Oof, just gotta pop my joints back into place after reaching so hard for that title. Hey everyone. I've been playing Yakuza games for close to a decade now; I'm a relative Kiryu-come-lately, though I did the due diligence of at least playing all the preceding games leading up to 2017's prequel Yakuza 0 (Zero). It's been remarkable seeing how much the series has changed with this special prequel entry, without actually changing that much at all. It's the heart of that paradox that I want to get into here, discussing how Yakuza 0 is absolutely the (zero)sum of the parts leading up to it while still being effective in its stated goal of being a fresh start for the series that newcomers could potentially use as a gateway, leading to the Kiwami Editions/remasters of games 1 through 5 that have or will follow, depending on when you read this.
Specifically, I'm going to look at how Yakuza 0 done changed the game with its new features and then compare that with how the Yakuza games used to do business. Every Yakuza since the second has been an iterative process of minor improvements and feature creep, from the multiple protagonists introduced in Yakuza 4 to how silliness became more of a major facet of the series' appeal in Yakuza 2 onwards, not to mention the huge list of incidental mini-games that seems to grow with each successive entry. I adore this series and try to pace them out - hence why I'm writing about 0 instead of the more recent Yakuza 6 or Judgement - and part of why I do that is because of the dichotomy of how the series keeps evolving in fascinating ways while delivering the same goods in the same environments entry after entry. This balance of what's the same and what's different will only become more pronounced after the revelation that Yakuza 7 will take a big pivot into turn-based combat.
Hopefully I can demonstrate what I mean by this old/new balance by running down a few of Yakuza 0's big changes and digging deep into how many of them are actually the natural evolution of mechanics and features extant in the series.
Best Styyyyyles: Yakuza 0's Combat Stances
Yakuza 0 introduced the idea of switching combat styles on the fly, allowing the two heroes of the story Kiryu Kazuma (the regular protagonist) and Goro Majima (the regular antagonist, or at least a neutral wildcard) to switch between modes suited for different types of battles (crowds or single opponents, fast and elusive or slow and heavy, etc.). This is, of course, an extension of how each of the many protagonists in Yakuza 4 and Yakuza 5 fought differently and had battle encounters designed around their strengths and weaknesses.
You can see this in certain styles that are more overtly modelled on previous series protagonists: Kiryu's Rush is modelled on the slippery mogul Shun Akiyama while his Beast is more like the towering Taiga Saejima. Majima's Slugger style is similar to Yakuza 5's weapon-focused Tatsuo Shinada - though ironically Slugger uses a baseball bat as its chief weapon, which Shinada always refused to wield (as a former baseball prodigy, he would never disrespect the tools of the trade by clubbing someone with them). Both protagonists also have much rougher versions of their original styles as their respective defaults (Brawler for Kiryu and Thug for Majima), as well as a secret "master" style which is far closer to how they fought in the original games. There's also Majima's breakdancing style Breaker, which is as hilarious as it is overpowered and not based on any existing character's fighting style - an exception to the rule that the developers were wise to include. I love Breaker so much.
Yakuza 0 whittles down the number of protagonists from five to two - a smart change overall, because having five protagonists each with their own separate substories and a game-sized special mode made Yakuza 5 a little too bloated for its own good - so these styles are a way to compensate for that lack of variance in combat encounters. Yakuza expects you to stick around for the long haul to see all its content, but that also means a hell of a lot of samey combat to mash through, which all these varied styles and their dripfeed of new unlocked abilities help to enhance.
'80s Business Guy: Don't You Worry About Kiryu, Let Me Worry About Blank
The other big new addition - one very germane to the game's focus on the runaway economic boom of 1980s Japan - also has precedence, both in terms of its tone and the mechanics in play. I'm referring to the respective lucrative business ventures of Kiryu and Majima, which become their chief means of earning enough money for the upper echelons of their progression trees.
Kiryu's real estate empire is novel enough, but both the amusing office politics of his close-knit staff and the ludicrous displays of wealth are both part of Akiyama's character. I mentioned him above in regards to his faster, kick-focused fighter style, but Akiyama is best described as a laid-back financial genius who began to care a lot more about people than wealth - which he seems to effortlessly accrue - after he was the victim of a major embezzlement conspiracy and was temporarily made homeless. His arcs in Yakuza 4 and 5 generally involve him helping out Kiryu and the people of Kamurocho through his shrewdness and random acts of largesse, with 5 in particular seeing him repaying a favor to Kiryu by supporting his ward Haruka Sawamura in her singing idol career over in Osaka (Yakuza 5 gets wild, by the by). Akiyama's chapters are a little more light-hearted as a result, as he often trades barbs with his highly competent secretary and sleepwalks through most tense encounters with the world-weariness of a guy who already knows the score. He's one of my favorite characters in the series, and I was happy to learn he was returning for Yakuza 6 (though I don't know in what capacity; please, no spoilers in the comments).
