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yakuza

Yakuza 0 is a prequel to Yakuza, the silly action-adventure fighting game that introduced us to Kyriu Kazuma, the granite gangster with a soft, mushy center. On Yakuza 0, we spend our time alternating between two parallel stories. As Kyriu Kazuma, we spend our time in Kamurocho, out to clear Kyriu's name of a murder he didn't commit while staving off a conspiracy that threatens his mentor. As Majima Goro, Kyriu's deranged frenemy from the first game, we are trapped in Sotenbori (which is to Osaka's Dōtonbori as Kamurocho is to Tokyo's Kabukicho), slaving at building someone else a fortune before getting dragged into a conspiracy around a blind girl.

It would be a much better game if it had less Kyriu in it.

Kyriu introducing himself

Kyriu Kazuma is a lunkhead, an unimaginative bore who can mostly punch and kick his way through things. Yakuza: Kiwami works both because and in spite of it. The game is populated with absurd situations, like Kyriu teaching kids a lesson on friendship right after he punched his way through an entire building of thugs, Majima coming out of manholes or staging a zombie outbreak just to keep you on your toes, or attack helicopters trying to kill a kid. Kyriu approaches every one of these situations with the same solemnity, unaware of the level of absurdity going on around him. We are laughing at the preposterous side quests and farcical events, but we're also laughing at Kyriu, our own avatar, for taking them seriously.

Yakuza: Kiwami had its share of issues, but its sheer level of absurd fun made it easy to overlook them. It was the right kind of stupid.

Try as I might, I can't wring out the same fun out of Yakuza 0. All the pieces are there, but they don't just fit together in the same way. It's nowhere nearly as delirious.

Let me get this out of the way first and say that the story is part of the problem. Yakuza reveled in its absurdity. Even without the well-balanced gameplay (and there were a couple of sections that were less than stellar), you could derive a lot of fun out of the way the story kept trying to one-up its own barking madness.

Yakuza: 0's story is much more grounded, and seems to be trying to skew closer to Takeshi Kitano than Takashii Miike. The side quests and activities, though, keep being as juvenile as in the original game.

It's a surprise to find out that they share the same writer and producer, because it gives the impression that whomever assembled this one didn't realize what made the previous construction work.

If you mix toy car racing with melodramatic government-spanning conspiracies worthy of Oliver Stone writing a soap opera, you'll get belly laughs; but if you expect me to chase gravure phone cards after hearing how Demetrius and Chiron went to work on Lavinia, all you're going to get is dissonance.

Such a dramatic back story, full of tortured pasts and murdered friends would have worked, if Majima was the protagonist. The game has us play a more centered Majima Goro than the batshit insane knife-demon from the first game, the man capable of crashing a truck into a brothel just to have another go at fighting Kyriu. It's a side of him we haven't seen before.

This more calculating, younger Majima would have been a great vehicle for a dramatic story, with some funny ancillary elements. We know that he was tortured. We know he'll end up turning into some half-crazy half-playful lunatic. We know he has a story arc coming.

Kyriu, though, is just Kyriu. There are only two differences between him here and in the rest of the series: his tattoo is not complete yet, and he hasn't sorted his perma-wardrobe. There's nowhere for the character to go, nothing they can do with him other than have him punch out people for a different reason than he did before. And who was the genius who added another quick-time highway shootout to this?

The worst thing is that it's not a bad game. It's a good one, even, but you can see a great Yakuza game in there, if they'd only committed. The funny moments still work. Kyriu not only Bogarting Nishiki's golden lighter, but commandeering his car in the middle of a theatrical, overblown exchange, without anyone commenting on it. The Complete Dominations. The chicken. There were parts where I laughed out when they happened, then chuckled every so often later when I remembered them.

Majima striking a dance pose

But the side quest design is not as imaginative as in Yakuza Kiwami. There are some funny people you encounter, but most situations resolve immediately – there is barely any surprise in them, a sense that you'll meet these people later.

The minigames, which soon become tedious but are almost required for progress, are what detracts the most from it. You spend too long grinding, trying to get money to actually increase your stats, to unlock the ultimate fighting styles. Once you reach those, the attached activities stop being a way to meet people, and become conversation trees that you're forced to sit through.

Majima's story gets the short end of the back-and-forth stick, which pulls the rug from under characters with who we could have spent more time. A potential antagonist and mentor, who I was sure was going to have an impact on Majima's personality. A moment, where you walk with someone through Kamurocho, which carries more tenderness than anything Kyriu did with the goddammed baby on Yakuza 6. People who we meet, and start to know, only to have them brushed away so that we can switch back to the lunkhead.

Kyriu doesn't need much of a story. He is nothing but a human wrecking ball, and if you want to keep this as a melodramatic action comedy, he is the perfect choice. But if you are going to put this much work into humanizing Majima Goro, the Mad Dog Of Shimano, you should stick with it until the job is done.

