The release history of the Yakuza series outside of Japan has been a wild ride. Sega released the first two games on PS2 in 2006 and 2008 and I missed out on them, turned off by marketing which promoted them as Grand Theft Auto-style open world crime games, a genre I don't have much interest in. Two years later, a poorly-made demo for Yakuza 3, the first PS3 installment of the series, showed me a little more of what the game was about, but didn't sell me on it.
Yakuza 3 was largely doomed from the start: A bad demo, fan complaints over cut content in the English release, and a release date on the same day as the hugely anticipated Final Fantasy XIII. The series would struggle in the west for years, with an even worse, combat-only demo for Yakuza 4 and with Yakuza 5 coming out here a whole three years after its Japanese release, long after the PS3's lifecycle had waned, and without a physical release. I fell for the series after reading enough positive reviews of the third game, but there's no doubt it's been tough to be a western Yakuza fan, with long translation delays, questionable release strategies, and skipped spinoff titles.
Yakuza Zero, originally released on both PS3 and PS4 in Japan in 2015, is something of a rebirth for the series in the west. It took two years to be released here and its PS3 origins are pretty obvious, but through smarter, more honest marketing by Sony that focused more on the game's absurdist humor, it looks like the Yakuza series has finally found a foothold here, with not one, but THREE titles in the long-delayed series seeing western releases in the course of a year and a half: Zero, Kiwami (a full remake of the first Yakuza game) and eventually Yakuza 6 in early 2018.
As a prequel, Yakuza Zero allows new players to approach the series without worrying about its extensive character histories. When I first jumped into the series with #3, I was a little lost, but was able to catch up thanks to some decent summary videos included in the game. Zero can be played totally fresh, though there are some fun cameos for players familiar with the other games. It's the largest game in the series, with a ridiculous amount of mini games and side activities, and it's almost all solid gold.
The year is 1988: Kazuma Kiryu is still the coolest, dumbest gangster with a heart of gold in mobster history, with a straight-faced passion for anything he gets involved with, from playing arcade games to bowling to managing a real estate firm to clearing his name in a murder he's wrongfully accused of. Zero's take on Kiryu shows us a younger, more naive hero who nonetheless is still the toughest guy around, regularly clowning his superiors in hand-to-hand combat. He bums around the old stomping grounds of Kamurocho, sleazier and more neon than ever, while he and his best friend work to uncover a massive conspiracy worming its way through Tokyo's yakuza families.
The game is split between Kiryu's story and that of Goro Majima, the series' eye-patch and snakeskin-wearing psychopath who will later go on to be a Bugs Bunny figure in Kiryu's life. The two do not interact directly in this story, which instead focuses on these two young men in similar situations being pulled in radically different directions. The Majima we meet in Zero is cold, quiet, and classy, nothing like the nut we learn to love in future stories. What happened that made him snap?
Both Kiryu and Majima are kept in gilded cages. Kiryu quickly goes from yakuza member to civilian as he falls victim to a power struggle in upper management. Framed for murder, he works in the shadows to find the truth while punching out people he should probably think twice about punching, all while moonlighting as a real estate tycoon in the middle of an economic boom. Turns out he's actually pretty great at this job, accumulating money and power honestly, but Kiryu can never leave his mob ties behind. Unless he can clear his name, he'll remain a pawn and a scapegoat for his power-hungry ex-bosses. Kiryu's path out of this life is a pursuit of truth.
On the other side of the country, Majima works as the owner of a cabaret club, making crazy amounts of money and inspiring his customers with dazzling service and pure class. Life looks pretty great until we learn that he's living in a tiny, empty apartment, kept in perpetual debt by his own yakuza family, who kept him alive at the cost of any sense of freedom following a mass shooting by Majima's blood brother of a rival yakuza clan (this plot is a focal point of the series' fourth game.) Monitored at all times and not allowed to leave the city, Majima is offered one last chance to prove himself and get back into the yakuza's good graces: He must assassinate a target without being told who they are or what they've done. Things get complicated when the target ends up being a young blind girl who's guilty of no crime. Majima quickly befriends her, but it's obvious that his only way out is a pursuit of violence.
There's plenty of thematic linkage between Kiryu and Majima's stories and each conspiracy plot does intertwine, but keeping the two lead characters separated is a fascinating narrative choice. Even early on, it's easy to get a sense that things are going to work out OK for Kiryu; he has a support network of friends and allies who care about and respect him, while Majima is kept almost entirely isolated, a bomb about to go off. The most inspiring figure he meets is a knife-loving masochist whose nihilism and brutality Majima will come to emulate in the future. We don't get to see a singular moment where Majima cracks and becomes the character we know in later games, but rather a gradual slide that makes it feel inevitable.
The story's excellently told, but this being a Yakuza game, there's an absolute ton of heavily varied game play too. Combat's about the same as usual: Lots of beat 'em up brawling, this time with three main switchable styles per character, and the AI enemies still aren't very interesting. You'll quickly fall into a pattern of using the same combos over and over that completely bowl over the enemy while other moves feel like duds. The fighting's never bad, but it quickly becomes routine and can get in the way of the game's more exciting parts if you let every punk who taunts you on the street draw you into a fight. Also, this being a financial boom in 1988, every punch you land sends handfuls of coins and bills bursting out of the enemy. People hungry for power and respect are literally bleeding money to earn it, and you power up your characters by investing millions of yen into yourself.
Goofy side content remains my biggest draw here, as it was in the other Yakuza titles. The Yakuza standards return (shogi, mahjong, karaoke, bowling, etc.) while a few new ones are introduced: There's a very deep slot car racing minigame with dozens of customizable car parts, a lewd but funny phone dating game, a disco rhythm game with amazing moves, and more. The worst is a sexy wrestling minigame that's basically rock-paper-scissors only somehow even less fun and there's a fairly pointless system for crafting weapons, but both can be ignored. As usual, a small batch of arcade games appear, with this game's batch being the most famous yet: Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone, OutRun, and Super Hang On.
In both characters' stories players will encounter dozens of hilarious, well-written side stories that range from helping a human statue sneak off to use a toilet without his audience seeing to aiding a nerdy with their crossword puzzle woes to protecting a Michael Jackson clone as he films a Thriller knockoff. In many games, side quests are something to distract you from the plot for a while, busywork that's mostly there to unlock better gear and items. With Yakuza games, the writing and characters are so endearing that almost every quest feels worth your time. These games are my gold standard when it comes to optional content, and Yakuza Zero's is as excellent as ever.
Each character has one large side story that's big enough to be its own game. As Kiryu, players manage real estate around town, buying up properties and assigning staff to protect and expand these businesses. People whose lives your touch will often join your firm; a sleazy businessman you meet at a dominatrix club, Michael Jackson, and even a chicken will help your drive to the top. If you focus entirely on the real estate side things can get boring, so it's best done in between story missions and minigames. Don't get burned out at work!
Majima's side story involves hostess/cabaret club management. Players give their employees fashion tips and conversation advice and then send them out on the floor to chat with drunken buffoons. Designing cute costumes is always fun, and this minigame involves the player much more directly than the more passive real estate game. Here, too, people whose lives you touch may come to work for you. And it turns out, the purple-haired grandma in the sweatpants and cheetah-print sweater who keeps making a fool of you may end up being the most in-demand conversation partner in the club.
Yakuza Zero is my favorite game of the year so far, and that's really saying something considering how strong the first half of 2017 has been. It's funny, it's touching, it's got a great cast of characters, and with a clean-slate for storytelling, it's the best Yakuza game for newcomers to jump into. Check it out now before Yakuza Kawami hits!