Yakuza (AKA Like a Dragon) is a series that has been quite popular in Japan, but also has recently begun to gain traction in the west. It’s a very fascinating series, and I’m here to introduce it with the prequel that I think is an amazing way to get into the series!
GENRE: Japanese Life and Violence Simulator
GET IT HERE: https://store.steampowered.com/app/638970/Yakuza_0/
Yakuza is a game series that has often been given unfair standards to live up to thanks to reviewers who compare it to Grand Theft Auto, calling it “GTA In Japan” even though it has absolutely no true similarities to Grand Theft Auto in any way, shape or form. Honestly I find Yakuza a much better series and far more enjoyable to play than GTA, so to me the comparison comes off as an insult. But the point is you see this comparison thrown around a lot, and it is 100% inaccurate.
If I had to describe Yakuza as anything, I’d call it an open ended beat-em-up with RPG elements and a crime drama main story intermixed with a mixture of wacky and dead serious side stories to play through, and a ton of side activities on top of all this. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about how things start first, shall we?
Yakuza 0 (And most of the series) takes place in the fictional (but based on a real place) district of Kamurocho in Tokyo, Japan. It follows the tale of Kazuma Kiryu, orphan turned Yakuza who lives by a strict code of honor and mindset that honestly makes him a pretty terrible Yakuza/criminal (Terrible as in he’s a terrible choice for the job, his moral standards are too high), but he’s one of my favorite protagonists. He’s a young fledgling member of the Dojima Family, one of the biggest crime families in Tokyo that makes up the Tojo Clan, the alliance of crime families that rule Tokyo’s seedy criminal underworld. And since Yakuza 0 takes place in the 80s, which was a MASSIVE economic boom for Japan, money flows like water.
Despite this, some folks take on loans they can’t pay back, so Kiryu is asked to corner someone and get money for a loan shark who asked the Dojima Family to provide some muscle. It seems a simple enough job, rough a guy up, get the money he owes, deliver it back. And Kiryu does it, no problem. Except as he’s enjoying a night out afterwards with his sworn brother, the two find out Kiryu’s mark has been murdered where Kiryu beat the snot out of said mark. And apparently it was the worst place a murder could happen, a small empty lot that everybody in Kamurocho wants because it’s the last piece in a puzzle to doing a MASSIVE urban redevelopment of the area: Whoever owns it would be able to sell it for ridiculous amounts of money to said redevelopers, and the murder has made getting it that much harder.
Kiryu’s convinced he’s been set up, and so against the orders of his superiors in the Dojima family, he begins an investigation into who set him up so he can clear his name, as the victim was murdered with a gun, something Kiryu most certainly didn’t have on him at the time when he beat up the victim. But things go deeper, and get MUCH more complex..How so? Well, that’s up to you to find out. The story is one of the biggest draws of the Yakuza series, and there’s no way I’m spoiling anything beyond the opening premise I’ve given for him.
The other character Yakuza 0 focuses on is fan favorite Majima Goro, who has been around since the first Yakuza game (as 0 is a prequel made after the original), and we finally get to learn his origins in this title. Known as the “Lord of the Night” in Sotenbori, a district in the Osaka region of Japan, he runs a successful cabaret club that brings in customers and money like nothing else. He comes off as the most suave and smooth manager in the nightlife business, but the truth is…He hates it. Majima’s role as manager of Cabaret Grand is a punishment for a previous failure for his Yakuza family I won’t go into, and he’s absolutely loathing every moment he has to do it, despite his ability to put on the mask of a gentlemanly, charismatic manager while he’s on the clock. But then one of his old “friends” comes around, telling Majima that he can get back into the family’s good graces and be free of his punishment, all he has to do is find and kill someone. Much like Kiryu’s story, things go far beyond this simple job as both his and Kiryu’s stories begin to intertwine, with elements of both connecting despite our heroes not directly meeting each other for a long while.
