11 July 2017

Yakuza Zero | A Brawl Worth Surviving?

You’re walking through the crowded streets of Kamurocho, ripe with 80’s wonder. People walking their date home hoping for the ever elusive kiss, standing in line for that delicious takoyaki (たこ焼き) or even duking it out at the arcades in some glorious match of Outrun(アウトラン) - a classic for sure. But as you walk around a sound is heard in the distance: a crowd gathering. You hear terms being shouted. "桐生一馬!!! あいつを捕まえろ"!!! You peak over the crowd and see a man standing in the middle exhuming the aura of a dragon and facing off against a group of delinquents. As he cracks his knuckles you shiver, when his headbutt collides you shudder. A punch to the stomach follows. Then a dropkick. He gets hit once but doesn’t care. This isn’t a fight for honor but a brawl. He uses the momentum of the blow to grab another and slams him into a car." かっこいい で末ね!" says one bystander but you don’t understand. What is going on? When the last of the thugs hits the ground the man dressed in a white suit, with a shirt featuring a golden-chain design, walks off with a cigarette in his mouth and a calm demeanor radiating from his shoulders. As the camera pans upwards out of sight you realize you are not important here. This is a story about Kazuma Kiryu  (桐生一馬), and this is Yakuza Zero (龍が如く0).


Yakuza Zero is the sixth main entry in the Yakuza series, starring Kazuma Kiryu and his fists and Majima Goro and his baseball bat, which until recently only enjoyed popularity in Japan. After a brief stint with a fully dubbed Yakuza 1 on the Playstation 2 the game stayed fully Japanese only providing subtitles in the west. This resulted in poor sales and as the franchise continued these bad sales were further aided by being a rough series to get into - starting with part 5 of a series is never a good idea. Yet here we stand, Yakuza Zero; the prequel to all iterations. Originally released in Japan exclusively on the Playstation 3 it has now gotten a full Playstation 4 re-release with a nice smooth 60 frames per second as a bonus. What better way to get into the series than this?



As Kiryu strolls through the well re-constructed city of Kamurocho he’s got plenty of activities to dive into. Maybe he’ll partake in a game of Mahjong, go mini-karting, do some karaoke or bet on bikini wrestlers? On his way to watch the final match he passes by a dominatrix who wishes to punish her slaves better and Kiryu can’t help but assist her; the world of the yakuza is unique that way. But during his stroll Kiryu - pondering which arcade to visit- is bound to be noticed by some punks, yakuza or even drunkards who want to throw down. There is no loading screen, people gather round to form an arena and the brawl begins. Fighting is done using a simple Light Attack, Heavy Attack and Grab setup. Light attacks are used to start a combo, heavy attacks finish the attack-string which contain special properties like causing a knockdown, and grabs can be used against slow or blocking foes. Yakuza Zero plays its cards one at a time by slowly introducing new elements to the combat as it rolls along. It isn’t long before Kiryu can grab nearby objects like billboards and even teapots to make the lives of all evil-doers a nightmare, dripping hot water in their eyes for maximum satisfaction.
More slowly introduced are the fighting-stances with each containing a different style of play and even their own soundtrack. Kiryu begins with “Brawler” - which is the most basic and contains the core gameplay. It can grab foes, attack them, pick up objects and interact with the environment. It also has a solid block, a minor dodge to get out of harm’s way and if hit can cancel the stagger animation and use the momentum to dish out your own pain - an eye for an eye. The second style - “Rush” - can’t grab but has much faster attacks, can stun enemies, chain dodges and duck and weave through blows to stay on the offensive. Lastly there’s “Beast”, a style that deals a ton of damage and will slice through most enemies like they’re made of juiciest steak at the cost of not (really) being able to block and having a slow movement speed. Due to these varying designs each style has their own purpose in a brawl which is complimented by an late-game item called the “Quick Change Clothes”. These allow Kiryu to change stances during attacks to cancel them offering even more variety. As he throws out a dropkick which used to end with Kiryu on the floor he now cancels it by switching to "Rush Style" - having him stand up immediately and ready to continue kicking ass. It doesn’t take long for them to fall before his fists.


