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Many will consider this the best Yakuza yet. For me, the static gameplay outside of combat may have finally taken its toll

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    Yakuza 0

    Rating: 3.0 – Fair

    Many will consider this the best Yakuza yet. For me, the static gameplay outside of combat may have finally taken its toll

    It pains me to say that franchise fatigue may be finally setting in for Sega’s long-running Yakuza series, which originated on the PS2 and which has seen an almost nonstop tradition of annual releases since.

    The first Yakuza (known as Ryu ga Gotoku in Japan) was a breath of fresh air when it landed on Western shores in 2006; the game’s strong storytelling, fun combat system, and vibrant Japanese open world city took inspiration from everything from Grand Theft Auto to the Shenmue series. And though aspects of its game design were dated even then, the Yakuza series managed to strike a chord with a huge fanbase in Japan, and developed a cult following in the West, and I was eager to devour every non-spinoff entry Sega opted to localize.

    Yakuza 0’s a strange one to review, because on the surface and viewed apart from the context of how many similar games to this I’ve played by now, I’m sure it can arguably be called the best one yet. It scales back a ton on the filler gameplay and characters which have permeated the series from parts 3 on, and being the first on the PS4, its graphics are a fairly noticeable step above past entries despite its obvious PS3 origins. It also features the battle system that Yakuza arguably should have had from the start, and fan favorites Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima serve as the sole playable characters.

    It finds itself in the unique place where it can actually be a strong jumping in point narratively for newcomers, as it starts all the way back at the beginning, telling the origins of both characters and their battles from within the Japanese underbelly, offering something for both old and new fans alike.

    And yet, somehow I found myself enjoying it far less than any installment to date. This is the 6th game, everybody, (the actual numbered Yakuza 6 will be out in the West next year) not including a host of spinoffs. So whatever improvements Yakuza 0 manages to make, it can’t escape the fact that we’ve done this all before. Sega’s been throwing more and more onto an old, rickety framework for years with this series to further and further diminishing returns, and with 0 I think I might have finally had it.

    But let me step back a bit. Serving as a prequel, Yakuza 0 is a solid place to step in for newcomers, though many will be surprised by how dated it is, and it *is* dated. Newcomers may or may not be bothered by Yakuza 0’s various 6th gen quirks, including its use of the save point/item box system despite it adding nothing to the game, or the fact that accessing your Inventory in the heat of battle is still done by hitting the Start Button (far out of reach on the PS4 controller) and then scrolling through an Options menu, or that you still can’t do something as simple as placing a mark on your map, or of course that hours upon hours of Yakuza 0 are spent reading lifeless text boxes and the “not quite, but almost” random battles that take place frequently as you try to explore the town.

    As someone who has been with the series since day 1, and someone who has seen its gameplay in between battles undergo very little evolution game after game, I find myself finally on the verge of losing interest.

    But to some, these remnants of decade-old game design are part of the Yakuza series’ charm, and this is a series that has always had charm to spare. From the comically over-the-top violence in its beat-em-up combat system, to its hilariously-written sidequests and “more badass than badass” main characters, not to mention two at times truly immersive cities to explore, (both of course returning from past games) what makes a Yakuza game a Yakuza game is certainly still here and on full display, so fans who aren’t bothered by these frustratingly outdated aspects will likely have a blast. And I did too, up until a point.

    One source of my enjoyment is that Yakuza 0 features a much-improved combat system involving the ability to switch battle styles on the fly, each feeling incredibly different from one another. Both Kazuma and Majima have their own variations on these styles, which adds a whole new level of strategy to the proceedings. The upgrade system’s fairly simple as well, with money serving as both the in-game currency and as the way to level up your characters, and it works fairly well for the most part. The difficulty has also been slightly increased from the too-easy Yakuza 5, which is a good thing and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

    It’s a shame then that much of the combat is centered around nameless punks who show up to block your path as you wander through the streets, making battles feel more like an interruption than something to look forward to. It’s possible, but often difficult, to run away from these mundane pursuers, but in an industry where combat’s increasingly being woven far more organically into the proceedings, Yakuza’s continuing effort to treat it like an interruption makes the minute-to-minute experience of going from Point A to Point B feel like a drag.

    The frustrating thing for me is that these issues are not stemming from any sort of technical constraints; that’s something I’d at least be understanding of. Instead, they seem to stem more from a developer strategy to reuse much of the framework from game to game, even aspects of it that don’t make sense anymore. And aspects that did (such as Yakuza 5’s sidejobs or Yakuza 3’s photography mechanic) are inexplicably absent from 0.

    Certainly the load times that the series once had when going into battle are basically gone, and the neverending stream of text boxes that convey much of the game’s narrative are, as in Yakuza 5, thankfully voice acted, albeit in Japanese, so eye strain when reading them is still very much a factor. That Yakuza 0’s well-directed, thrilling, and cinematic cutscenes have to often transition into text boxes is likely budgetary, but the game does additionally feature a few cool comic book-style cutscenes which could have easily been the solution to this, though it sadly only makes use of these once in a blue moon.

    In the end, Yakuza 0, like its predecessors, offers improvements to its battle system, while the gameplay outside of it remains disappointingly stagnant. It still has the goons randomly appearing in the city streets to get in your way, it still sends you on uninspired shopping trips, it still forces you to wander aimlessly looking for …something to happen when the game occasionally opts not to provide you with a Radar Blip. The two cities you explore are almost identical to their appearances in other Yakuza games; Kamurocho is even missing its rooftop and underground areas. The phrase “more of the same” has never felt so appropriate, and after 5 games of this, that just isn’t enough to grab me anymore.

    The story at least benefits greatly from an improved focus over the sprawling, multi-character storylines of Yakuza’s 4 and 5. Yakuza 0 provides helpful catchup videos when switching back and forth between Kazuma and Majima’s storylines, and there’s a part of me that will always find myself compelled by the intense, clockwork narrative this series presents. Here too though Yakuza 0 falls into some of the same traps of its predecessors; dialogue (in the non-cinematic cutscenes) circles the point again and again; nothing’s said without being said twice. Characters are written to be so “badass” that their deaths almost always feel like their own fault. In addition to Yakuza 0’s surprisingly light use of strong supporting NPC characters, we’re again treading down the same well-worn paths: those being of course the path of revenge, and that of fragile female characters always in distress. Any time the game seems to be edging into exciting new territory, it falls right back in line behind its tired ideas and narrative shortcomings; characters who waste their last breath telling others to RUN only to have the others stand there in total shock nevertheless, villains who are smug and slimy and not especially compelling, people standing around taunting and lecturing those who they intend to kill, and did I mention the most inconsistent kidney injury in the history of anything?

    It’s sad because it leads to a truly beautiful ending, and a great closing point to both where the series has been and where it will go; a very impressive feat for a prequel and something that, as a longtime fan, was nice to see. In fact the finale itself is awesome and beats Yakuza 5’s pop concert by a mile. Reviewing this has been a challenge because I know that on paper, this is a Yakuza game, and it does that, well, the way it always has. People looking for this, or people new to the series, may find themselves enjoying this game, just like I did with Yakuza 1 back on the PS2, and several of them since.

    All these games in, I guess it’s just no longer enough to do it for me.

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