuza features combat-heavy gameplay with a 3D beat ‘em up style, almost a spiritual successor to the Shenmue games. Both Kiryu and Majima have a variety of fighting styles at their disposal that can be honed in on and upgraded using the fighting masters you will meet on your journey. Each fighting style suits a particular situation too: for groups of enemies it’s worth going with Kiryu’s fast hitting Rush style or Majima’s Breaker style (which sees him unleash a fury of attacks all whilst breakdancing), but against single enemies different styles are much more suited.
Yakuza 0 splits its time between two cities: both are on the smaller side in terms of other ‘open-world’ games, but you will struggle to find a more detailed and densely packed environment. First up is Kamurocho, a fictional city based on the real-world city of Kabukichō, famous for being an entertainment and red-light district. This area has featured in every single Yakuza game and is as pivotal to the franchise as, say, the city of Baltimore is to TV show The Wire. The other city featured in Yakuza 0 is Sotenbori, which is again based on a real-world location, this time Dōtonbori in Osaka.
A lot can be said about how well they have recreated the real-world environments, but this video does a perfect job comparing the two:
These two areas do an amazing job of filling the world with life. The streets are full of pedestrians, and lights and sounds come from almost every single door – many of which can be entered – and you will never be short of things to see and do. Early hours in the game do restrict where you can access, but once the game fully opens up you will be spoilt for choice.
Many of those NPCs you brush past will also want to converse with you – those that don’t want to start a fight with you anyways. Yakuza has a strong tradition of substories where NPCs request the help of Kiryu and Majima, and 0 is no exception. Standout examples in Yakuza 0 include:
- How to Train Your Dominatrix – A rather shy dominatrix requires training on what to say and do in order to perform better
- The Shrink-wrapped Dream – A kid asks Kiryu to help him retrieve a naughty magazine from a vending machine
- Maharaja Showdown – An actual dance-off in a nightclub
- Miracle on Tenkaichi Street – Escort a popstar named Miracle Johnson down a street that is also infested with zombies
- Disciple of the New Order – Infiltrate a religious cult and help a mother rescue her daughter
- Toilet Talk – Strike up a conversation through the use of graffiti with another, unknown, public toilet user
- Calling the Future – A stranger has a portable telephone strapped to his waist but requires a battery to operate it
These are just a few of the 100 substories that appear in Yakuza 0, and the short descriptions should give you a sense of the humour that is also involved within the game. There is also a collectible aspect to them, as there is a real joy in finding a new substory and watching it unfold in front of your eyes. But don’t expect to find them all quickly; after some 80 hours into the PS4 version I still had only uncovered just over half of them. This may have been as a result of the stacks of minigames on offer to provide yet further distraction.
It’s best to go into Yakuza 0 with the expectation that, in between running from plot point A to plot point B, something will catch your eye and next thing you know a few hours have passed and that takoyaki you were supposed to be keeping warm for someone has gone cold. Typically, the thing that draws your attention away will be a minigame in some shape or form. It could be one of the SEGA arcades where you can play full versions of Fantasy Zone, Out Run, Space Harrier and Super Hang-On, or it could be the bowling alley, the batting cage, the casino, a fishing spot, the bar to play darts, karaoke or the gambling den to name but a few locales. It is ridiculous in the best way possible as to how many things you can do in Yakuza 0.
Some minigames also feature branching narratives and are tied into several substories. Really, the ‘mini’ in minigames is doing them a huge disservice. Early on for Kiryu, you will unlock Pocket Circuit, a track racing game similar to Scalextric or Mini 4WD where, by collecting and upgrading your car using the variety of parts on offer, you must win all the races. The real challenge comes in finding the best parts as they are often found in more obscure places and shops in Kamurocho.
Even this extensive minigame pales in comparison to two specific ones. Each character has a unique sidequest that unlocks around a quarter of the way through the game.
Kiryu’s is fun, allowing you to become a real estate mogul and topple the five heads of each district, but Majima’s Hostess Club management game is perhaps the most addictive minigame out there. It follows a similar plot to the real estate minigame in that you must defeat five rival hostess clubs, but this is a much more hands-on affair. Hostess girls can be recruited from the streets of Sotenbori and then you pick the most suitable girls for the situation – each girl has unique stats and proficiencies. Then the fun begins; as guests arrive with their specific needs you assign them a girl at their booth and watch the money come rolling in. The more money, the faster the Fever Time bar fills up. Unleashing this puts all the customers into the happiest state, and the happier they are the more money they spend.
But these hostess girls aren’t simply there to earn you money. Majima does a fantastic job of getting to know each one individually through a series of one-on-one meetings where you can learn more about them, whilst also levelling them up. There is incredible depth even in this one minigame, putting some full releases to shame.
These are just the main pillars for the franchise, but Yakuza is so much more than these. I’ve barely touched on the fantastic soundtracks that accompany each game, the surprising amount of customisation, the collectibles that reveal the seedier – but equally as hilarious – side of Yakuza and just the humour in general. The flip between gritty crime drama to bizarre and absurd moments took me by surprise when I first played it, but it works in a way that simply needs to be experienced yourself.
We still don’t know the release schedule for the incoming Yakuza games, but hopefully it is very soon. And I also hope this preview of Yakuza 0 has whet your appetite for what is a very special game. Between this, Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza Kiwami 2, where do you plan on starting? I’d say Yakuza 0 is the obvious choice, but there is a valid argument for starting with Yakuza Kiwami first, and then coming back to this one. Either way, let us know in the comments which one you will be tackling first!
Edit: Yakuza 0 will be coming to Xbox One on Feb 26th 2020.