I started playing the DLC they released for Borderlands 2 to set up the third game, and oh, wow, you can tell it’s been five years of development Hell since they made the last game. The writing has completely fallen apart and no one seems to have realized that while, yes, most people who’ve finished all the other DLC (and since the GOTY edition has been out for like four years now, that’s probably everyone) will be at level 40 or above, all the other DLC caps out at level 35, so they’ll have level 35 guns, so stocking the new DLC with level 40 baddies makes them insane bullet sponges. And the gun shops are always a few levels behind, so it’s taking forever and a half to find gear appropriate to the 5 level leap the content just took. I still kind of want to play the Borderlands series all back-to-back so I can do a retrospective post for all the games in context of each other, and I’m only one game away from making that happen (assuming we don’t count Tales of the Borderlands, which was generally well-received but I’m in the Borderlands series for the gameplay first, so, uh, that’s just gonna have to be a hole in the review), but I’m definitely mixing in some other games.
And since I’ve got a friend reading some non-fiction about the Yakuza lately, I’ve decided it would be helpful to help him gauge the validity of the book by getting some firsthand experience with a highly accurate, detailed simulation.
Yakuza Zero has a pretty slow start, though. I don’t think it has the same problem that Ubisoft games (especially the Assassin’s Creed series) have where they unnecessarily stack one prologue after another on top of you. They’re trying to set a scene and build a mood and it works, but they do lay some of it on thicker than is necessary.
For example, there’s a conversation between protagonist Kiryu and his Yakuza buddy Nishiki where he talks about how flashy clothes and cars and dropping money on hot young women so they follow you around all helps to make an impression, and keeping up these kinds of appearances is important in the Yakuza. Kiryu has the Bushido vibes going, the stoic enforcer who’s all about skill and loyalty rather than style, all fruit and no flower just like Miyamoto Musashi wrote. But do we need the conversation establishing that to happen while Kiryu and Nishiki are walking to the karaoke bar?
The opening scene where our protagonist Kiryu roughs someone up on behalf of a loan shark is absolutely necessary set up for the inciting incident at the end of this sequence, and the conversation the next morning between Kiryu and Nishiki when they learn that the victim of Kiryu’s violence died in the alleyway is, itself, the inciting incident, but even here you could probably do some line-by-line revision of the dialogue to compress it a little. I don’t normally consider that kind of thing a good use of a writer’s time, but the first chapter (or equivalent, but Yakuzo Zero does literally use chapters) is an exception.
Going line-by-line is something I consider a pretty extreme measure (this kind of thing is, or at least was until recently, considered standard editing in books – but self-publishing has made it clear that even there the audience never cared and it was just an affectation of the agents and editors who served as gatekeepers), but Steam tells me that from booting up the game to the first point where I was in control of Kiryu to just run around a neighborhood having Yakuza adventures was sixty-two minutes. And I wasn’t even out of the prologue at that point, but I was free to take the second half of the prologue at my own pace rather than going cutscene->tutorial->cutscene->tutorial to the point where it’s nearly impossible for me to significantly gain or lose time without intentionally stalling. Once we get into the second half of the prologue, the slower pacing starts to be at least partly my fault, because I like to do things like walk instead of run unless the character I’m playing has some reason (narrative or mechanical) to be in a hurry. Plus, even if you’re technically still in the prologue, you’re still tracking down a loan shark to investigate being set up for murder, which involves going into a building and beating the shit out of a bunch of his enforcers. Not a tutorial, but proper Yakuza gameplay.
Funny enough, despite taking more than a real actual hour to get through, this still feels less egregious than Assassin’s Creed prologues that take half as much time or less. I think Yakuza’s getting pretty decadent and a little sloppy with its audience’s patience, but it is using the time to set up its story, establish its characters, and set a tone for the setting. Assassin’s Creed is usually just spinning its wheels, and even the less egregious series like Far Cry and Watch_Dogs tend to spend a lot of time setting up plotlines that it will then ignore for 20+ hours of gameplay. Far Cry 4, for example, takes time out of its intro to introduce a sixteen-year old girl who was born into a position of religious veneration and which resistance leader Sabal plans to marry to cement his rulership after overthrowing Pagan Min, but we basically don’t interact with her at all between the setup and the payoff, so there was no reason to put her intro in the prologue, between us and the full game.
Yakuza Zero spends its prologue on three things: Setting up the murder that Kiryu is framed for, the inciting incident of the main plot, establishing his relationship with Nishiki, a major character, and some combat tutorials that you need to drop on the player before they reach the first real combats chasing down the loan shark at the end of the prologue. You can and should trim down the details of the execution, but all of that needed to be in the game’s opening. Just, not to the point where it takes a full hour to get through.