But as Kiryu walks away he is soon met by even more enemies and it is here that you’ll realize that this time it's not delinquents, but a drunkard who want your blood. Yakuza Zero contains many variations on enemy types which, while all men, use different styles of fighting themselves. Some use one of your own, others a variation or just a singular weapon. Knowing how they fight can’t be determined by their looks but by how they stand - rewarding knowledgeable players but also always keeping them on guard. The enemies in Yakuza, as they will bump in on you, are made in such a way that they can be dealt with no matter how you play. All can be beaten with just the “Brawler” style but one can also buy guns or other weapons to deal with them - or forgo that and style them up with a quick change of clothes. There are items abound to customize the difficulty to your own terms such as a charm which when worn decreases enemy aggression. This allows even players who don’t excel at the combat to enjoy the other elements the game has to offer.
In their offensive enemies can be quite ruthless; one attack combo can put Kiryu on the ground and they will keep attacking you while downed for extra damage. Getting cornered is, as a result, not a good idea. Fights - no, brawls - revolve around grounding certain foes so you can single out a one enemy and quickly beat him while keeping an overview of the battlefield. Using the radar gives a nice overview like showing you where off-screen enemies are located. After every four chapters all random enemy encounters will have gain one extra enemy within them slowly building the player up to a skill level where he can deal with the insanity of the final mission, a nice twist.
Depth of the game’s combat is extended in two elements, “wall-bouncing” and “Heat actions”. A quick backhand against the drunkards head sends him flying against a wall which bounces him back. During this bounce he can be hit a few more times, a nice one-two punch in the stomach ended with a grab that throws him into the sky. Setting a foe up for a wall-bounce requires good spacing and situational awareness but is rewarding in and of itself with some nice added damage and style.

And then there’s the “Heat actions”: special moves that cost energy. As Kiryu beats the drunkard into submission a meter will fill, with three in total. The higher his meter the faster and more damaging he is, but it also grants him access to unique moves and “Heat actions” which drain it when used. These require Kiryu to be in a certain position, stance or situation and reward you with a slick animation and high damage. Knuckles crack, fists fly and all sorts of mundane objects crush bones in brutal fashion - no costs were spared on the animations. They can’t be described and need to be seen.
Yet they are hampered by their own existence. It is often unclear how much meter a certain "Heat action" will cost and if Kiryu is in a situation where two "Heat actions" could apply the game simply picks the one of the top of the availability list. While Kiryu wanted to suplex the drunkard into a bicycle rack he instead just threw him against a wall; while brutal it was not what he wanted to do with his victim. But as a piece of game design they compliment the game perfectly as it is all about spacing and managing the enemies themselves - creating openings and punishing hard.
With the drunkard taking a well deserved nap on the pavement the ground shakes and Kiryu turns to see a towering giant. The man is a legend going by many names but most know him as Mister Shakedown, the apex predator who beats people up for all their money. Money has multiple uses in Yakuza Zero; early on it mostly serves to buy healing items, small upgrades like new more protective clothing and to buy new abilities for each fighting style. If you beat Mister Shakedown, who roams the world-map in search of prey, you’ll gain massive amounts of money. Lose? He takes all your cash and it is added to his reward should you ever beat him. It is a sound mechanic but the combat will decide how the concept fairs. Shakedown doesn’t have many moves and all are quite slow in their start-up and recovery - but what is noticeable about them is that, especially early on, all of them will beat Kiryu in one blow. This is direct contradiction with the whole brawly feeling of Yakuza’s combat where getting hit is part of the fight. Against Shakedown you aren’t observing the battlefield or taking a hit to deal a hit but you are on the defensive, dodging moves and punishing them as hard as possible during his recovery: a more standard action game romp. It is these fights that are thankfully the exception but it still makes Shakedown stand out as an all round boring encounter made worse by the fact that the rewards are really worth it later-on.

This extends to the bosses. While epic in their encounters, the bosses are a tad lacking in their overall design. To counteract Kiryu going ham on them several limitations have been put in place such as bosses being able to cancel out of being hit and counter you back making the fight hard to no-damage unless you play very defensive. But combat in Yakuza is more a brawl than a fight for life or death, and it oozes this in its style and presentation. No matter how good you are, if you go ham, at the end you’ll stand there all bloodied and out of breath - but also ready for the next round.



