Sega’s decision to send Yakuza back to its roots with Yakuza 0 was the correct one. It means those fresh to the series can get in on the action without having to play the other five entries, not to mention Yakuza Kenzan! (a spin off set in Edo period Kyoto) and Yakuza: Dead Souls (where the developers got trollied on sake - probably - and watched a load of old John Romero zombie films before creating a shooter). If you were thinking of dipping your toe into the wonderful world of Japanese gangster life, there has never been a better time, and I’m here to offer a guiding hand. Just because Yakuza 0 is an origin story doesn’t mean it comes without baggage both of the cultural sort – the Yakuza games are made principally for a Japanese audience after all – and of a gaming heritage that stretches back to 2005. I’ve also thrown in some handy tips to see you through some of the sterner challenges you’ll face along the way.
1. Don't expect GTA: Tokyo
While Yakuza 0 shares similar themes and an open-world setting, this is where its comparison with Grand Theft Auto ends. There’s no driving, very little shooting and while Kamurocho and Sotenbori are well-realised open world environments, they are only city prefectures as opposed to the state-sized land masses. That said, both areas in Yakuza 0 are brilliantly realised and well worth getting lost in, especially if you’ve ever fancied a trip to Tokyo yourself. From the hot coffee vending machines, the pokey Don Quiote corner shops (complete with incessant instore jingles) to the neon-bathed pachinko parlours and wavey-armed street hawkers desperate for you to come and sample their ‘world famous’ ramen soup.
Yakuza 0’s DNA has more to do with the Shenmue games than Grand Theft Auto, both having been developed by Sega. While some may be disappointed that Yakuza 0 is not a true open-world adventure, that shouldn’t put you off. Yakuza 0 has a brooding storyline concerning rival factions locked in a brutal power struggle and is told from two perspectives, long-running protagonist Kazuma Kiryu and wild card cabaret club owner, not to mention borderline psychopath, Goro Maijima. Murder, embezzlement, intrigue, curb stomps and a decent helping of heart, Yakuza 0 has carved its own niche in the action game landscape, so don’t ruin the experience by expecting it to be something it’s not.
2. Know your Yakuza
If you’ve never heard of the Yakuza before, think Goodfellas with samurai swords and you’re almost there. Japan’s organised crime syndicates began life in Edo period Japan formed from the members of two distinct social classes, the tekiya, who made a brisk trade in flogging dodgy merchandise at markets, and the bakuto, who ran illegal gambling dens and operated as load sharks. Through the years both groups grew and modernised, but the traditions of both are still evident in modern day yakuza culture seen in their intricate tattoos and hierarchical structure.
Modern day Yakuza follow a strict code of practice (generally not bothering people unaffiliated with yakuza activities), and steering clear of theft, armed robbery and other violent crime. Since the turn of the millennium, many yakuza families have evolved into semi-legitimate organisations, taking part in local festivals and even helping provide relief following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Yakuza 0 is, however, set in 1988, when the whole operation had a bit more bite to it. You may find that, while diplomacy may not be entirely out of the window, more arguments get settled with street furniture and the pavement than a frank discussion over a glass of single malt.
3. Sidequests are essential (and mad)
For some, the side quests in Yakuza 0 are the main attraction. While the main story thread is compelling and beautifully scripted, it’s all rather serious. The side quests, and there’s over 100 of them in total, are Yakuza 0’s comic relief. Be it organising an illicit rendezvous with a potential suitor on a toilet stall door (which ends in a brawl), winning a doll for a little girl from a grab machine (which ends in a brawl) or rescuing a mushroom dealer from a gang of thugs (you guessed it, brawl), Yakuza 0’s side quests offer a sideways view of Kamurocho and Sotenbori and the wacky people who live there. Before letting you fight them.
Perhaps more importantly, these side quests are a great source of money, which not only lets you buy stuff (duh) but is also used to progress your character and build your stats. And, seeing as most quests end with you not so delicately planting your heel in some fool’s forehead, taking the opportunity to test your mettle will serve you well in future fights.
4. Own the city (literally)
Hostess bars are a bit of a Japanese phenomenon, and have featured proudly in Yakuza games since the first entry in the series. At its core, a hostess bar provides a little female company for its patrons, although there are also host bars where the genders of host and patron are reversed. The patron pays for the hostess’ time and drinks (which are usually watered down and staggeringly over-priced) while the hostess laughs at jokes, listens to woes, light cigarettes and generally encourages him to buy more booze and keep coming back. Hostesses are generally considered a descendant of geisha and, while most bars employ a strict no touching policy, there are far less salubrious versions to be found in the darker corners of Japan’s major cities.
