We all hate waiting for that next big game to come out, seeing its release date getting pushed back repeatedly.
However, what if I was to tell you that you don’t need to wait? What if I was tell you that your new favourite series was here all along?
Yakuza is that series. A long running series that stayed under most Western gamers’ radars for more than a decade. Its a miracle that the series survived this long in the west considering how difficult a road its been to find a home for it over here. But with a series that is very story focused with deep continuity, its no wonder newcomers would be put off once they find out that there is 6 numbered sequels and countless spin offs.
What the Yakuza series really needed was a jumping on point.
Enter 2017, a year Yakuza fans will never forget. 2017 was the year that Sega blessed us with Yakuza 0, a prequel to the series, a game which welcomed newcomers. (although not literally like Final Fantasy xv).
No one saw Yakuza 0 being the Goliath hit that it was, but its success has led to Sega smartly following up Yakuza 0’s release with Yakuza Kiwami, Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami 2.
It’s safe to say that the Yakuza series is here to stay.
Yakuza 0? Yakuza Kiwami 1 & 2? Yakuza 6??? Where should I start? What order should I play ?
Without prior knowledge about the series its easy to be intimidated when you look at the list of games that come under the Yakuza banner. I say ignore all of these other titles for now and start with Yakuza 0. Yakuza 0 is not only the most ideal place to start story-wise, its also widely regarded as the best game in the series.
Yakuza 0 will introduce you to all the characters at their earliest points in the plot, it also has the added bonus of being set in the 80’s.
What type of game is it? Is it GTA in Japan?
I discovered the Yakuza series after finishing Sleeping Dog’s definitive edition and needed something to fill the void. At first glance, Yakuza 0 looked like an ideal replacement, as I expected it to be a GTA style game but with Yakuza.
But I couldn’t have been further from the truth!
Yakuza 0 plays nothing like GTA, if anything, its closest gaming relative is the Shenmue series. Shenmue was infamous for its attention to detail, its mini games, quick time events, focus on story and exploring the real world locations that surround you. Yakuza also has a lot of these features.
But does this mean Yakuza feels like a Shenmue clone? Definitely not! Although fans of Shenmue may finds lots to enjoy in Yakuza 0, this does not mean its just a re-skinned Shenmue game. Yakuza plays and feels like its own thing, everything from characters to combat to tone is completely different.
So why should I play it?
No story is complete without strong likable characters, and you don’t get any stronger and more likable than Kiryu. At first Kiryu might seem like just a one note character who always does the right thing, but there is something oddly charming and likable about his simplicity. I think it might be a case where Kiryu looks like a thug and the game constantly reminds you of this by the public constantly fearing and judging him by appearance. So when you know that this scary looking man has a heart of gold you cant help but love the guy. I’m sure fans of My Love story anime will be able to understand this, as Kiryu is very similar to the lovable but oafish Takeo. You never quite get tired of seeing Kiryu rushing in to do the right thing, especially if the right thing is to kick some gangster butt.
Kiryu is also our primary focus throughout the series, but the series isn’t afraid to add new playable characters to the mix, which really helps to keep things interesting.
In Yakuza 0 you will also play as Majima, who couldn’t be more different to Kiryu. He is a much more tragic character that you can’t help but love for different reasons. Majima also falls more into the grey area of morals, as not far into the game he is willing to kill someone to get on the path to do what he thinks is the right thing. He is a much more complex character yet still has a conscience and is a fan favourite.
Yakuza 0 is filled to the brim with twists and turns, shocks and tragedies. It often feels like your playing a 30-40 hour crime drama movie or a season of your favourite HBO series. There are just so many characters that all play a part in the ongoing narrative, its exciting to see it all unfold. Also with the added help of such likable protagonists and villains you love to hate, you just can’t help but enjoy the ride.
I can’t vouch for the whole series but I do feel there is a lot of payoff for future games once you’ve played Yakuza 0, especially Yakuza kawami. Anyway, the less said about the plot the better, just know your getting one of the best plots of the series.
The evolution of the beat n up genre
Yakuza 0’s combat is very reminiscent of the beat n up genre. I admit this worried me when I first started playing because as much as I love traditional beat ’em up games, they really only work in short play-throughs, which is why they were a perfect fit for arcades. If a beat n up game is going to have a 30-40 hour playtime, then you’ve got to work extra hard to keep things from getting stale.
