Beast in the East
Written by Jessie Seilhan
One of video gaming’s biggest strengths is its ability to immerse in you a foreign culture. Movies, music, and literature can transport one’s mind into another city, country, or universe, but games let you interact with the people of those lands, often controlling somebody different than yourself. And while controlling a space alien and deciphering glyphs or translating ancient texts is cool, simply traveling across the Pacific Ocean to 1980’s Japan allows for a much more relatable experience. The Yakuza series has been doing this for years, but Yakuza 0, new to the West but released in Japan a few years ago, has made the case for more period pieces in video games with its robust campaign, multiple playable characters, and addictive combat. You may have never thought about Japan in the 80’s but after a few hours in this game, you’ll be looking for a time machine to visit the real thing.
The Yakuza series has always been a sweeping epic, tying in different eras of Japanese culture with multiple playable characters, a deep combat system, and a personality unlike anything else. Yakuza 0 is the prequel to the series, actually released a few years ago in Japan but just recently localized and translated for fans here in America. It tells the tale of two men, Kiryu and Majima, intertwined in the Japanese mafia while trying to avoid the perils that crossing them brings. Kiryu has been framed for murder and is trying his best to take revenge on the fellow Yakuza that set him up, while Majima is looking to get out from under the thumb of organized crime while managing a nightclub. While swapping between two characters might seem like it can get confusing, each chapter is dedicated to one or the other and wraps up neatly, so you don’t really need to remember too much when switching to the other.
Yakuza solve problems with their fists and you’ll spend the majority of your time in this game doing just that. Luckily, the combat is both deep and entertaining enough to make each random battle worth the effort, stringing together awesome combos and flashy “heat” moves to finish off opponents with style. Plenty of periphery objects can be wielded as weapons of destruction, but your regular old fisticuffs are useful as you have multiple fighting styles and stances to choose from. The standard brawler styles make for standard combat, but crazier ones involve more grappling, defense, and even a baseball bat. Throw experience points into each aspect of their skill trees to boost their damage and unlock special moves. Also, experience points are just money, so you can take to the casino to double your earnings and unlock that shiny new flying dropkick you’ve had your eye on. But if you come across the hilariously-named Mr. Shakedown strolling down a dark alley, he can literally beat all of the experience points out of you and leave you crying. It’s a risky system but the rewards are worth it.
The real charm to Yakuza are the side missions. Not since The Witcher 3 has a game created so many organic and interesting side stories that encompass the widest swath of people and plot lines. From helping a dominatrix get tough to putting an end to an illegal panty ring, your stiff heroes will often find themselves wrapped up in some hilarious nonsense. You don’t get a ton of choice in how you want these scenarios to play out, but the writing is so good that you won’t really mind. The main plots are also good and sometimes heavy handed, but the overall drive is clear and almost every character makes sense, no matter how dense they are. The voice work is excellent, the translation is stellar, and this 1980’s Japan will come to life each and every time you interact with someone.
Ultimately, your love for Yakuza will come down to if you can appreciate Japan for all its complexities. The humor is very specific, as is the dialogue, but even if you aren’t laughing along the way you’ll still have a great time throwing dudes into cars and smashing traffic cones on thugs. The graphics are good enough for a modern open world game and the music is very charming, but the whole package makes up for any gaps in quality you may find along the way. You do not need to know anything about the series or its characters before beginning this game, so give something a little weird a try this year and pick up Yakuza 0. You will not be disappointed.
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