November 10, 2019 at 2:29 PM #893
Rating: 3.5 – Good
A gripping drama in a foreign land worth its repetitive combat
Several times in the past I've thought "hmmm, that Yakuza series looks kinda interesting", but I never took the time to actually pick one up. Part of this was my rather modest reaction to most open world games, part of this was my aversion to starting things in the middle and a difficulty finding the first one by the time I was interested, and part was a general disinterest in organized crime things. But two things changed. First, my positive experience with Sleeping Dogs, a story about the Chinese Triads in an open world really changed my mind about what I could get out of an open world. New York doesn't have much sway with me, it's an American city and I'm an American (plus it's in every piece of media imaginable), but Hong Kong? That's a city that's strange and foreign and fascinating. So this opened my mind quite a bit towards Yakuza, and then Yakuza Zero came along to rave reviews. A prequel! I could get in BEFORE the ground floor! So this review is for people like me. People who haven't ever played a Yakuza game before and want to know if it's worth their time. Series veterans, please forgive me if some references to the future are missing. This is a newbie review, for the newbies, by a series newbie!
Yakuza Zero is an open world game with a heavy emphasis on brawling combat. You play as two protagonists rather equally. Kazuma Kiryu, the series' main protagonist, and Goro Majima, another series veteran. The plot is centered in the "town" of Kamurocho and a piece of property in the middle of it whose owner is missing. That one piece of property is essential to the Tojo Clan's (Kiryu and Majima's Yakuza clan) plan to sell all the property on the block for a huge profit. And being a bunch of criminals, the Yakuza are willing to do anything to get the deed to that property. Through a series of unfortunate events (for them), both our protagonists are put in positions where they might not be entirely with the plan. Giving away more would require spoilers, and I'm not willing to do that to what is ultimately a great story. Yakuza is a plot full of intrique and twists and great characters. Despite my predilection against organized crime in general, by the end of the game I cared for virtually everyone we'd intereacted with, and those I didn't care about I hated.and most of them I somewhat respected still. Characters have complicated motives and somehow everyone is simultaneously allies and enemies at the same time. The story is long and complicated and deep and I loved it all. It's the single most compelling reason to play Yakuza Zero, especially if this isn't a culture you've spent a lot of time with.
Sadly, how you progress through that story isn't quite as impressive. The primary way you interact with the world and the story is through hand to hand combat. Combat is accomplished through the use of light and heavy attacks, combos, throws, grabs, equippable weapons of dubious durability, and my favorite, picking up random objects from the street and bashing people over the head with them. You have a health meter and a heat meter, with the goal of combat being to build up your heat meter with normal attacks and then using special "heat" moves to take out enemies quickly. The combat as a whole reminds me of old school arcade brawlers, where you had to repeatedly beat on every enemy to get them to stay down, and this forms the basis of the problem. Combat feels ok, but ultimately becomes too repetitive to really enjoy. Enemies have slightly too much life, guard too much, and evade too much to where fighting even simple enemies can be a bit too time consuming. The game attempts to add variety by giving each protagonist three unique fighting styles all their own, and while they do a good job of differentiating these styles, they don't do enough to alleviate the repetitiveness, especially late game. I also wonder about the balance between the three. While I used all of Kiryu's styles through most of the game, the high damage potential of Majima's bat style meant that I barely used his other two simply because it took far too long. Upgrades help, with each style having their own upgrade tree that is funded entirely through cold hard cash, but too many of the upgrades are niche moves that I rarely ever used. This same niche problem comes up with the "heat" attacks. Though absolutely necessary in clearly encounters in a reasonable time and quite fun the first time you see each of them, there's only a few heat attacks that you'll encounter regularly, with most of the others locked behind situations that you just don't' get into that often to see. Overall the combat system isn't horrible and I don't want to undersell it too badly. I had fun slamming a guy into a wall, gut punching him a couple times, then slamming his head into the concrete, but the fact that I saw that animation a few hundred times is a good example of how the repetitiveness pushes the combat system into mediocrity.
But while combat is the core of the game and the story is very much the heart, the truth is both could end up being just a small fraction of the time you spend with Yakuza Zero. The open world of Yakuza Zero isn't that large. There are two "towns" that you can explore, one for each character. They don't' take too much space, and you can get from one end to the other in just a couple minutes (and if that's too long you can take a taxi). But they are DENSE. Describing all the things you can do in YZ is almost futile given the breadth of things to do. Arcade games, Karaoke, Bowling, Pool, Batting Practice, or little race cars, YZ has you covered. And while open world games often have other little mini-games hidden within, the DEPTH of these games is truly what stands out. The Pocket Circuit requires you to buy parts, build a race car out of dozens of different parts., assist it in winning slot car races. The bowling game is fun to play even though you're limited to three frames. And yes, as far as I can tell, you can play the whole Space Harrierif you're good enough. Two of these minigames are fully fleshed out, one for each character. Kiryu will get to build and manage a real estate empire, managing security, managers, and buying upgrades to improve cash flow. Majima will manage a Cabaret Club, which is more innocent than it first may seem. A Cabaret Club is a club where men go to spend time with hostesses talking, drinking, and eating. Majima is responsible for hiring and training the girls and matching them with the right customers based on their stats.
In between getting to all these places you'll encounter plenty of sidestories. The sidestories are just that, little side stories that both Kiryu and Majima will discover through the world. They'll come across some outlandish situation or just some every day problem and they can choose to solve it. While most of these are inevitably involve beating people up, not all are so simple. Sometimes it's as simple as bringing people specific items, sometimes it's as ridiculous as trying to stay out of sight while you buy a porn magazine from a vending machine (for someone else, naturally). Some of these stories are heartfelt, some are hilarious, but I was glad I did almost all of them that I did. There's dozens to find though, so full completion is difficult, but that just means there's plenty to discover as you're trekking across the world. It's a small thing, but it does a lot to make all those treks across Kamurocho and Sotenbori interesting. You never know who you're going to find along the way.
Tying all this together is the completion point system. The game gives you dozens of little goals to accomplish and rewards you with a completion point for each one you accomplish. These completion points can be trading for bonus abilities, world systems, and equipment not available other ways. Goals range from beating a certain number of opponents with a certain style to traveling a certain distance on foot to entertaining yourself with any one of the numerous minigames to eating every item on a menu at a restaurant. Just like the sidestories, this really ties the world together and makes you do different things. When I needed to heal, I found myself seeking out new restaurants to work on getting another completion point. It turns something that would be rote into something slightly interesting.
The Heart of Yakuza Zero is awesome. The Frills of Yakuza Zero are awesome. But it's all built around a beat-em-up style combat system that just gets boring after a while. And you do so much of it that your tolerance of that system is going to determine your enjoyment of Yakuza Zero. If you don't mind or even enjoy the combat, then Yakuza Zero gets my whole hearted endorsement. It's gripping storyline and dozens of side amusements make it a must pick up if you enjoy that combat. But if you don't.it's just a question of tolerance. The storyline is absolutely worth seeing, to the point where I'd still recommend it. But maybe just a rental. Grit your teeth and get through it.
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