Backlog Break - Yakuza 0 is full of personality

Devin on screen

In Backlog Break, Devin Wilger goes through all the games he owns and never got around to playing. This week: Yakuza 0, from 2017.

Thank god for Nugget.

Before SEGA’s Yakuza 0 launched for PS4, the series was pretty niche, a fairly obscure game about Japanese Yakuza getting into complicated battles with each other and also doing good works for people in the community. It had its fans – including me – but it wasn’t really big business in North America, and it was always an open question whether or not the game would actually get released here.

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Then came Nugget.

In a side mission for the game, you are charged with getting three strikes when in a bowling game. Accomplish this task, you get a turkey. Except a hilarious mix-up means instead of getting a delicious meal you get a live chicken, who you can get to manage real estate.

You name the chicken Nugget.

Before the game’s launch, screenshots of this moment spread around social media. People who had never played a Yakuza game were suddenly intrigued. What was this game? Why was a chicken a manager? What’s going on?

Luckily, Yakuza 0 was the ideal entry point to the series. A prequel, set in the ‘80s in Japan’s bubble economy - money literally flies out of thugs when you punch them - the game assumes you don’t know that much about Yakuza and assumes that the mythology that built up over six games means nothing to you. Characters from later games show up, of course, and people familiar with the series can see where a lot of this is going, but if you’re new, it’s a great way to get started.

This brief overview is not going to scratch the surface of this game. But I will provide some advice, if you pick it up. Yakuza 0 is a game you savor, rather than rush.

Basically, the meat of the game is not the main story, which is a violent epic about real estate. To get the most out of Yakuza you have to wander around, go slowly, make friends in the city and try to trigger as many substories as possible. The stories range from touching to absurd, whether you’re teaching kids to be friends, helping Miracle Johnson, the copyright-free equivalent of Michael Jackson, make the video for Thriller or assisting a meek punk band while they try to be tough.

The game is weird, but that’s the appeal, the strangeness is a great counterpoint to the seriousness of the main story.

The other appeal is just the sheer amount of stuff you can do. The core is some beat-em-up gameplay, where you can use fists, bats, bicycles, motorcycles and other objects to show random thugs who’s boss. But you can also go to the batting cages, race slot cars, play old SEGA arcade games, take up bowling, disco dance and sing karaoke. You might not want to do every activity at your disposal - I personally have an industrial-strength aversion to fishing games - but it’s so stuffed to the brim with content you can’t help but enjoy something on offer here.

By the time the final credits rolled - and be warned, the final section of the game is long, taking me about three hours all told - I had put in over 60 hours of play time over several months, and the game helpfully informed me that I didn’t even finish half of it. If you’re the kind of person who has to do everything, you’re going to be playing this thing for a long time. And then right at the end it teases the next game in the series. There is no end to Yakuza.

More than anything, it’s a game with personality, and for all the violence and backstabbing it somehow becomes a game about the value of kindness – the main characters are truly the friendliest Yakuza you will ever meet.

It’s a series worth playing, and even though there have been a large number of games in the series before it, 0 is a great place to start.

Played on: Playstation 4.

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