Thankfully, Yakuza 0 does by providing a deep and interesting story, an excellent combat system and the freedom to take a break from the combat to explore the city, play mini games and complete side quests (more on this in later).
Yakuza 0’s combat is far from shallow and does a lot to avoid getting repetitive. Both Majima and Kiryu have 4 distinct combat styles for you to bounce between if you start to get bored of one. Also, as you start to earn money, you will be able to purchase new moves and improvements to expand your skills.
One of the best combat features is the heat system which you will use to pull off a mix of beautifully animated special moves. The special moves really show off the brutality of the street fights with Kiryu slamming peoples heads against walls or stamping on their head when they are down.
A classic feature from beat n up games is being able to pick things up around you and use them as a weapon. However, Yakuza 0 takes this to overdrive by letting you pick up anything, including knifes, baseball bats, bins, guns, traffic cones, bicycles and even motorbikes!
Explore real life cities in Japan
Yakuza o isn’t afraid to give you some downtime to explore the city and everything it has to offer. This is a great way to give you a much needed break from combat. Downtime is essential as I feel it would wear out its welcome quite fast if we jumped from one story-driven battle to the other without a moment to breath.
The downtime was actually one of the big draws for me buying the game. Yakuza o also acts as a life simulator as you get to explore the Kamurocho (a fictionalized version of Tokyo’s Shinjuku) and Sotenbori ( a fictionalized version of Osaka’s Dotenbori) and check out the attractions of the city (baseball, host clubs, bars, convenience stores, arcades and more). Those of you who have visited Japan or want to visit Japan will love taking in the sights of real-life locations. One of my favourite moments while playing the game was when I arrived at a red gate, and to my surprise I realized I had been to this exact spot in real life and could map out the areas surrounding it.
Another thing I love about this series is how time isn’t static, characters age, the city changes and so does technology. It all helps to make the world that Yakuza is set in feel more lived in and more of a living breathing place that you could go visit.
Side Quests that you care about
While exploring the city you will notice a lot of rich content outside of the main game to explore. If you enjoy side quests then you’re in luck, the Yakuza series are famous for the generous amounts of side quests and know how to keep them interesting. Even someone like me who usually loathes side quests and sees it as just padding, couldn’t help enjoying the quirky side quests in Yakuza 0.
I realize now that my negative attitude to side quests comes from bad experiences with lazy side quests. Often the ones I played were unimaginative with trivial missions like find me this item etc. However, Yakuza 0’s side quests have a lot of variety and have a refreshing tone where they aren’t afraid to not take things too seriously. One minute I’ll be doing a mission where a man has lost his pants, next I’ll be asked to be a film producer, another I’m helping lady become a better dominatrix??? and so on. The wackiness of Yakuza 0’s side quests help lighten things up from the dark and serious tones of the main story.
Incredible character designs
Something that needs to be acknowledged is the incredible character designs that are brought to life in the beautifully animated cut scenes. All of the cast standout with distinctive features, especially the 3 captains of the Tojo clan. One look at these 3 men and you 100% believe that these are hardened and grizzled veterans of the crime syndicate that instantly make you feel like the rookie you are.
A lot for your money
Yakuza 0 kept me busy for over 45 hours! and that’s without making a dent on the countless side quests and mini games!
This is the game for you if like to be kept busy.
I really enjoyed Yakuza 0 what should I play next?
Sega has you covered with Yakuza Kiwami, which is a remake of the original Yakuza game on the PS2. If your worried it hasn’t aged well then you will be pleased to hear that this uses the Yakuza 0 game engine, and completely modernizes a lot of the more aged parts of the original. Although, expect a spike in difficulty with the boss battles.
Still hungry for more Yakuza? Then I have some good news. Yakuza Kawami 2 (remake of the 2nd Yakuza game on PS2) has been announced for the west just recently, with a release on the 28th August!
What about the rest of the series?
With the success of Ya Kawami, there is hope for at least a port for 3, 4 and 5 but currently the only way to play Ya 3, 4, 5 is on PS3 (5 is digital only sadly).
Ya 6 will be out on PS4 on the 17th April.
Screenshots/images © Sega; taken during from http://yakuza.sega.com/