The Yakuza series has long been the Playstation’s worst-kept secret. Since the original Yakuza debuted on the PS2 in 2005, the series has gradually earned a reputation as one of the finest exclusives Sony has to offer, its notoriety slowly bleeding out of Japan into the Western consciousness like one of Yazkuza’s own goons after being on the receiving end of Kazuma Kiryu’s fists.
But the series is exclusive no longer, making its PC debut with Yakuza 0, which originally released in Japan in 2015 and landed in the UK late last year. Jake sank his teeth into the PlayStation version when it launched, but I was curious to see how well the game was adapted to the PC, along with offering a few of my own thoughts on the game in general.
Initially I was concerned that this would be a rudimentary port, mainly because upon launching the game, a splash screen appeared prior to the title menu which read, 'Real Yakuza use a gamepad.' This is misleading, because the game is perfectly playable using keyboard and mouse. There are a few minor drawbacks, the camera movement and controls still feel geared toward an analogue stick, which can make navigating the twisting streets of the games city districts a little disorienting. Also, playing minigames like karaoke is liable to give you hand-cramp, as the rhythm buttons are bizarrely bound to I, J, K, and L by default.
The key mapping can be altered in the game setting, however, so even if you find the controls idiosyncratic in places, you can alter them to suit. Also surprising is the range of visual options available. Yakuza 0’s PC port features support for 4k resolutions, while the advanced options allow you to tweak a bunch of more specific settings. These include texture, geometry, and shadow quality, alongside a couple of differing antialiasing settings, and support for render scaling.
What this gets you depends mostly on where you’re standing in Yakuza 0's luminescent adaptation of Tokyo’s Kabukicho district. Yakuza 0 is now three years old, and the Dragon engine upon which it is based is older still, so don’t expect the game to blow you away in terms of raw visual fidelity. Character animations can be a little stiff, and some of the finer details, like shop displays, look rather fuzzy. That being said, stylistically Yakuza 0 makes quite the impression, particularly at night, when Kamurocho and its Osaka equivalent Sotenbori is illuminated by hundreds of neon signs.
The upshot of all this is that Yakuza 0’s PC port is fine. Not stellar, but perfectly acceptable. As for the game itself, I find myself in equal parts fascinated and frustrated by it. There are times when Yakuza 0 is brilliant. The story is gripping, the combat system is phenomenal, and the side-missions are wonderfully bonkers. But I also feel like all these elements aren’t particularly well woven together, while the game also rides roughshod over many of my pet-peeves.
As hinted by the title, Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the 2005 original (which has since been remade as Yakuza Kiwami, arriving on PC later this year). Its story alternates between the intertwining tales of low-level Yakuza thug Kirya Kazuma, and reluctantly e-Yakuza Goro Majima. Primarily, the tale revolves around a place called the Empty Lot, a patch of land that you’d struggle to fit a transit-van inside, hidden within the overdeveloped sprawl of the pleasure district Kamurocho. This land is the lynchpin in a multi-billion-Yen redevelopment opportunity, and thus is hotly coveted by several factions including the Yakuza.
Both Kiryu and Goro end up hopelessly embroiled in the ensuing conflict, in a tale that is twisty, compelling, and elaborate to a fault. The opening chapter in and of itself would happily serve as the story for an entire film, providing a complete arc of hard-nosed opening, mid-story twist, explosive action finale, and grisly, bittersweet ending. The game’s cutscenes are opulent and exhaustive, while the in-game dialogue sequences make The Witcher 3 look terse by comparison.
Because of the way it is structured, my interest in Yakuza’s story ebbed and flowed. I’d find myself becoming distracted during the meandering mid-sections of each chapter, with sub-stories and unnecessarily protracted quests interrupting its progress. Then in the final third of the chapter, Yakuza would suddenly twist the knife, and I’d be instantly hooked again as the stakes suddenly ratcheted up multiple notches. It helps that the characters are elegantly drawn too. Kiryu is reminiscent of Geralt, in some ways, a man who chooses his words carefully and can walk every bit of his minimal talk. He’s a bit less fun, I have to say, although the ridiculous circumstances he often finds himself in help make up for that lack of wry wit.
Outside of the story, the twin open worlds of Kamurocho and Osaka’s Sontenbori districts offer plentiful distractions, including over one hundred side-quests that act as light-hearted palette cleansers to the main plot’s narrative feast. They’re often very silly, but they can be surprisingly layered. One sees you trying to recover a video-game stolen from a young boy. But when you catch the thief, it turns out someone stole the game from him, and so on in a weird chain of meta-thievery that has a genuinely heart-warming ending.
Alongside this is a whole cluster of side-activities. Some of these are highly lucrative, such as real-estate management. Others are purely there for fun, such as the Guitar Hero-esque karaoke minigame. There are also a few less savoury ones, such as video-rental places that basically let you watch softcore porn, and an underground cat-fighting ring where you can bet on bouts between scantily-clad Japanese girls.
Yakuza’s attitude towards women is generally pretty suspect. One could argue much of it is aligned with the game’s core theme, which is an intelligent examination of the hedonism and excess that preceded the 1991 Japanese financial crash. Kamurocho is entirely dedicated to superficial pleasures, a whirlwind of drinking and gambling, of cabaret bars and hostess clubs and discos and strip-joints. Money is both everything and nothing in this place. You spend it to upgrade your abilities, and use it to distract enemies by throwing wads of cash into the air. I particularly like the notion of all these gangs fighting tooth and nail over literal empty space, which is splendidly satirical. When it comes to the depiction of women, however, at best I would say Yakuza 0 is having its cake and eating it.
Most of what you’ll do outside of talking to people, however, is punching them. Although Yakuza 0 resembles an open-world game, at heart it’s an arcade fighter with a grown-up story. Luckily, this isn’t a problem, because the combat is superb. Its simple control scheme of light attacks, heavy attacks, and throws belies a system with a massive amount of depth and flexibility. Each character has multiple fighting styles and a whole roster of moves to unlock, and even more to learn from other characters in the world.
It’s also wince-inducingly brutal and, at times, hilariously daft. Kiryu’s fists slam into enemies with bone-crunching force, while you can pick up many objects in the environment and use them to trigger devastating special moves. I once knocked an enemy out by picking up a salt-seller and pouring the contents into his eyes, which is joint-favourite alongside smashing an opponent to the ground with a moped. It’s cracking stuff.
All that said, I can’t deny there were times when I was praying for the current 20-minute cutscene to end, or skipping through entire conversations of exhaustive dialogue. In some ways, Yakuza 0 falls victim to its own theme, a game about excess that itself doesn’t seem to know when to stop. Meanwhile, the open world is vividly drawn and stuffed full of content, but outside of the combat, much of it amounts to little more than a distraction, and the game doesn’t have quite enough systemic depth to support the open-world format. If you’re willing to make the investment, then Yakuza 0 delivers some superb action and storytelling. But the investment it requires is substantial, and there are times when it will test your patience.
April 12 2021 | 14:00