Majima high-fiving his brain

#yakuza #yakuza0 #games #sega #majimagoro

Kyriu standing at the entrance of Kamurocho

Yakuza Kiwami understands what makes games work. There's too much in it that would fall on its face if it didn't.

The narration is byzantine. At the start of the game you go from a cold open in media res, with your character towering over a dead body while holding the murder weapon, to a flashback, to another flashback some years prior, to yet another flashback of all those involved as kids, to a fast-forward through the narrative stack.

The characters oscillate between grim, murderous determination and childish glee. Their entire world is a single neighborhood, a bipolar microcosm of violence and absurdity. It's populated with a mixture of blood feuds and game arcades, dangerous conmen and earnest ingenues, hired would-be murderers and collectible cards, smart children and not-too-sharp hostesses, drug-addicted homelessness and barkeeps fawning over whiskey types, social corrosion and toy car racing, young women threatened by thugs while ignored by everyone around them and white-knighting judo champions. There's even a giggling psychopath who idolizes and helps you yet tries to murder you over and over to prove a point.

As a movie, it would be incoherent. As a TV series, you'd have expected the writer's room to be a coked-up cartload of chimpanzees creating cut-ups of crime cinema and cartoons. As a game, with you in the driver's seat, it's fun and silly and unexpected and engaging and sometimes surprising.

You play Kiryu Kazuma, the dreaded Dragon of Dojima. He's a respected lieutenant in a yakuza family who, on the eve of getting his own branch of the family, decides to take the fall for a murder. Leaving prison after spending 10 years in jail, he comes straight back to his old territory of Kamurocho (a not-even disguised Kabukicho) to look for an old friend who disappeared.

Kamurocho is a dangerous town, full of small streets and back alleys, where – this being a brawling game – everyone wants to fight you. Some people want to rob you. Some people want revenge. Some think you're still a yakuza, some that you're an easy mark. Some are trying to con you and unhappy you see through their transparent ploys. Some get angry that you're asking questions, digging around in areas which don't concern you. Some just want to try themselves against the former Dragon of Dojima.

Kyriu scowling in an alley

Former being the key word. Even if you start the game being a one-man thug-wrecking crew, the time in prison softened Kiryu. You'll need to regain the skills that you had in your prime, or you'll never survive the tsunami of henchmen and mooks the story will throw your way.

Or stories. There's the main plot, about what happened in the decade you were away and where your friends are, and then there's the myriad of small side stories, some connected to you and your friends and some just fleshing out the fauna of Kamurocho. You could try and just go for the main plot, raging ahead like the bull Kiryu can resemble, but the wise path would be taking the side streets.

First, the side quests help you gain enough experience to get your skills back, which will be fundamental with the tough battles you'll have to deal with. This doesn't just mean experience points – different enemies have their own combat styles and, just when you're getting too comfortable, the game throws a different combination of thugs at you and forces you to reconsider your approach. Practice is fundamental for surviving Kamurocho.

But second, Yakuza isn't just about the main plot. It's about the rollercoaster of small stories you find on every corner. Silly situations and contrived circumstances like the wannabe-yakuza who sticks to Kiryu to “help” and only gets in trouble, or the group of thugs who keep trying to run the same “accident reparations” scam on you, or a fetch quest involving toilet paper for a man in need. Stories where you help a girl sell the matches her family makes on their small atelier, or find a replacement for an aging kid's game host so he can move on, or rush around Kamurocho trying to find a doctor for a child who might be dying.

It's also about figuring out where the chips are going to fall. Some of these quests look like you can help a person in need and devolve into a scam, some look like obvious cons yet end up either being about honest people in dire straits or straight-up restoring your faith in humanity. Some are just funny.

Not that the writing is wearing any sort of high hat. If this was D&D, the writer's alignment would be Lawful Absurd. It's honest and earnest, sticks to its guns, but even when it's playing it serious it goes over the top.

Why have a simple small-potatoes murder when you could have a far-reaching conspiracy?

Why have a side quest where you need to recover an item when you could start a chain of swaps and retrievals which spans the whole of Kamurocho?

Why just fight a boss when you can also fight his henchmen, some of whom are shooting at you, with mooks who stream from the second story carrying blades, in a Chinese restaurant, while you're using the furniture as improvised weapons?

Why just train to regain your skills when you could be hounded in random alleys by Majima, a deranged yakuza who alternates between nemesis and savior, and who may try to attack you from behind a corner, or coming out of a manhole, or charging with an entire gang wielding baseball bats, or interrupting a completely different fight?

Yes, there are fetch quests, but they help you learn the lay of the land. Yes, some of this can get repetitive, but it's so entertaining that when I got suckered into a minigame where you spend time chatting up a club hostess, I found myself wondering “why am I doing this? I could be fighting Majima on the street”.

And yes, you know how the story is going to play out the moment some elements pop up. But that doesn't matter. Kamurocho is a big amusement park, filled with fights and collectible games and deadly frenemies and toy car races and murder. The main plot, with all the dopey insanity it brings, is just the vehicle carrying you through its attractions.

Kyriu and Majima

#games #yakuza #stupidweek