++ Heavy spoilers within for Yakuza Zero’s central plot

A tempered, delicate pacing is employed in order to unfurl the many revelations central to the Yakuza 0 plot: the position of Makoto Makimura, the ascension of Masaru Sera, the deception of Jun Oda. Every crack in the foundation offers renewed perspective into an organisation beset by a corruptive rot, though as the puppet master’s grand scheme threatens to reach a successful end, his will remains absolute. Entangled by the pull of his strings, it’s Kiryu and Majima’s mutual decision to sever them entirely that serves to propel a tumultuous finale, with every last swing of the fist and lunge of the boot steeped in suitably befitting spectacle.

The coming of the war is unavoidable, but Zero doesn’t ever shirk its emphasis on the bold and the brilliant as the game turns the corner into its final act. It’s in Zero that the pieces of the yakuza masterwork are first purposefully sewn together; the power-grabs hemmed in place, the martyrs cut free entirely. With or without the lingering context of an established series at its back, the story told within Yakuza 0 is a rich, thrilling tale with more than enough clout to be able to stand on its own. And with such an intricate level of detail paid to every weave and thread of the yakuza-centric underworld and the darkly figures that control it, the game’s conclusion – like its core – is multi-faceted in its appeal.

It’s not just a prevailing desire to understand the cause and motives of the old guard that sets the tinder ablaze, but also the pursuit of raw vengeance when it comes to each of the four architects of Kiryu and Majima’s collective strife. It’s a war of defiance against a dominion as assured in its own nepotism as it is in the sycophantic game of power that it perpetuates. Though for every rung of the ladder overcome on the way to the top of the emperor’s domain, another baying loyalist awaits. Yakuza Zero’s conclusion begins as it means to go on – with a wail of the guitar and a cracking of knuckles.

It was Daisaku Kuze to first put himself between his masters and the burning fury of one Kazuma Kiryu. By the time that the two square off for a final bout within the neon heart of Kamurocho, Kuze is shy a finger and an unrecoverable amount of pride, each loss sullying his reputation in the eyes of his fellow cohorts that little bit more. Yet not the ritualistic yubitsume nor a quintet of beatings was ever enough to keep the old man down for long. Kuze’s saga, like that of Kiryu and Majima, drew from defiance, though perhaps not for the most righteous of reasons.

The sergeant-at-arms of Zero’s damnable quartet of antagonists personifies exactly what Majima – and in particular, Kiryu – set out to uproot. Kuze is the established order, the status quo. And it’s in his successive defeats that his selfishness becomes glowingly apparent. For Kuze, it was not about furthering the goals of the yakuza or even a desire to come to the aid of Dojima when called upon. Kuze’s lust for the captaincy was based only on a longing for respect above all else, which is why with every defeat at Kiryu’s hands he becomes increasingly enraged, and aimlessly desperate. That is until their final clash, when Kuze’s usual fire is instead dulled by the solemn acceptance of his failure. He’ll lose to Kiryu again, that much is known. But as he so readily admits, he’ll keep getting back up, just because he has to. And as Kuze’s raucously charged rock-riff is substituted for the more melancholic tones of the piano, he falls for the fifth and final time, never again to rise the same man.

More assured in his ideals is Hiroki Awano, the extortionist extraordinaire driven solely by a hunger for personal profit. Following Kuze’s failure to deal with Kiryu, it’s Awano who inherits the mantle of stopping him by any means, having arrived at the decision on how to handle him with a lot more deliberation than that of his firebrand predecessor. His palms marked and scarred by a history spent dabbling in the arts of blackmail, bribery and murder, he extends a hand to Kiryu and attempts to convince him that atonement for his indiscretions remains the best course of action – his only course of action. But as Kiryu disappears out of the door unscathed, so does Awano beneath a misty veil of white smoke, a ponderous glance at the floor reaffirming his own distinct defeat.

Though with breath struggling to fill his lungs, skin adorned with bruises and lashes, he admits first hand the effects that his luxury, decadent lifestyle have had on him. Beaten and broken by Goro Majima, the man beneath the gilded purple blazer fights out of sorrow for what could’ve been. Had he not been consumed entirely by the extravagance that adorns the higher-end yakuza lifestyle, then Awano and Majima – like Kiryu and Kuze – would likely have not found themselves in opposition. And maybe then, Awano wouldn’t have had to give his life preventing Majima’s murder at the hands of the assassin Lao Gui. Maybe he could’ve channeled his potential into something else, something greater.

The yearning for power espoused by Sohei Dojima drew him to order the death of Makoto Makimura, a girl caught in the middle of a conflict that, for her, was seldom anything more than an opportunity to reunite with her estranged brother, Tetsu Tachibana. If Dojima was ever the type to fight his own battles, then that is not the man portrayed in Zero, the clan captain content to orchestrate change through the actions of his lieutenants whilst remaining a prominent figure in the shadows. And ultimately, Dojima’s singular assault upon the Empty Lot caused him to remain oblivious to the enemies acting in his periphery. For it was Masaru Sera’s revelation that not only did Makoto survive Dojima’s attempt on her life, but that she had given him the deed to the Empty Lot completely unbeknownst to the patriarch, that served as a death knell more damning than any bullet.

And that leaves only Keiji Shibusawa, the true successor to Dojima, and next in line for the rank of family captain. It was Shibusawa who stood by and let both Kuze and Awano fall over themselves in their failed attempts to halt Kiryu’s advances, so it was only right that Zero culminated in a battle between the two – the old dragon eager to make an example of his young defier. Shibusawa’s enmity for Kiryu and the entire Kazama family was drawn from a point of deep resentment. Envious of the legacy of Shintaro Kazama and eager to write his own detailed passage in yakuza history, Shibusawa was as compliant in the failure of his fellow lieutenants as he was in the gambit which intended to take Makoto’s life. And this longing for errant recognition is what convinces him of the need to establish his victory upon the broken back of Kazama’s protege, Kiryu. Dojima’s victor readily succumbing to perhaps his only ever defeat, the master tactician bowing out a fool.

All individuals, all ensnared by the yakuza life and fighting for reasons far removed from any creed, Zero’s four horsemen and their wavering sense of morality added an incredible sense of worth to the climactic clashes that closed every chapter. To cast a light upon any of their potentially redeeming qualities is to consider the shades of grey with which Zero portrays its scape of criminality. The bad revelling in a moment of good, of honour, makes their fall seem all the more impactful, and in keeping with Zero’s energetic theatre. For accentuating every fall was not just an aptly overblown combat system that revelled in dramatic camera cuts and facial expressions, not just unique musical accompaniments that perfectly connoted the very character of each antagonist, but an understanding of exactly why the fight is happening, and what is specifically on the line.

Yakuza Zero is the story of Kiryu and Majima’s ascension, a story built upon the rocksteady foundation of its four primary villains. It’s a story of Kuze’s pride, Awano’s gluttony, Dojima’s greed and Shibusawa’s envy. And it’s a story of Kamurocho, Sotenbori, and the shadowed figures playing out their deadly game beneath the glow of the lights.

See also; Yakuza 0 Review

Filed under: Focus