Series protagonist, Kazama Kiryu
Two months ago I had never played a game in Sega’s Yakuza franchise. To be perfectly honest, I was completely indifferent toward it. It was a franchise I didn’t care about in any way, shape or form. How little did I care? I was even in the live audience during Sony’s “PlayStation Experience 2015” press event when the announcement was made that Sega would be localizing Yakuza 0 for the western market and could only shrug. “Cool,” I thought to myself. The announcement meant nothing to me personally but I could at least be happy for those it did resonate with, right? Kind of like that one guy sitting near me squealing in excitement like a small child.
Though I never would have guessed at the time, this unlikely localization would end up being one of my favorite video games of all time and in many ways the embodiment of Japanese gaming charm.
Before delving further into that, Yakuza is a niche franchise that deserves some backstory.
Yakuza is an open-world action franchise owned by Sega that was created by highly respected game designer and producer, Toshihiro Nagoshi. It focuses primarily on the adventures of lead protagonist, Kazama Kiryu, who is a member of fictional Yakuza organization the Tojo Clan. Yakuza is an extremely story-driven series known for lengthy cut scenes, plot twists, over the top action sequences, hilarious situations and a large cast of compelling and sometimes quirky characters.
Gameplay consists of controlling Kazama, and at times other characters, within an open-world where the player can partake in 3D brawler-style combat, play various minigames based on activities such as bowling and disco, and interacting with other characters as part of main or side stories. The series also features some light RPG elements where player characters earn a form of experience that can be spent to purchase new abilities and items and to boost stats.
The series made its debut exclusively on the PlayStation 2 in 2005. To date, there are seven main entries in the main series and multiple spin-offs including one set in samurai-era feudal Japan and another involving a zombie apocalypse. Yakuza has been both a critical and commercial success for Sega having sold over 9.3 million units to date.
Yakuza as a franchise has been extremely successful in Japan.
Despite the series’ success as a whole, it’s important to note that the vast majority of that success has been almost exclusively in the Japanese market.
Following the strong sales in its native market, Sega localized the first and second Yakuza games in the west which failed to achieve anywhere close to the same level of success. Following disappointing sales of both releases, Sega announced in 2009 that they had no plans to continue localizing the series.
Like many Japanese-centric franchises that failed to find an audience here, that appeared to be the end. However, roughly a year later, Sega made the surprise announcement that PlayStation 3 title, Yakuza 3, would be coming to the west! Shortly after that, they confirmed Yakuza 4 would be coming as well. Fans rejoiced. The Yakuza series had been given a second chance at life!
But much like the initial releases, Yakuza 3 and Yakuza 4 simply came and went. Again the series failed to sell the necessary numbers in western markets to justify the resources required to release them there. Fans feared that, once again, the franchise was dead in the west. The fears seemed to had been substantiated with the release and non-localization of Yakuza 5 on PlayStation 3. Also, by the early years of the PlayStation 4, several new Yakuza titles had been announced and released in Japan without so much as a peep for the west. It seemed to be all the confirmation necessary that no more Yakuza games would be releasing here.
Following years without any mention, Yakuza fans in the west received a surprise announcement in December 2014. PlayStation executive, Gio Corsi, took the stage at the inaugural “PlayStation Experience” press event to make some announcements related to their “building the list” initiative. The idea was for Sony fans to reach out and suggest games they would like to see on PlayStation platforms that Sony would then look into trying to make a reality. Gio proudly announced that they had teamed up with Sega to bring Yakuza 5 to the west.
Though I wasn’t a fan at the time, I have to imagine that the announcement was more than a little shocking. Yakuza was receiving, not its second chance, but its third chance in the west.
One year later at PlayStation Experience in 2015, it was revealed that Yakuza 0 would also be coming. This time Sega would be handling the localization themselves without assistance from Sony. “It’s alive!!” as they say.
That brings us to the lead-up to Yakuza 0’s western release in January 2017.
The franchise had become something of a cult classic outside Japan. A small but extremely loyal fan base had been singing its praise to their friends and in online enthusiast circles for quite some time. The years of word-of-mouth seemed to be working as Yakuza 0 had far more buzz about it than previous entries. There were articles on every major gaming website, forums were chattering and it was being discussed by major games press all over social media.