What I will talk about first, however, is the biggest focus of Yakuza: Its brutal combat. A good chunk of Yakuza has you fighting all kinds of foes, from rival Yakuza men, to thugs looking to make a quick buck, to crazy cultists and uh…Really, there’s a lot of “interesting” folks in Kamurocho and Sotenbori, with Kiryu and Majima ready to punch the hell out of them all, among other things.
So let’s talk about the fighting then. Entering and exiting fights is done in a somewhat RPG-like manner. If hostile enemies see you, they’ll try to approach you, and if they get close enough, you’re locked into a battle with the area around you now blocked off by pedestrians watching the fight. If anything I guess the best comparison to make is Okami in terms of how you enter and exit fights, since you can’t just start swinging the moment you see an enemy, you have to actually enter battle with them first.
Once you’re in combat though, things get spicy, VERY spicy. At first, the combat seems simple enough: On offense, you have light and heavy attacks, as well as grabs and throws. On the defensive side, you have blocking and dodging. You can also grab and use plenty of objects in the environments such as signs, bikes, crates, pretty much anything that isn’t nailed down is a weapon you can wield. But there’s so much more waiting just below the surface of this game’s fighting thanks to one of the series’ signature mechanics: Heat. As you do damage and defeat enemies, you’ll build up a Heat meter that makes you stronger. As you take damage or fail to inflict it, the meter drops and you begin to lose these benefits. What makes Heat so interesting though is that it’s not just a “buff” meter, but also a resource meter for using the game’s devastating Heat Actions. Heat Actions are numerous and varied, with all of them having a special condition to activate. Some simple examples: Grabbing an enemy and holding them against a wall, carrying a large object such as a trashcan, or having the enemy near a guardrail are just a few situations that open up Heat Actions. And Heat Actions are where the raw brutality of this game’s combat becomes apparent. Why just punch someone when you could bring them up to a nearby car, open the back door, shove their head onto the seat, then SLAM the door on them? Or maybe shatter their pelvis by smashing it into a guard rail while their legs are doing the splits? And then there’s the weapons, oh my god the weapons. Taking an entire bicycle and just *smashing* it into someone’s face for example. And there’s plenty of good old fashioned options like bashing someone’s head into a wall repeatedly. Stomping them into the curb. And every heat action uses cinematic camera work to really drive home their impact, and boy do they feel impactful. Plenty of Heat Actions have me wincing in pain out of sympathy for the victim, but it doesn’t stop me from doing them because of the immensely brutal, yet satisfying element they provide to the game’s combat.
That said, Yakuza 0 took it up another notch because a lot of what I described has been a standard in Yakuza for a while now, so how did 0 take things even further? Styles, that’s how. Both Kiryu and Majima start out with a balanced fighting style that befits them: Brawler for Kiryu, Thug for Majima. But as you progress, our heroes gain access to new fighting styles. In Kiryu’s case, he gains the incredibly fast Rush style that focuses on rapid combos and quick evasions to dish out a non stop barrage of quick hits while making sure not to take any himself, and then later on the Beast style which focuses primarily on grappling and hard, devastating hits that are meant to sweep through groups, preferably with a weapon as Beast is able to seamlessly grab and swing environmental weapons in a single move. Majima on the other hand gains the Breaker style which is all about break-dance moves that keep him mobile and can easily dispatch a crowd, and the Slugger style which breaks out his signature baseball bat to let him do some hard hitting attacks that tend to work best at bringing down a single target, but has some group utility too. Each of these styles has its own moveset, its own Heat Actions, and most importantly, you can swap between them freely in combat as the situation warrants. This makes the combat in Yakuza 0 incredibly fun and varied, as you have so many different ways to beat down your enemies, you’ll just want to experiment and try everything as you find out what works best for you. There’s also special fighting styles you can unlock for each character based on their signature fighting styles down the line, but these will take some work to get, though they are incredibly satisfying to use if you can get them.
