The delightfully weird and heartfelt Yakuza 0 released last month to an uproar of praise and accolades. Our own Jeff Cork scored the game a 9.25 and said, "Yakuza 0 tries a ridiculous amount of things, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t almost always succeed in its own weird way. The Yakuza series has established a cult following in the West, but it hasn’t managed to break through to the mainstream. If there’s any justice in this world, that’s about to change."
We recently chatted with Scott Strichart and Sam Mullen, producers at Sega, about bringing Yakuza 0 West, the series' cult status, and the upcoming remake of the first game, Yakuza Kiwami.
Game Informer: Why make a prequel?
Mullen: It’s kind of a tricky question, since obviously this game was developed in Japan and for a Japanese audience. It’s difficult to speak on behalf of the Japanese development team. What we can say is that the mainline games had [numbered] up to Yakuza 5, released over a year ago on the PlayStation 3.
Yakuza 0 is the first mainline game on PlayStation 4, so by taking it back to the starting point, it gives new players a place to start and step into the series. You can walk into Yakuza 0, like not knowing anything about anyone. Obviously if you’re familiar with the characters already, there’s stuff here and there that serves as fan service. However, you can step into Yakuza 0 without any context and play it for what it is and get into the series.
And with the finale of Kiryu’s story coming soon in Yakuza 6, it felt pretty integral to allow people a chance to step into the story.
Why does Yakuza have a strong cult following in the U.S.?
Strichart: Yakuza has found itself in a very unique position as a game where it started as a crime simulator, but what it’s doing now is straddling the line between over-the-top absurdity and a really deep crime story. So, it deals with a lot of mature themes, with a lot of heavy content, but at the same time it will absolutely flip the script on you and put you in a situation that you would have never expected to be in, like dialing up girls on the phone to chat with them or infiltrating a cult.
So I think it’s that duality that’s really drawn an audience to it. There’s really nothing else like it in the market. Even when we ask our own team to explain what Yakuza is, there’s just so much. It’s a series that’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s not just an open-world game, it’s not just a sandbox, it’s not just a brawler, it’s not just a virtual tourism simulator. It’s all these things going on in a single Yakuza game, and I think that’s what draws an audience to it.
Mullen: If I had to add to that, I would say that because of that market uniqueness and because of the difficulty in explaining what it is, that makes it kind of niche and cult because of that. The people who went out and gave the series a shot just on a whim, you know the people who like to explore fringe content, discovered what Yakuza is and what it has been over the past decade. Mainstream folks look at it and say, “Oh it must be Grand Theft Auto in Japan,” but no, it’s not. And then they go, “Okay, well I don’t know if I’m interested in that.” But I feel like if most people give Yakuza a shot, usually they find something they weren’t expecting it. And it’s the people who stick around for that [who] are ultimately its cult following.
Were there any scenes or missions that got scrapped for the U.S. release?
Strichart: No. I can’t think of anything we would have cut. If anything, when we said we were bringing over the softcore video segments, there was really nothing else beyond that [that made us think], “Well, that’s too extreme, gotta cut that!”
So we brought the game over in its entirety, 100 percent of the content.
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What were some of the challenges of bringing the game to Western audiences?
Mullen: I think one of the big challenges is simply catching up with the Japanese releases. Yakuza 5 was released like three years after the Japanese version. The Japanese version of Yakuza 0 was released like two years ago. One of the big challenges we have is that these are massive games, and knowing that we’re going to get working on them but not have them out until years after the Japanese release is a test of the will of the company almost.
Strichart: From the localization side, we have to straddle a very fine line between localization and authenticity, because we leave the game with its original Japanese voice acting just because the performances are so good and powerful that we wouldn’t think of doing otherwise. What we have to do on that side of things is make the dialogue both authentic to what they’re saying and making it appealing to Western players.
So it’s a challenge with every line. We look at every line, we hear the actor speak it, and then try to figure out how to localize that content while also staying true to what the actor is saying.
Can you explain the significance of the empty lot for players who haven’t played other entries?
Strichart: Hashtag spoiler alert! But yeah, I mean, it’s there to expand on the context of the first Yakuza. What’s implied but never spoken is that that’s the spot where they’re going to build the millennium tower, and that tower is a keypoint throughout the series. There’s often a shirtless battle that occurs at the top of that. It’s a big deal and for fans to key in on that, it’s awesome.
What was some of the challenges with dividing localization up between the two protagonists, Kiryu and Majima?
Strichart: They are two very different characters and coming down from Yakuza 5, which spread itself out among a cast of characters, this actually felt a lot more compact. I would say that Kiryu has always had this straight man trait – tough but honorable and keeps to himself a bit. I wouldn’t say he’s easier to write, but the page speaks to itself; whereas Majima and the rendering of his Osakan accent definitely came into play with how we wanted to approach his character.
One of my personal goals was to render that accent in a way that would make him stand out from Kiryu in order to make Majima sound and feel like a different character. Fans of the series know that Majima sort of loses his mind a little later on, so conveying this character as a businessman with a heart of gold but at the same time as this very sarcastic lonewolf character…he has a lot of things about him that are just dualities. And he was a really interesting character to write for.
Can you say anything about the Yakuza remake?
Mullen: Yakuza Kiwami has been out in Japan for a year or so. It’s a full remake of the original game from 2005; it’s built in the Yakuza 0 engine. It uses a lot of 0’s fighting mechanics. In the Japanese version, the characters’ tones and vocalizations have changed over the past 10 years so they went back and rerecorded all the lines. The English version had an English dub over it so we’re releasing it with the Japanese dub intact.
So yeah, it’s gonna be a pretty cool game. It’s going to be something good for people who are starting with 0 since 0 plugs right into Kiwami. There’s a lot of narrative stuff between the two. We think there’s a lot of value here for new and existing fans.
Strichart: Just to be clear: Kiwami’s release in the West will not have any English dub whatsoever.
What would you say makes the relationship between Kiyru and Majima so interesting?
Strichart: That relationship gets far more explored in Kiwami. Like I said earlier, between 0 and Kiwami, a switch for Majima gets flipped and you get to see some of that happens in 0. But yeah, Majima latches on to Kiryu because Kiryu is a stand-up, honorable guy and that doesn’t work in the Yakuza. You can’t be in the yakuza and be a good dude but here’s Kiryu trying, and that interests Majima.
Majima, who’s gone through the events of 0, and him seeing Kiryu attempting to be this guy he’s going to be, it’s Majima’s sense of duty to challenge that. In the original game, Majima had a two-bit part, but in Kiwamai his role is expanded and you get to see more of the relationship between him and Kiryu bud.