Anyway, Akiyama is not in Yakuza 0 for obvious enough reasons (he'd probably be in elementary school at this time), however the spirit of his business shenanigans is alive and well in Kiryu's real estate mogul aspirations and the oblivious flirting with his own secretary, and certainly in Majima's management of a cabaret club which is a profession Akiyama also once pursued. The hostesses in particular are a recurring aspect of Yakuza's world, so central as they are to the nightlife of Kamurocho's real-life equivalent Shinjuku, but most of the time the player is actively dropping bills to spend time with these women and eventually date them. Instead, the hostess mini-game of Yakuza 0 has you managing them, which conveniently enough still allows for the series' dating sim-esque multiple choice conversations through the contrivance of Majima's "special training" regimen. The actual game part, where you rush your active hostesses to tables to fulfil the conditions of the club's picky clientele is a lot of fun, though you do have to play it a lot to get the maximum amount of content out of it: each of the major story character hostesses, which the game calls the Platinum Hostesses, require about seven training sequences each and you can only do one of these sequences per session of the mini-game. That means playing the mini-game at least 42 times if you want a full substory collection and a shot at the Amon family (the superbosses that await anyone that bothers to complete every side-mission).
Kiryu's side-mission is far more akin to a mobile game, in particular the way it makes you wait long stretches before you're allowed to continue micromanaging your property empire. After assigning managers and security to each region, you're then given some time to complete other substories, mini-games, or run around hunting for collectibles or fighting random goons - the cash rewards for the real estate business are astronomical, but it takes a while to get there. I liked running around buying up businesses like a boss, especially with Kiryu's smug expression each time he brought out his briefcase, but the waiting around made it a little more ponderous than I'd hoped. Still, the series has a rich history of time-wastery and repetitiveness in its side activities, so it'd be unfair to clobber Yakuza 0 for it specifically.
References, Callbacks, and Anachronisms
Part of the fun of a game set in the 1980s is throwing in as much '80s nostalgia as you think your audience can stomach. This dovetails nicely with the exemplary world-building of the Yakuza series, with particular regard to verisimilitude. The Yakuza devs put a lot of work into making their fictional district of Tokyo nonetheless feel as real as possible, filling the shelves of its conbinis with real-life Japanese sodas and snacks, presenting authentic Japanese and international meals at its many restaurants, and replicating the many nightlife entertainment outlets via its mini-games. Even without a quick trip to Shinjuku to confirm, Kamurocho (and Sotenbori) feel lived in and genuine, from the way the buildings are all jammed together in the claustrophobic Champion District to the big flashy arched gateway at the bottom of Tenkaichi Street that welcomes big spenders. The familiarity of the place has only become more manifest over the game's many iterations.
Unfortunately, I don't really know enough about what Japan was like in the mid-'80s to render a verdict on how this particular version of Kamurocho matches up, besides having the Club Sega arcades filled with the developer's super-scaler games and Mega Drive promotional toys in the claw machines. Much of Kamurocho remains the way it ever was, with even several of the restaurants apparently staying in business between when the game is set and the most modern version of Kamurocho seen in Yakuza 5 (or 6, but I've yet to see that). The surrealism of a restaurant, of all establishments, staying in business that long is something you have to accept for the sake of the series' comfortably homey vibe.
Rather, the most overt references in Yakuza 0 are to its own legacy. I talked about how unlikely it would be to bump into a preteen Akiyama wandering the streets of a red light district, but you do meet the likes of Ryuji Goda, Daigo Dojima, and Shinji Tanaka in much younger forms: the game pulls a Star Wars by unnecessarily establishing the backgrounds of these major future characters all within the same space and time, but it's also fun to see these major adult characters in Kiryu's later life as precocious tots and hoodlums.