Honestly, between the styles, all the ways you can use the environment, heat actions, weapons you can craft like katanas and the like, and the raw brutality of it all, nevermind the fact money goes flying EVERYWHERE as you beat people up (Again, 80s economic boom), the combat in Yakuza 0 is never dull. Fights are always a delight, even if it’s just some random thugs, because you know you’re about to wreck them in a visual spectacle that emphasizes the satisfying brutality of a street fight. Another thing that makes fights stand out in Yakuza is that you have three kinds of fights, and I like to refer to them as such:
The Random Encounters: Fights that can happen any time, anywhere. You just run into a group of folks who want to beat you up for some reason, and so you throw down. These make up the majority of Yakuza’s fights, but the fact fighting is so fun makes encounters of this sort something to enjoy rather than a chore.
The Setpiece Brawls: My favorite fights in Yakuza 0 next to the bosses, to be quite honest. At major story points of the game, you will get into large fights that progress not unlike a beat-em-up, where you fight through a large setpiece of some kind, advancing between fights as you fight waves of enemies in each one. These often have you fighting your way through a large section of streets, a building, and usually involve unique events as well that you won’t see in a regular brawl such as unique attack cinematics. They take everything already good about Yakuza’s fighting, and turn it up to 11.
The Bosses: The ultimate test of your fighting skills. While some bosses may have backup, the best ones tend to be 1v1 battles that will be all about learning the ins and outs of your foe and their moveset as you find openings to exploit, unique heat actions to pull off for extra damage, and QTEs that will result in some crazy fighting choreography. And their music? Oh man, it’s GOOD.
Now all that said? There is more to Yakuza 0 than just fighting. You’ll find there’s a lot of things to do in Kamurocho and Sotenbori beyond bloodying your fists, and a good chunk of it is key to making Kiryu and Majima stronger characters. Money is everything in Yakuza 0, including your experience points. You’ll learn very early on that by literally investing in yourself, you can become stronger. By spending tons of cold hard cash in your upgrade menu, you can gain extra health, heat bars, and new moves for your styles. But that’s not the only means of unlocking new abilities and upgrades:
Another major currency in the game are Completion Points, which are earned by accomplishing various milestones. Completion Points can be spent on permanent upgrades that aren’t directly related to health or moveset unlocks, and a lot of these Completion Point rewards are centered around increasing your cash flow. But how do you get Completion Points, you ask? By doing all kinds of side activities! Play some arcade games and set high scores, head to the batting cages and get some home runs, eat everything at a restaurant, play mahjong if you actually know how the hell it works! There’s an absolutely ridiculous number of side activities to do in both cities that are just flat out staggering, so there’s no way I’ll be able to cover all of them. But it just goes into making these two cities feel that much more like actual places: The fact you have so much to do in them beyond just brawling. And the game does a great job of encouraging you to try them through the Completion Point system, and by also tying many of the side activities to various substories (side quests) you can do for various rewards such as items and yet more Completion Points.
Though what ends up being one of the biggest money-makers for both characters are their businesses. Kiryu will end up somehow becoming a real estate manager who has to buy and manage property around Kamurocho, and Majima will put his club manager skills to work to help an underperforming hostess club get back on its feet. Personally I found Majima’s far more interesting due to the fact it’s much more active in its management nature due to having to outfit girls to attract clientele, then run the club in realtime to make everything go smoothly and get that sweet, sweet money. Kiryu’s real estate management is a lot more passive in nature, waiting for income from your properties and sometimes having to go to them to resolve problems (Read: Beat up people). The substories I mentioned (And that I’ll go into detail on shortly) also tie into the business aspect, as many sub stories unlock new characters for your business to help it out.
Substories are a major part of Yakuza and 0 is no exception. Substories are basically stories about characters who aren’t part of the main plot, and often are just regular folks around the city who need a helping hand in some way. What makes substories so amazing though is that some of them are just as compelling as the main plot, while others are just flat out hilarious and will leave you short of breath, and some are genuine tear-jerkers that will have you swear a ninja is cutting onions nearby. While I won’t be going into detail on all of them, there’s a few that frankly are just so good they should not be missed, like Kiryu helping a rookie dominatrix learn how to do her job and be more dominant, or Majima rescuing someone from a cult by infiltrating the cult.