As Kiryu walks off into the sunset, the boss defeated, another chapter loads up. This time with a different protagonist: Majima Goro. While all the above mechanics are valid for him as well - also containing a more fluid style and a high damage style - his setup is hampered by not having access to the "Quick Change Clothing" severely limiting his combat options. Instead his brawls are more focused on weapons. Like Kiryu he can pick up, buy and wield weapons ranging from tonfas, nunchucks and even katanas but unlike Kiryu he can learn unique attacks for them and eventually learn passive talents that remove durability-counters. This design makes Majima feel more focused on efficiency - bizarre as of the two he’s the most crazy while Kiryu is more stoic in nature. And while very fun to play as it can get quite grading that you can’t choose at will which character to play, especially on on subsequent playthroughs - the same goes for certain scenes being unskippable. But even after all the fighting is done Yakuza Zero isn’t over- tons of distraction awaits. Yet in a bizarre twist the fighting is influenced by it. Many of Kiryu’s and Majima’s abilities are hidden behind a gate which can only be broken by partaking in a time consuming mini-game; which has to be redone every playthrough. This mini-game alone can take up to 10 hours to complete and at the end unlocks a fourth fighting style for cast. While a fun reward it’s bizarre to hide such combat focused elements behind such a mini-game.

As Kiryu and Majima go on the rest of their adventure we are left at peace to wonder, how was this game? To watch Yakuza in action will make it feel stiff and unwieldily yet when played it is fluid and impactful. The combat offers a large variety of options while presenting it in a unique brawler style where each fight feels real despite the anime-esque moves. Punches are visceral and headbutts make you feel the crackling bone. But it is as a whole that the game truly shines containing mini-games abound, distractions everywhere and a plot that will have you hooked until the end and beyond. Yakuza Zero is done with more style and grace than some games that focus on it today.






opinion style
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In this short section I switch my own style to that of an opinion and give you a little peak on what my take is on this article.

Like many others I had wanted to dive into this series for years but didn’t do so; the insane amount of games and eastern focus didn’t jibe with me. Yet when I heard of a prequel and people kept on recommending it to me I finally got it to take a break from Nioh and...I absolutely hated it. The start was filled with cutscenes, character dialogue, slow-walking and other parts that forced the story on me. The combat was hard to get used to and felt really wooden and stiff. Yet I am happy I stuck with it as the game went completely bonkers soon after and by the fourth chapter I was completely embroiled in the story and just couldn’t look back - I wanted to go forward and see how it all ended. Not many games do that to me and even less have me pre-ordering the next game in line months in advance. Yakuza Kiwami can’t come soon enough!
postscript notes
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  • Funnily enough, the currency used in the western version of the game is Yen(¥). This is a commonly misused wording by westerners as their real coin is the the En (円). The Japanese version of Yakuza Zero still uses the correct coin, the En (円).
  • Since some side-missions in this series revolve around job interviews it was notoriously hard to find actual developer interviews.
  • One reviewer actually consulted actual yakuza members and had them play through the game for his review of Yakuza 3, impressive. Read it here.
  • Despite not being popular in the west, Kiryu is considered a Sony mascot in Japan.
  • The series is known for using famous actors in their games, the same is done here with Hitoshi Ozawa, Riki Takeuchi and Hideo Nakano.
  • I really tried to convey the Japanese feeling but also the brawling nature by the way this piece was written. I hope it worked nicely for you too!

Release-date:  March 12, 2015 |  Director: Kazuki Hosokawa | Designer: Koji Yoshida | Platform: Playstation 4(played), Playstation 3

3 comments :

  1. I have been aware of Yakuza series for a long time but never played any until yakuza 0 this year, its a very good combat system while not being the most complex still having enough variety to keep encounters interesting, especially the various heat moves that have only gotten more fun to use. im looking forward to yakuza kiwami coming to the west even if it is same combat. id love to see yakuza ishin be ported also, that has a very interesting mix of fists, swords and guns, a novel mix of samurai and cowboy, im sure zan would be proud.

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    1. I'd love to see those spin-offs hit it off here too, but only time will tell. From what I can see Kiwami is different under the hood though. Lots more cancels and a less overpowered fourth style. One of the few games I have pre-ordered haha! You?

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    2. That explains why i think kiryu dragon of dojima style is locked behind the wonderful majima anywhere system. i havent pre ordered but i will see its price and buy it soon enough.

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