Honestly, Kazuma Kiryu has never seemed the sort. Strong willed, kind hearted and deferential, this is a man who treats others as he would like to be treated himself – but, as we discover in a seedy downtown building, sometimes he really likes to treat himself. Here, in a series first, you can watch what the in-game text describes as ‘erotic videos’. As a CRT screen fades to black after a minute-long, live-action video of a bikini-clad model simpering on a bed while surrounded by balloon animals, we hear a relieved sigh from Kiryu, and the camera pans away from the TV, lingering on the box of tissues next to it. The Yakuza series has long had woman trouble, with its damsels and sex objects, but never has it been so overtly mucky.
There are similarly embarrassing thrills to be had elsewhere. At TelTel Boys Club, you make flirtatious dialogue choices to gradually bring into focus a blurry CG girl writhing lasciviously in her underwear, culminating in you asking her out on a date. At the underground club Vincent, you can bet on fights between girls whose proportions and state of undress would make even Team Ninja blush. Over in Osaka, secondary protagonist Goro Majima can recruit girls off the street, dressing and making them over as he sees fit before putting them to work in his cabaret club.
If we’re being kind, perhaps there’s a narrative justification for all this. Yakuza 0 is, as its name implies, a prequel; Kiryu is barely 20, Majima just four years his senior. No doubt the fires in their loins burned a little brighter back in the late ’80s, and thwacking a nearendless stream of bad guys wasn’t quite enough to work through all that surplus testosterone. Either way, Yakuza
0’ s seamier elements are, at least, avoidable, and there are plenty of other distractions off the critical path.
That’s putting it mildly, in fact. A subtle tweak to series conventions sees side-stories and activities brought into the foreground somewhat; you’ll turn a corner on your way to your next objective and be stopped by a pedestrian in need of help, rather than needing to seek them out. When, as Kiryu, we’re told by a group of homeless men that they’ll only give us the information we need if we buy them a specific round of drinks – each hobo wanting something different, requiring trips to several shops – our journey sees us strike up a surprise friendship with a convenience-store clerk, help a boy who’s just been mugged for his copy of a hot new videogame, fill in as a producer on a TV shoot in a restaurant, then stop off for an arcade-perfect game of OutRun on the way back. As Majima, we’re told we have two days to carry out a hit or we’ll become the target. Minutes later we’re infiltrating a cult to rescue the daughter of a nice lady we just met in the park.
You can always say no, but you never will – and this time it’s not just because you’re roleplaying, as Kiryu, one of the nicest men in videogames (and as Majima before he became the punchable basket case of other games in the series). Now, reaching certain progression milestones awards you Completion Points, which can be exchanged at a city shrine for buffs, moves, items and abilities. As ever, completing these likeably bonkers side-stories is reward enough in itself, but now there’s a mechanical reward for helping out the troubled denizens of Kamurocho and Sotenbori. There are tweaks elsewhere, too, but none is so transformative as the overhaul of the combat system. Yakuza 0’ s dual-protagonist setup seems, on paper, like a step backwards, given the series’ recent habit of stuffing the game with multiple playable characters, each with a different fighting style. The solution is to give Kiryu and Majima three styles each, switchable in realtime using the D-pad. Kiryu has his classic Brawler style, but can also use Rush, which sees his attack speed build with successive hits, and grants him a succession of flighty dashes, or Beast, in which he picks up nearby weapons and can absorb most of the damage from incoming blows. Majima has his default Thug style, but Slugger gives him access to a baseball bat, while Breaker lets him deploy strings of blows using moves taught to him by a local breakdancing crew. It’s an unprecedented level of flexibility for the series, and means combat is often as much about finding the right tool for the job as it is about mashing buttons. Key combat encounters have been designed around it – bosses in multiple phases, for instance, prompting a switch in style – building to a climax where Kiryu must fight three foes at once, each using one of his own movesets against him.
Such steps forward may seem at odds with the time period, but that late-’80s setting is put to brilliant use in the story. Within minutes, young Kiryu is framed for a murder and quits the yakuza to clear his name; when we meet Majima, who is running a cabaret to repay his bosses for a scandal that saw him expelled from the clan, he’s quickly told to carry out a hit. At the centre of it all is a girl and a tiny scrap of land, both being sought urgently by conflicting factions in a good oldfashioned gangland power struggle. But every face you meet is new, a blank slate even if you recognise them from other games. This is a reboot in the truest sense.
Casting off five games’ worth of backstory – recent Yakuza games have begun with the option to recap the story so far in lengthy, newcomer-baffling cinematics – means this is a tale free of the bloat and baggage that has made each new instalment in this wonderful but complex series hard to recommend to anyone but established fans. Well, no longer. With Yakuza Kiwami, a hitherto Japan-only remake of Kiryu’s first PS2 outing, finally coming to the west this summer, there’s never been a better time to jump into a series that’s quite unlike anything else around.
Such steps forward may seem at odds with the time period, but that late-’80s setting is put to brilliant use in the story