As I mentioned before, some of the substories also tie into the various side activities you can do in Yakuza 0, and one that absolutely deserves a mention is the addictive Pocket Circuit. Pocket Circuit is essentially a variant of slot car racing: Where miniature toy cars race on a track. The thing that makes Pocket Circuit so addicting though is that it’s all about using parts to customize your car, and every track will have its own unique features to consider. Some will favor speed, others may require you to have a heavier vehicle so it doesn’t fly off the track after a jump, and throughout Kiryu’s pocket circuit career, he’ll meet several rivals he has to overcome. It’s also a massive money sink, with some parts costing millions of yen, so you’ll definitely be wanting to make some cash for it, but that just feeds right back into Yakuza 0’s gameplay loop of making money to get stronger, and then making even more money.
The substories also tend to provide various rewards, including unique and powerful accessories you can equip to boost your characters, and even if they don’t provide great rewards, every substory is worth doing just for the story itself. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll go “What the actual hell” sometimes, but you’ll always enjoy it in the end. And honestly, I love the fact they don’t try to always be serious, and just sometimes go for a laugh, because this game needs lighthearted moments to balance out the intense ones, and they don’t get any more intense than they do in the game’s cutscenes.
One thing that I absolutely have to applaud Yakuza 0 on is its cutscene direction. Every major cutscene is just so masterfully done: You have movie style camera work, and some absolutely incredible voice talent on top of it. Every cutscene in Yakuza 0 is so good at portraying emotions due to the work the voice actors put in, and the animation work on top of it just sells it that much better.
There’s one particular cutscene I want to discuss, but I’m not going to talk about the specifics of what happens in it, because honestly it’s a moment you need to see for yourself, but you’ll know when you’re there I suspect. There’s just so much raw emotional display, and it all feels so real the way it’s acted. You really feel for these characters in that moment. You’ll love the heroes, and feel sadness and despair when they struggle. You’ll feel satisfaction and catharsis in their triumphs. You’ll be on the edge of your seat in key moments where it seems like there’s absolutely no hope and death is certain. And you will be absolutely pumped up whenever one of these cutscenes flawlessly transitions into a boss fight through a dynamic intro that gives the opponent’s name and title as our heroes clash with them.
Any time you go into a full on cutscene in Yakuza 0, you’re in for a treat, because you’re in for some great acting and great visual presentation that absolutely pulls you into this game like a soap opera pulled in moms in the 1980s.
Music is yet another key aspect of what makes this game so good. There’s no real one genre to describe it, as the game has all kinds of music to fit every moment. Dramatic scores for the cutscenes, goofy music for the silly moments, but most importantly: powerful bangers in battle that hit so hard it’s a wonder they haven’t fractured every bone in your body.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a playlist of Yakuza 0’s battle music, provided by KuroKazuma on Youtube that shows just how hard this stuff slaps. If you want to know just how hard this goes? Go find Pledge of Demon on that list, it might be one of the best boss tracks in Yakuza history, if not game history.
A guy on Youtube I follow named Maxor (opens in new tab) might have said it best honestly:
Yakuza 0 is so many things. While it is absolutely a beat-em-up RPG at its core, it’s so much more on top of that with all the activities you can do like going on dates, bowling to win a chicken, or just hanging out at the arcade to work on your Space Harrier score. And on top of that, it tells a great crime drama story about organized crime families in Japan and the people that get caught up in the web of it all. If you want to get into Yakuza as a series, this is absolutely where you should start your journey in my opinion, even if it means you’ll suffer a bit of “feature shock” as this game is actually one of the later games made, so it has a lot of quality of life and mechanical improvements you won’t see going into Yakuza 3 (which is considered a weak entry for this reason).
While I recommend the Yakuza series as a whole, Yakuza 0 is honestly good enough to stand on its own as a masterpiece of gaming that any enthusiast of a good brawl in the streets should experience.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to see if this bicycle belongs to this thug I just ran into. I’m gonna make sure he gets an extra close look to be sure.