Reviews// Yakuza Zero

Posted 13 Feb 2017 12:06 by
It's really hard for me to talk about Yakuza without mentioning Yu Suzuki's Shenmue, but I'm going to try, largely because comparisons, at this point, are largely superficial.

The Yakuza series, now spanning more than seven games including spin-offs, has had varying degrees of success. Some entries have not been released outside of Japan, perhaps hinting at how culturally rooted the game series tends to be, but also how much work localisation would be required for each release. Yakuza Zero comes at a fortunate time. Release schedules earlier in the year are often quite barren following the Christmas rush. This allows games that may be passed over at other times to be given more attention.

Yakuza Zero absolutely deserves to be played by a wide audience. I haven't played a game this absorbing for an extremely long time. What initially appears to be a standard revenge and redemption story becomes far more nuanced as the game progresses, enhanced by wonderful cut scenes that led me to forget, on many occasions, that I was playing a game. Indeed, occasionally I was rather disappointed to have control given back to me and would perhaps have preferred to have remained a spectator.

A lack of interactivity is the main flaw that Yakuza has and although it is not enough to damage the game, it is noticeable as the core gameplay mechanics, fighting and exploration are rather repetitive. Combat in particular, although extremely satisfying and never tiresome, is predictable.

Unlike, for example, the Grand Theft Auto series, the player is never given the freedom to approach challenges in the way he or she feels would be most effective. Most missions end with either a mass brawl or collecting an item to give to someone. Overall, there is a general lack of freedom in a game which, if the player is expecting an 'open world adventure,' they will likely feel disappointed.

Interaction with the environment is minimal and although the city looks fantastic, the player is limited to exploring areas designated on the map in order to further mission objectives. Spontaneity comes from the discovery of side missions (more on those later) but there is a general feeling of scripting by Sega that does not allow players to make their own way in the world. This is not a significant problem as the path the developers want to take the player on is interesting enough. However new players to the series, or those who have only played western-style open world games, may be put off by the lack of freedom provided.

Combat is similarly restrictive. The two playable characters, Kiryu and Majima, have a variety of fighting styles available to them that are slowly unlocked as the game progresses. Each style can then be upgraded by spending money earned by successfully surviving random battles that occur as the player traverses the city. These random battles are curious as they really remind me of the way in which more traditional Japanese role playing games force the player to 'level up' by grinding experience.

The same is true of Yakuza, although instead of experience the player gains money which can then be reinvested into expanding each character's fighting abilities, or gambled in mini-games or spent on food and clothing etc. The rationale for these battles always feels a little weak as both Kiryu and Majima are regularly attacked on the street seemingly because the attackers know of their Yakuza connections.

Whilst the fights are taking place, spectators gather around cheering and clapping, although there is never any police intervention which, given the environment, feels a little odd. However, although these events occur with tremendous regularity they are short and enjoyable enough to stop them from becoming a chore. Although a little repetitive, combat is stylish and extremely satisfying. These random encounters never really feel like the core of the game, they serve as a means to an end, honing the player's skills for the real point of the game, the story and side missions.

The point at which I realised that I had become thoroughly absorbed in the game came at the start of Chapter 3. At this point a new character is introduced via a 15-20 minute long film sequence. After about five minutes I had forgotten I was playing a game, the quality of the story and acting rivalling any Hong Kong or Japanese drama series.
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