Kazama Kiryu and Yakuza have slowly become fan favorites.
However, it wasn’t until when the review embargo lifted, and Yakuza 0 began receiving exceptional scores from nearly every major publication, that I personally really took notice of it. Great combat, great story, great performances, silly side missions, a loving tribute to Japanese culture… it was all music to my ears. I needed to check this game out.
And I’m so glad I did!
It’s hard to know where to begin with Yakuza 0 but I feel like the best description I can give is that it has an extraordinary amount of heart.
It’s rare enough to find a game that has genuinely interesting, unique and relatable characters capable of triggering actual emotion within the player. But Yakuza 0 does it with virtually its entire cast; and it’s a large cast. Every character from the protagonists to the antagonists and even the lesser supporting cast absolutely oozes personality. They are wonderfully well written and brought to life through brilliant voice-acting and performances that I truly feel are among the best in the medium. The performances were so good, it didn’t matter to me one bit that wasn’t any English aside from the subtitles. They managed to completely win me over while speaking a different language. Every single character also goes through a satisfying arc that always manages to fit in with the pacing of the game and overall story. Not once did a pivotal moment feel out of place.
The combat may be a fairly typical 3D brawler but Yakuza injects a great deal of fun and character into it with over the top “heat moves.” These are special moves that you can executive when your “heat meter” is full and character positioning requirements are met. They are equal parts brutal and hilarious. Watching your character beat someone over the head with a traffic cone as yen flies out of them or performing a flip-kick while belting a Bruce Lee-esque battle cry never once failed to put a smile on my face. Ending an encounter with a heat move is one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve experienced in any game.
Another thing I can’t praise enough is how Yakuza 0 manages to so masterfully blend its serious, often dark and dramatic, main story with hilarious and quirky side content. One minute you’re in an intense stand-off with a dangerous foe and the next you’re chatting up girls at the local phone club or playing Sega classics like Out Run at the local arcade. Then you decide to hit up a local ramen joint but are caught in a street fight along the way. What happens next? You encounter an NPC in need of assistance, of course! This NPC has an embarrassing, and hilarious, personal problem that only you can fix! Who better to help with your underwear issues than an intimidating stranger who just brutally beat some local street thugs? On paper it sounds like this sort of constant, drastic shifting in tone would feel jarring and unnatural. But the team at Sega absolutely nails the execution.
And on top of every thing, the game is simply fun and a joy to play. Hours just melted away as I cracked skulls and became lost in the story. I had enjoyed it so much that I actively found myself thinking about it when I was away. Eagerness to return is, to me, perhaps the strongest indicator of a truly special game. And believe me, this is a special game. It’s loaded with character, heart, action, drama, humor and the sort of charm that is seemingly difficult to find outside of a Japanese developed game. To be clear, I do not mean that in any sort of derogatory way toward western developers. But it’s hard to deny that Japanese games often have a sort of whimsical charm that is almost entirely unique to them.
I could easily carry on and praise nearly every aspect of the game but I think you understand what I’m getting at. Yakuza 0 is a game that I once couldn’t have been any more indifferent towards that ended up becoming an all-time favorite of mine. And yes I’m aware that I’ve done nothing but talk about how amazing it is and how much I love it. I will be the first to also tell you that it does have its share of issues as any game does. But this isn’t a formal review, just the ramblings of someone who thoroughly enjoyed the game and is grateful for having the opportunity to play it. That’s because Yakuza 0 is the sort of game that’ll send chills down your spine, move you to tears and make you laugh out loud all within the first couple of hours. I can’t recommend it enough to anybody that enjoys a great story, fun combat and quality Japanese games in general.
But wait! There’s more…
Sega has already confirmed that Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the original game in the Yakuza 0 engine, along with the final story in the tale of Kazama Kiryu, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, will also be coming to the west in summer and winter 2017/18 respectively. They have gone on record saying that these latest three localizations were wholly their decision and didn’t involve Sony like Yakuza 5 did; they believe in the franchise and are handling these on their own.
Thank you, Sega. If you weren’t willing to continuously give this series a shot in the western market, I never would have gotten to enjoy one of the most memorable games of my life. And thanks to your efforts I still have two additional releases to look forward to in the coming months.
Once again, thank you, Sega.