In past iterations the Yakuza games have only let you frequent hostess bars as patron, but Yakuza 0 lets you become the owner and operator of one such den of iniquity, the demurely titled Sunshine Cabaret Club. The hostess mini game becomes available once you reach chapter 7, and is a great way to pocket wads of Yen on the side. You are tasked with finding new hostesses on the street by completing tasks or offering them a gift. New hostess are rated between bronze and platinum (gross, I know) and once signed up to the club, it’s up to you as manager to train and choose appropriate outfits for them. It’s a far more in-depth experience than in previous games, but harbours greater reward. If your morals can withstand such a prolonged onslaught, it’s certainly worth checking out.
5. Share your stuff between characters
It’s not overtly obvious, but there is a way to transfer money and items between the two playable characters. This becomes useful later in the game if one character has raked in more than his fair share, and you feel it’s time to spread the wealth.
The ability to swap out items between Kiryu and Majima cannot be unlocked until chapter 6, which is when the real-estate mini game becomes available. During this chapter you’ll be instructed to head to the empty lot, where you’ll meet a man in a lime green suit. This less than dapper individual has a handful of optional interactions, one of which sends you to the Vincent Bar to speak to Fukushima, who will teach you how to make the exchanges. In the beginning you can only exchange certain things, but this broadens out the more you play. It’s only a small feature, but a lifeline if you find your characters are becoming unbalanced.
6. Make friends and obliterate people
Kamurocho and Sotenbori are filled with all sorts of miscreants, wierdos and oddballs, many of whom you’ll end up throwing through plate-glass windows or slam their heads in taxi car doors. There are some, however, that can offer more than just a place to warm your knuckle duster. Yakuza 0 has a friend system, a collection of city dwellers you can meet up with, run errands for, and generally repent for all the harm you’ve caused during your reign of thuggery. There’s plenty of people to befriend, and they are well worth your time and effort, as the rewards they offer are some of the best in the game.
A personal favourite of mine is Mr Libido, a semi-nude thrusting bundle of testosterone, usually found wherever there’s an image of a semi-clad woman. Keep meeting him and your friendship will blossom resulting in prizes galore.
7. You don’t have to fight EVERYBODY
Smashing fools in the face with bus signs can get you down. While it’s advisable in the early parts of the game to do as much fighting as possible (those stats aren’t going to rise on their own you know), towards the back end of the plot it can grow wearisome, especially if you’ve got a hot date with someone who’s being paid to hang out with you. Street thugs will approach you endlessly in Yakuza 0 (you must just have one of those faces) and there are multiple ways to avoid the confrontation. And before anyone asks, it’s pacifism – not spinelessness!
Once you’ve hit chapter 6 you’ll meet a character who teaches you the scatter money technique, whereby you’ll literally throw money at your problems. This is all fair and good if you’ve got the dosh to burn, but another good method of conflict avoidance is by taking taxis everywhere. While there is no fast travel in Yakuza 0, this is about as close as you can get and cuts out a huge amount of humping it past thugs. Lastly, and it’s not exactly the yakuza way, you can just sprint past any potential troublemakers. They’ll chase you for a bit but eventually give up. It seems obvious in hindsight, but it took me some time before I realised cowardly retreating was even an option.
8. Don't forget to use holds and throws
If pacifism isn’t really your thing (you’ve bought a Yakuza game, so it’s a safe bet that you’re not against the idea of caving in someone’s skull with a traffic cone) then you’ll need a few fighting tips. Seeing as Yakuza 0 very rarely offers you a fair fight, 10 on 1 is a common occurrence, you should know that grabbing someone means you’re pretty much impossible to be knocked down. When the goons are getting too close for comfort, grab onto one, wait for the right moment and then throw them as hard as possible into their buddies. Going down is a sure-fire way for the pain to multiply, so keeping on your toes is a handy defence, especially as the fights get tougher in the second half of the game.
9. Drink your troubles away
Yeah. Not sure what kind of message this passes out, but drinking in Yakuza 0 – as in life – unlocks hidden abilities when it’s time to throw down. There are bars dotted all around the maps, each stocked to the rafters with every kind of whiskey you could imagine (complete with handy tasting notes). Smash a few of these and your heat meter will fill sooner and certain skills will become unlocked, which are apparently impossible to do while sober. So yeah, go nuts.
On the topic of drinking, it’s also worth keeping a fair stock of energy drinks (such as Stamina X etc.) in your inventory at all times, but especially when you’re about to head into a story mission. These can lead into protracted fights with multiple enemies set over numerous encounters, so the last thing you want to do is run out of sugary rocket fuel to help finish off those last remaining gangsters, which leads us nicely to…
10. Save like it’s 1998
Yakuza 0 doesn’t have an auto-save function, you need to do it manually from a phone booth. This is one of those things you’re only ever going to do once, but losing a couple of hours because you didn’t know is infuriating. Now you don’t need to go through such anguish, because you read ahead, well done you.