My First Foray into the World of Yakuza

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Of all the wonderful books I’ve read over the years, only a handful gave me that feeling. You know the one. It’s the feeling you get when you read that last word on the last page and reluctantly flip the back cover over. You realize in that instant that the time you’ve poured into those wonderful characters, their world, and the motivators that pushed them along the way is now over. You sit there looking at the object in your hands like its a strange and powerful artifact. Something clutches at your heart like the combination of a panic attack, kissing your soul mate, and putting the final touches on your Magnum opus. You’ve accomplished something that’s going to stick with you forever. It’s still there…but in a way its gone. You’ll never get to experience that story in the same way again and you know that. There’s a weight with this, too – a realization that nothing else you do for the rest of that day is going to compare to that moment.

Glee and heartache, despair and longing. Would that I could have more of those moments.

Like I said, I’ve read a lot of really good books, but only a few have left me in a state like this. I can list them here without effort:

  • Tolkien’s The Return of the King
  • Martin’s A Storm of Swords (I read this immediately after the first two, but before feast was published), A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons
  • Sanderson’s The Way of Kings & Words of Radiance
  • Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind

Looking at this list, there must some common factors contributing to that feeling. Let’s see – all of these books pulled me into their world and truly transported me to a place that felt real. All of them had characters that felt alive – people that I could become deeply and emotionally invested in. Lastly, they all contained plots that easily obtained my buy-in for the things that were at stake, ending with a sense of finality that took an above-average amount of time to get there.

Those three things – they all struck a special chord in regards to world, characters, and plot.

There is only one other format that has left me with ‘the feeling’: video games. Those, however, have been even fewer and farther between. For all the same reasons as the books above, here are the only games that had this effect on me:

  • Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
  • Ni No Kuni
  • The Last of Us

And now: Yakuza Zero

I could talk at length about my love for all of the titles above, book and game alike, but here I’m going to gush about my first, and incredibly long overdue, experience with the Yakuza franchise.

Before I get into spoiler territory, check out this E3 trailer from 2016 so you can get a feel for this game:

BEWARE [[MINOR SPOILERS FOR YAKUZA ZERO BELOW]]

Few places have welcomed me with such open arms as Yakuza’s Kamurocho and Sotenbori districts. These two locations make up a majority of where you’ll spend all your time in Yakuza Zero. The extent to which they are painstakingly detailed and modeled after real Japanese tourism districts highlights a very honest effort by the developers to immerse you in 1980’s Japan.

Check out this video comparing Yakuza’s fictional Sotenbori district with real world counterpart Dotonbori. And this one for a comparison between Kamurocho and its actual counterpart, Kabukicho.

These fictional locales being modeled after real places certainly lends to the game’s authenticity, but it hardly comes close to doing it justice. It would have been easy to put time into creating these places only to leave them feeling empty. Nine-tenths of Kamurocho and Sotenbori’s charm, however, are in the way that Sega filled and used this space.

Walking down the streets of either location you will find carefully reconstructed versions of 1980’s Japan. This ranges from the people, the attractions, and the landscape. Bright neon lights fill the alleys to persuade you into karaoke parlors or dance clubs, while piles of trash sit neatly in a nearby corner to remind you of the grime found in a densely populated city. There are enough NPC’s that its impossible not to bump into them – hooligans, streetwalkers, perverts, grumpy old ladies, yakuza henchmen, down-on-their luck citizens, or normal folks out to enjoy the night life – at every corner.

Scattered across both districts are numerous interior locations with an immense variety of activities to enjoy. These activities all take the form of mini games; no two are the same, and they span the gamut from mundane but fun (billiards, darts, bowling) to comically entertaining.

One minigame that caught by complete surprise as being incredibly fun involves you running your own hostess club, where you hire young women to entertain guests. Your job as the manager is to allocate resources in real time with the goal of leaving each guest as happy as possible and raking in stacks of cash.  Another minigame involves elements of a FPS, with a spin: you’re on the phone trying to talk a girl into going on a date with you and you have to ‘shoot’ the least awkward word or phrase while it spins and moves around the screen along with other not-so-envious choices. There’s karaoke and dancing, and you can even collect erotically suggestive live-action videos of girls you meet. Whether you enjoy some or all of the activities, or if some of them are not your bag of tea – that’s A-Ok, because the point is, there are so many to choose from that you never really have to interact with them if you don’t want to. With only a very small couple exceptions, all of these things are completely optional and only serve to bring these areas to stunning life. Just like in the real world, I wouldn’t choose go do some of these activities, but knowing that they exist just outside the scope of my interests somehow makes the world feel more vibrant and exciting than otherwise possible. Here’s a trailer specifically highlighting some of the minigames.

While most of the people you see are filler, many are there to ask for your help and often in the oddest ways. Its this colorful cast of quest givers that make the ‘RPG’ part of this Action RPG really shine.  Its difficult to explain the unique charm and quirk these side characters add or their importance to the overall game experience. Juxtaposed against the relatively dark and serious core narrative, these lighthearted interruptions in tone help keep the rhythm of the game from getting dull or beating you down with emotional gravity. They also, I came to realize, bring you closer to the main characters. To summarize it as succinctly as I can: the main story is where I learned how badass Kiryu and Majima are, but the side quests are where I learned to love and respect them as protagonists.

Kiryu and Majima are great characters and act as the lense through which you experience the story as you bounce between controlling each of them. By the end of the game I came to understand these characters’ motivations pretty well. They were both very different in how they played and they had very satisfying arcs that highlighted them as nuanced people versus pawns in a video game. They were wonderfully voiced by talented Japanese actors and they were very emotionally driven. The writing that drove their stories was mostly very believable. Very few times have I finished a video game and felt like I had just gotten to know a real person, but that’s what happened with Kiryu and Majima.

Sounds impressive, right? It really is, but here’s the kicker: this level of attention to detail and narrative care is present for all the major side characters too. Hell, even some of the NPC quest givers mentioned a couple paragraphs up were more 3-Dimensional than protagonists in other games I’ve played, even if they were only on screen for fifteen minutes. The main characters that interact alongside or opposed to Kiryu and Majima, however, are expertly crafted and could easily stand on their own if needed. I don’t think there was a single moment where someone stepped out of the picture and I couldn’t imagine them carrying on with the rest of their digital day somewhere off the edge of the screen.

Pair all the above attributes with a narrative backbone that mixes the organized crime elements of The Godfather with the revelatory twists of Metal Gear Solid and political intrigue of Game of Thrones and you get a rather unique and immensely satisfying experience.

All I can say is, if you haven’t given the Yakuza franchise a shot, and any of the above sounds even slightly interesting, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Yakuza Zero is one of the newest entries in the series, but it acts as a prequel to the other six games – its a fantastic jumping on point and if you enjoy it, there’s plenty more Yakuza to enjoy.

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