The anachronisms aren't really jarring in the way they can be, and there's nothing to be gained by fussing about the actual debut dates of certain sodas. There is a certain weirdness in having contemporary (as in, 2017) Japanese AV idols show up in VHS softcore video clips and on racy telephone cards though, not to mention that they all appear in-game as characters involved with substories, Majima's hostess club, or in other tertiary roles. Weirdest of all is that the game has a protracted Die Hard with a Vengeance riff involving a shady individual named Simon that Majima only ever interacts with through a public phone booth, that eventually ends with Simon's "reward" to Majima being a terrified anonymous woman begging to join Majima's hostess club to escape some undisclosed threat.
Bubble Boggle: Yakuza 0's Broken Economy
While the game is clearly having some fun mocking the economic insanity of Japan in the 1980s period in which the game is set, it also found some novel outlets for that backdrop, including how certain plot elements tie into the economic boom and even how the game's mechanics have been subtly changed to account for the vast amounts of wealth that Kiryu and Majima come into. Most strikingly of those mechanical changes is how character progression is linked to cash investments into skill trees, rather than the straightforward experience point systems of Yakuza 1-5. However, this also has greater changes to regular exploration too: by breaking the economy wide open, the player is never hurting for cash to buy high-level healing items right off the bat and is usually earning enough bank for a hundred extravagant meals at the Korean BBQ place after a single random encounter. Weapons and gear can get a little pricey, especially if you partake in Majima's equipment search mini-game, but it doesn't take long for even the multi-million asking prices for the game's best equipment to be the equivalent of pocket change.
It's not too dissimilar to the way Saints Row 4 completely breaks its own progression system right out of the gate, taking the way you slowly went from badass crime kingpin to invincible superhero in Saints Row: The Third and greatly expediting that process so that you're flying and tossing tanks around before the first chapter is over. Yakuza 0 feels broken in a way that previous Yakuza games did not, but is designed smartly enough to only have the illusion of being wildly unbalanced. In truth, all that excess money invariably goes into your character development, which you need to keep up on to have any chance against the game's strongest foes. Any player hoping to break the game by concentrating on the more moneyed pursuits (like the business mini-games) will find themselves in imbrogli far tougher than even the story mode can offer (seriously, Kamurocho's Media King was no pushover).
I love the way the developers were confident enough in their new systems that they effectively broke the economy they'd built up in all their previous games. It's a late entry in a long RPG series that allows you to buy all the best armor and weapons from the outset, and then adjusts the difficulty - either by making enemies far tougher to match, or by taking the game's progression in an entirely different direction - to ensure the game remains as challenging and rewarding as its predecessors in spite of this self-destruction. I'm not sure how many other franchises could pull that off. Could you imagine The Elder Scrolls doing that? (Except I guess they did with Daggerfall and all the procgen glass/mithril weapons scattered around the starting dungeon. That game was a mess and a half.)
Enough Yakking About Yakuza
I could go on and on here, like how I almost revisited the nightmare that is downloading shogi software so I could play Yakuza's AI against a different, better AI and replicate its winning moves, or how I almost want to attempt to get good at mahjong again by re-memorizing the yaku I need to score big, but I've covered my escapades with Yakuza's many inscrutable long-standing mini-games and activities in blogs past. I feel like I should at least mention how Yakuza's done this transporting time-and-place thing before with the Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan! and Ryu ga Gotoku Ishin! spin-offs, which had Kiryu's distant ancestors navigating the rough tides of ye olde samurai times (and ye slightly more recent 19th century times). Yakuza's ultimately not so much about contemporary Japanese living as it is about tossing any number of ridiculous hurdles in the way of its impossibly pure and stoic hero, and putting him in new contexts like the 1980s, the 17th century, or a zombie movie is a surefire way of mining even more gold from that performance.
Sega's going to have a heck of a time filling Kiryu's curbstomping shoes, though judging from the success of, uh, Judgment, it doesn't seem like they're going to have much of a problem. Yakuza 7 will have its work cut out introducing a new hero and wildly different combat system alike, but I've confidence that they will nail it. That said, I'm fortunate to at least have one more trip around the Kamurocho block with Kiryu when I eventually get around to Yakuza 6 some time next year, but I plan to continue having both eyes on the Yakuza series going forward. I know there'll be enough familiar elements - in a positive "coming home" sense, rather than a reductive "another one of these, huh" sense - to ease me into whatever stark new changes the series will see. Hell, as long as future games allow me to continue doing wild shit like recruiting a chicken as a real estate manager or training a dominatrix or dropkicking zombie extras in the music video for Thriller, then I'm golden.