When you think about videogames, most of the time character development and storytelling aren’t he first things that come to mind. That isn’t to say that videogames don’t focus on these things, because they do, but they tend to fail due to the compromises made for the medium.
Gamers like games to have a certain level of challenge to them, they like to accomplish something and advance not just a story or a character’s arc, but their own skill and in-game possessions. What this has led to is a rather stagnant world of games where “good guy with a gun” (yes, you can swap it out for good guy with a sword, etc.) is not only the norm, but the only standard to hold games to. If anything, it gets tired after a while.
Where Yakuza 0 varies from the formula might seem insignificant, yet while playing the game all I could think about was how refreshing it was. Sure, it’s from Sega and is essentially Shenmue with a bunch of yakuza tough guys over the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed naivety of Ryo Hazuki, but that doesn’t matter. Yu Suzuki wanted to tell the story of a young man’s coming of age story through a somewhat fantastical journey, while Yakuza doesn’t try to hide the frayed edges of its world.
— d.w. (@dvewlsh) January 26, 2017
In a lot of ways, both Kiryu Kazama and Goro Majima, the main protagonists, are kind of boring. Kiryu, especially, is devoid of much outside of his determination and fighting ability. There is more to Majima, but at the same time, they are both strong, talented and resilient fighters who are able to crush any-and-everyone who stands in their respective paths.
That, alongside the repetitive fighting system that provides thrills the first dozen times you perform a cool move, but wears off the next five dozen times, should be instant disqualifiers from this being a great game. Never mind the fact that it’s a barely upscaled PlayStation 3 game re-released on the PlayStation 4 with the main characters getting a texture upgrade. Yet, none of those things matter and it all rests solely on the shoulders of the wide array of side quests and the absolutely stunning writing.
So while Kiryu is your default young yakuza upstart and Majima is your fallen-from-grace yakuza, both have their own unique motivations that drive them forward and are shaped by the characters that they meet along the way.
— d.w. (@dvewlsh) January 29, 2017
There isn’t a single character that you encounter in either the game’s main story of the side quests that doesn’t deserve careful attention, which, in a way, is stunning. This game is dense and packed full of content, but nothing about it feels rushed or like there wasn’t careful thought put into it.
Most games and genre-content tend to fall into the same tropes when it comes to creating characters; some are good, some are bad and some are mysteriously in the middle, but not everyone will need to feel real. If a character isn’t pivotal to a plot thread or moving the main story along, who cares, right? Yakuza 0 laughs in the face of that and provides everyone with a compelling backstory, motivations and it makes the world and the inhabitants feel that much more important.
— d.w. (@dvewlsh) January 25, 2017
There was not a single enemy that Kiryu or Majima faced that after a knock down, drag out brawl left you walking away thinking that they were just a challenge to overcome. These were people and they were difficult not to feel for. Everyone in the game lives by a code of honor and ethics which can at times be at odds with their goals and aspirations. Those conflicts aren’t ignored, though, just to move the story along, instead they are fully explored and discussed to the point where an enemy can remain and enemy but you, the player, no longer want to see bad things happen to them.
There are characters like Kuze that seem like they are going to be run-of-the-mill yakuza movie tropes with their back tattoos, their cool shades and their raspy voices, but even the madman Kuze has a reason to do what he does. With every encounter you learn more and more about him, his struggles, why he became a yakuza and how he can desperately want revenge on a character, but if it would harm the family he wouldn’t dare do such a thing.
Everyone is both good and bad, while simultaneously being neither of those. There are a few characters who remain on a certain part of the spectrum, but even then, they are treated differently and almost with reverence for existing outside of this broken system of damaged boys playing like men. One of my personal favorites would have to be one of the characters that perhaps had the biggest impact on Majima in Nishitani. Nishitani is a fucking madman who reminds me a lot of Tadanobu Asano’s Kakihara in Ichi the Killer, although I’d argue that there is a lot more of Nishitani to care about than there ever was for Kakihara.
There are twists and turns throughout the story and yeah, you know that eventually Kiryu and Majima’s stories are going to intertwine with each other, but when they do it is masterful and not forced. Instead of the twists being eye-rolling, they were fun. The ones that you could see coming were usually ones that you didn’t want to believe and the ones that you couldn’t were your deepest fears. That is good storytelling.
So while it’s easy to get lost in the side quests, the cabaret or real estate minigames or a host of the other parts of Yakuza 0 that make it such a fantastic game, it’s the writing and depth that really takes it to the next level.
This game will frustrate you, make you laugh, make you cry and even make you proud at times — all of that because of the story and the characters. While there are many, many games that feature solid writing and storytelling, Yakuza 0 is perhaps one of the best examples of how not to compromise gameplay or storytelling to create a complete package.