By David Fernandes / January 27th, 2017
|Release Date||January 24, 2017|
|Age Rating||ESRB – Mature|
Now, this is weird. I certainly never imagined I would be going backwards when reviewing this franchise. Then again, I nearly lost all hope of these getting localized prior to Yakuza 5, let alone the prequel entry. For the franchise’s 10th anniversary the developers decided to give long-time fans a taste of what many were certainly curious about — the setting’s past — and, boy, did they go all out. Yakuza 0 — or Ryu ga Gotoku 0: Chikai no Basho, which translates into Like a Dragon 0: The Location of Oath — acts as the origin stories for Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima with the former becoming the Dragon of Dojima and the latter becoming the Mad Dog of Shimano. With the game taking place in a 1988’s rendition of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, the stakes were high in how the Yakuza team would pull off keeping the series standard quality high, as well as bringing new life into these locations. So, did they manage to capitalize on the setting, bring forth a satisfying plot and introduce its ambitious new combat system?
The game takes place at the end of the Showa era and on the eve of the Heisei era — known also as the Bubble era in the late 80s, a time of huge economic growth and prosperity with money being spent like nobody’s business. The game stars a young and inexperienced 20 year old Kazuma Kiryu who is a part of the all-powerful Dojima family, set to follow in his foster father’s footsteps. While on his rounds as rank-and-file grunt, a man Kiryu picks a fight with over some empty patch of land turns up dead, and he is the main suspect. This creates a huge storm within the family as the land in question — also known as the Empty Lot — is smack dab right in the middle of Kamurocho where the Millennium Tower will be built, which just so happens to be something the head of the family, Sohei Dojima wants badly. The three top lieutenants, Kuze, Awano and Shibusawa are fighting tooth and nail to acquire it, as whoever gets this land for him becomes the top captain, a position Kiryu’s foster father holds. Knowing he is innocent of this crime Kiryu decides to leave the family — as doing otherwise would reflect poorly on himself and his foster father — and goes to clear his name. He finds an unlikely ally in a man named Tachibana who runs a real estate business and is willing to help him in exchange for assistance with acquiring the Empty Lot.
On the Osaka side, the game also stars a 24 year old Goro Majima who is sporting a ponytail and is a manager of the most successful Cabaret club in the city, Grand. Stories of his success have garnered him the nickname Lord of the Night. Unfortunately, despite all that success Majima’s life can be described as anything but good, as he is essentially a prisoner in Sotenbori and kept under constant surveillance. If that isn’t bad enough, the Grand’s owner, Sagawa of the Omi Alliance, keeps Majima on a short leash as he is the sworn brother of Majima’s boss, Shimano, who expelled Majima for going against orders during the Ueno Seiwa hit that Taiga Saejima carried out three years prior. Majima desperately tries to make enough money managing the Grand in exchange to let him come back to the Tojo clan, but, instead, Sagawa amuses himself by playing around with this notion, constantly undermining his resolve. However, one day Shimano sends word to Sagawa to give Majima another chance — a job that, if he succeeds, will land him back in the Shimano family. The task is to murder an individual named Makimura Makoto, with no reason given as to why, which Majima reluctantly accepts, and the search begins.
When it was first announced that there would be two playable main characters this time around, I was curious as to how the game would progress, and, thankfully, they chose a method that helps the pacing in both story and in gameplay. For every two chapters you play one character, then switch to the other and vice versa until the end. That way both characters can shine and have an ample amount of screen time and lets players take a break from one set of combat styles for the next, but not so much you forget the other. They do give you option to get a quick run down on previous events if you so choose. Because it’s a prequel, I had a few expectations for the plot: with the first being how they would depict the relationship between Kiryu and Nishiki. The second being how they handled the transformation of a rough Kiryu to becoming a more calm and collected person, and Majima essentially turning unhinged and if their own relationship is expanded upon. And third, if we get to see many of the original game’s characters make an appearance.
Well, the first point I did get something and I feel they handled Kiryu and Nishiki’s friendship very well, as one of the very first cutscenes in the game you get to see these two among Yumi and Reina chat like they had history, but, sadly, we never get to see it. Now with this new perspective, given how far these two go for each other as true brothers, I can go back to the first game and really feel their friendship falling apart to that extent is all the more tragic. As for our two main characters, we do get to see them both transform through the events that transpire and put them to the test. They also meet up with the many different characters that would eventually shape them to be the type of yakuza they want to be and thus legends, though Majima’s transformation as a crazy person was a bit more sudden than I hoped. Both a disappointment and a relief, neither character actually meets the other in the main game. It’s unfortunate as Yakuza 1 had them have this weird sort of rivalry, and Yakuza 2 made it seem like Majima acted as something of a teacher to Kiryu when he first started out learning the ropes. On the other hand, I respect the devs’ decision and their restraint as this could have led to something disastrous, as prequels these days tend to make characters have some deeper connection than previously established or intended usually out of fanservice. Believe me, they could have made this epic but go against continuity for the sake of it.
When it comes to the cast, while there are some that are missing in action, they did throw in some nice surprises that I would have never expected and was thoroughly pleased by. For instance, it’s sad that we don’t get to see Yumi or Nishiki’s sister, as both could have shed more light on both Kiryu and Nishiki as Yakuza 1 describes them as very important to them and what shaped their later actions. I felt Yakuza 1 didn’t explore that enough and was hoping it would here. Others, like Date and Kage the Florist, are a no-show, but plenty of others do and those who played both Yakuza 1 and 2 will be very happy, I assure you. Why this was a big deal to me was because there were many characters who died off in the first title and may or may not have had much of a presence, like Sohei and Sera, but are back in their prime. This game is no different in how it treats the new cast. Because they don’t appear in future titles, the devs had no qualms in how they dealt with them, and this game gets quite dark and gruesome. While Yakuza 5 tried to capture the tone of Yakuza 1 and 2, but didn’t manage to pull it off, Yakuza 0 thankfully does. Money and how it can create and destroy people is the main theme, and, while other entries try to portray the yakuza in a more sympathetic light, this game gets down and gritty in depicting them as violent, uncaring individuals who may have a hierarchy, but are willing to trample anyone including their own and employ underhanded tactics to get what they want even if it means murder. Fitting for a criminal organization and the time period.
Overall, Yakuza 0’s plot is the strongest one since Yakuza 2, with a main and secondary cast being just as great. I honestly thought Makoto being blind would make her an afterthought and simply dead weight, but I was severely wrong as the possible romance between her and Majima felt genuine, and they manage to avoid many obvious clichés. It doesn’t hurt the fact that Makoto is voiced by Miyuki Sawashiro who really sells the whole blind cutie character — her acting is just superb. Hell, I can say the same about all the characters — both old and new. They all brought their A game, and the narrative is enriched because of it. I honestly can’t say who my favorite is as they were all so wonderful. The devs decided, instead of the usual crime drama novel narrative approach, to follow a more simple shonen-esque narrative with less emphasis on over-the-top twists and clear motivations. After the blunders of some of past mainline titles, I believe this was for the best. This game has some of the best lines and cutscenes they have ever done for the series, either being engaging with their hyper will moments to emotional roller coasters that, at times, left me in tears; their finest work to date.
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