I've never played a Yakuza game, but several people have told me over the years that I really should try one, so when Sega offered me an advance copy of the new Yakuza 0 for the Sony PlayStation 4, I figured I'd expand my horizons and give it a shot. I'd always assumed that Yakuza was a "Grand Theft Auto in Japan" sort of game, perhaps a cousin to Sleeping Dogs on the dark side of the law, but as I play the game I find that it's really more of an interactive movie with action scenes which gives it a unique flair. It's certainly different from what I was expecting. It has a twisted sense of dark humor about itself, throwing innocuous objectives up on the screen with a crash as if they were the most important mission in the history of the world ("FIND A PAY PHONE"). When I gained the ability to pick up objects scattered around and use them in fights, I went looking for trash cans to lob at enemies and instead wound up using salt as a finishing move. I can tell that Yakuza 0 is going to be a game that subverts my expectations, and since I have no history with the series, I thought it would be fun to share my observations and insights about the game with you as I play through it. No single long review this time. We're going back to basics with this one with recurring check-ins over the next few weeks.
I've spent most of Chapter 1 being introduced to the characters and their world of 1988. The "0" in the title clues me in that this is a prequel, but if there are fun references and easter eggs referring to the other games in the series, I'm not even aware of them. Instead I've been paying attention to the plight of Kazuma Kiryu, a low-level yakuza who has been shaking down debtors who have flaked on their payments. Kiryu's most recent beatdown victim shows up on TV the next day as a homicide victim, but Kiryu isn't the killer. Since he did beat the living hell out of the guy though, he's the main suspect. His yakuza bosses have ordered him to turn himself into the police to protect the family, but he's having none of it. Kiryu knows he's been framed and is going to get out of this mess. Of course, it turns out that one of his bosses is behind the conspiracy. There's also some business dealings about a plot of land that everyone wants to acquire running behind the scenes which is tied to the murder.
There's a lot to unpack here, so most of my time is spent watching the cut scenes with occasional beatdowns of punks and delinquents in between. The parts of the game that I expected to follow the open world sandbox model instead fence me in to small streets and alleys. No free roaming here. When the game says to find a pay phone, there's really not much else to do besides find that pay phone (and it's not far away). I want to clear Kiryu's name, but I have a feeling it won't be so easy and I'll be betrayed several times before it's all over. Worse yet, I'll have to sing karaoke in a button-mashing rhythm mini-game, too.
I also spent a little time following one of Kiryu's friends around Tokyo's alleyways. Unlike Assassin's Creed and other games where I have to follow a NPC character who moves so much slower than I do, Yakuza 0 allows me to just hold the R2 button to keep a relaxed, steady pace with the other character. It's much appreciated as I was expecting to do that little running dance where I get slightly ahead of the NPC and the game warns me that I'm out of range and am about to fail the mission. I was free to hold the button and concentrate on reading the dialogue in the text boxes.
For completeness's sake, here's Kiryu slamming salt into a drunkard's eyes. Until next time, stay down!