Backlog Burner Episode 23 :: Yakuza 0

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Let’s start this featurette with an unpopular opinion. Japenese culture is overrated. Nor am  I a big fan of anything that has anything to do with the said thing. That goes for anime, manga, and whatever the kids enjoy these days. I might very well be wrong but I like to stand uncorrected. That being said, I absolutely love Yakuza 0. If Yakuza 0 was an adult female with a set of nice rack, I’d tie the knot in an instant. It’s just been only 60 hrs and Yakuza 0 has already found a comfy place in my top 10 games of all time. I know. Weird coming from a game so deeply rooted in Japanese culture and tropes. I still hate weebs though. Come at me!

Gangsters with hearts of gold

So if you’ve been living under a rock for the past 14 years and have no idea what the Yakuza series stands for, well look at it this way: Grand Theft Auto, except weirder and featuring rather small, but highly detailed maps and a more interesting set of supporting characters (yes, bite me). Yakuza 0 is a prequel to all the other numbered entries in the series and follows series protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and the Joker to his Batman, Goro Majima during the Japanese economic boom of the ’80s. Like the names suggests, the story revolves around the infamous Yakuza crime organisation of Japan and their internal as well as external hustle and tussle. Goodfellas, but omae wa mou shindeiru!

As a guy who grew up watching films like Abhimanyu, Aryan, Samrajyam and Black, it goes without saying that I had a penchant for anything gangsterish. More than that, I have a special thing for gangsters with a heart of gold. It’s what makes Kiryu and Majima stand toe to toe with the likes of Devanarayanan, Harikrishnan, Alexander and Karikkamuri Shanmughan in my book. I mean these are the guys who get super into the moment when work comes calling or beat up someone who accidentally bumps into them. At the same time, they transform into messiahs of humanity for a damsel in distress or caring father figures in front of a child lost in a crowd. It’s an overused trope for sure, but one that grabs the heart and soul of the target audience. To see Majima and Kiryu go from a whirlwind of brute force and rage to clueless protective figures in front of a blind girl in danger hits me with nostalgia from the likes of Leon the Professional. These moments of clarity and catharsis gives their characters a new layer of depth that connects them to the player and has been a staple of the Yakuza series since its inception.

Deadpan and Bizarre 

Another signature aspect Yakuza 0 carries over from series roots is the stark contrast between deadpan seriousness and downright brzarreness. While the main story of Yakuza 0 maintains the dark, gritty realism of crime dramas, the sandbox gameplay is littered with stuff that makes you roll your eyes and even break the 4th wall. I don’t know if any other franchise can pull off these two opposing aspects together without ruining the experience. The main story holds stuff like death, crime and emotions with almost real-life seriousness but at the same time, you can go out of your way to beat the living hell out of random gooks without fearing any repercussions outside the story. You know Batman doesn’t kill, but you’re pretty damn sure that no random thug will survive the beatdown the caped crusader puts them through. The same goes for Kiryu and Majima. There’s no way in hell a guy is going to survive being piledrived headfirst into hard concrete. But that’s the charm of Yakuza. Anything goes outside of the main story.

Even if the main characters are being chased by the law and assassins in the story, once you’re free to roam the city of Kamurucho, no one stops you from watching bikini model tapes to beat your meat, bet on scantily clad women fighting each other, have a go at dance-offs, karaoke, shogi, mahjong, toy car racing, arcades, business management and dragged into outlandish sidequests that well worth deserve their own section. However, the story does take certain video-game-ish breaks from realism at times. Mortally wounded characters springing back to life after a cutscene or two, characters dodging bullets like they’re the second coming of Neo and Kiryu shooting a rocket-propelled grenade from a moving car are examples of these. But hey, everything to preserve the intensity of the scenes!

Aesop’s Fables

The bizarre nature of Yakuza 0’s sandbox is complemented and nourished by a myriad of Substories for both Kiryu and Majima. They are made ever the more unique by their self-contained stories and a host of colorful/crazy characters. Many of the side quests pay the way for scenarios rivalling the fables of Aesop or the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. From solving family dilemmas to helping folks with their weird sexual fetishes, some of these sub stories leaves Kiriyu and Majima confused and bewildered, to say the least. It’s hard to forget the face of poor Kiriyu when he is forced to buy an adult magazine for an innocent child in order to satisfy his curiosity or witness Majima perform ludicrous actions to save a young female from the clutches of a predatory cult. There is also a handful of heart touching substories here and there. I felt like someone was cutting onions nearby during the one titled ‘The Man with the Stranger’s Face’. While exploring the back scene of 1980s Japan, these side missions also shed light on untouched layers of our protagonists’ personalities. You’d start to think that these guys could have become something had they not been Yakuza.

10/10 Will Play Again

I feel like Yakuza 0 is a great place for newcomers to delve into the series since it’s a prequel and all. But veterans of the series are also treated like royalty and gets to witness a fresh fish like Kiryu start on the path to become the legendary Dragon of Dojima and learn how a calm and controlled Majima became the Mad Dog of Shimano. I haven’t got the chance to play all the games in the series, but from what I played, the story of Yakuza 0 is one of, if not the best so far. What may initially seem like a simple and derived plot spans into one that shapes the fates of key Yakuza series characters and events. Even though the game keeps throwing twists after twists after the halfway mark, the player is always given a centre seat to all of it (almost). It’s basically goosebumps after goosebumps towards the end. Even after completing the lengthy coming-of-age story past the 50-hour mark, there are still loads to see, do and achieve. Hell, I think the game even has made me ‘appreciate’ Japanese culture a lot more. I’m cutting this piece short because Yakuza Kiwami, the remake of the first game is going to hit the PC in a few days and I have miles to go in Yakuza 0 before I sl…take a shower. For real. I have been up playing Yakuza 0 the whole day and a shower is long overdue.

 

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Jay has an unhealthy obsession with obscure Euro RPGs, retro FPS and every game associated with Chris Avellone. But that doesn't dissuade him from exploring other genres once in a while. When he's not digging through his ever-growing backlog, Jay can be found engaging in friendly banter in the hush-hush RPG forums of the internet.

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