Yakuza 0 pulled me in almost immediately, and never let me go until the climax of the game forty hours later. I’m positively in love with this game for a wide variety of reasons. The world of Yakuza‘s Japan, centered around Kamurocho and Sotenbori, is both lovingly realized and a tribute to two of my favorite real-life Japanese neighborhoods, Kabukicho and Dotonbori. The humor is wonderful, and the characters are exquisitely written. However, I’m not a writer, I’m a game designer, so I want to talk about the way Yakuza 0 handles its combat.
Consider that a lot of games noted for having good third-person melee combat. Platinum’s long line of games come to mind, but in this case I’ll name-drop Bayonetta. One could also make the argument for the Soulslike genre, originating at Dark Souls, and the Batman: Arkham games canonzied an entire brand of melee combat all its own, so I’d me remiss not to bring it up.
When you look at all of these games, consider where the focus lies in that combat. In Bayonetta, the focus is generally all about mastery through an increase in player skill. Bayonetta‘s field of enemies aren’t terribly hard to figure out, and Bayonetta as a character is fairly durable, so the focus of the game is learning to master the moves available to Bayonetta. In Dark Souls, the goal is mastery through learning the environment and enemies. Everything about that game, most notably the way death and enemy respawns work, is focused on having a player face the same challenges multiple times, until they learn enough about the challenge to be able to defeat it. The Arkham games are generally about mastery through the collection of moves, as Batman collects a variety of tools over the course of the game, which the player weaves in to their combat along with unlocked moves.
Yakuza 0, despite having a great amount of focus on combat, doesn’t really focus on any of these three approaches. Enemies don’t really have learnable attack patterns, none of Kiryu nor Majima’s moves are terribly hard to learn, and while the moves learned throughout the game are useful, both protagonists begin the game extremely capable of wiping out large crews of mooks single-handedly. Instead, Yakuza 0 focuses on rewarding combat experimentation and discovery.
You see, the combat of Yakuza hinges on the collection of Heat, a resource obtained by landing hits on enemies (as well as other things, depending on the moveset currently equipped), and lost over time and when hit by enemies. Heat can be spent on Heat Actions, punishing attacks that launch full cutscenes of Kiryu or Majima just hilariously beating the shit outta dudes, usually one-hit KOing weaker enemies and dealing massive damage to stronger ones.
There are a lot of Heat Actions, ranging from hurling foes off of bridges, to smashing their teeth in with the handle of a baseball bat, to stepping in between two attacking foes and causing them to accidentally knock each other out. What Heat Actions are available depends on the character and enemy’s state and orientation, what item the character is currently holding, both in their hands and in their inventory, as well as what environmental objects are within reach.
Yakuza‘s combat is, by and large, not hard. In order to challenge you, the game either throws out a boss battle featuring three or more health bars, or a pack of enemies in a quantity usually reserved for Dynasty Warriors games. Generally speaking, the entire game can be beaten fairly easily with just the base set of moves, in conjunction with just chugging a functionally endless supply of energy drinks to restore Health and Heat.
Since difficulty is not the crux of Yakuza‘s combat, the primary challenge of the game is instead to try and be as badass as humanly possible. I don’t think anything is more indicative of this as the way the game handles weapons. Kiryu and Majima can both use a style slot to equip a permanent weapon, up to and including a gun. Guns do tons of damage from range, are repaired relatively easily, and cannot be blocked. However, they’re the least visually interesting attack in the protagonists’ arsenals. As a result, I basically never used them.
Instead, over the course of the game, the player’s mastery of the combat system is based on learned and utilizing the assorted triggers for Heat Actions, in order to wipe out groups of enemies in as cool a manner as possible. While early fights in the game are somewhat clumsy, later game fights against similar enemies in similar locations are much more cinematic, as Kiryu and Majima obliterate their opponents with a variety of stylish moves. The game reinforces this: using these Heat Actions usually correlates in a much higher reward payout for the fight.
The result of focusing on a combat system which rewards exploration and experimentation, rather than more traditional means of mastery, is that the skill ceiling for the game is lower than other third-person action games. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, it means that Yakuza 0 allows players to perform extremely gratifying combat maneuvers with relatively little mechanical expertise, which is nice for players that want to experience a combat system at its top levels without the time and effort required to master a game like, say, Bayonetta.
The other thing to keep in mind is that, unlike a game like Bayonetta or Dark Souls, the combat of Yakuza 0 has to share a lot of design focus with other things, namely large amounts of story and sidequesting, meaning the designers have to account for players who might not be playing Yakuza for the combat. However, on the opposite end, Yakuza 0′s grounded setting means that the potential enemy variety is pretty low, considering you’re only fighting … regular dudes. So, the designers knew that if they didn’t give the combat system of Yakuza 0 some amount of depth, it would have become a slog extremely quickly.
With Yakuza 0‘s combat, the designers managed to create a system that is fun and dynamic while still being easy to pick up, and one which conveys the strength and aptitude of the two protagonists, the greatest badasses of the long-standing series, while still allowing players to feel a sense of progression over the course of the game. I really appreciate a game like this that manages the tricky balance of making combat incredibly engaging and exciting, while keeping the mechanical barrier to entry low.