Trapped in the Yakuza Cycle

Yakuza Zero looks like it could be great, but that's assuming Sega has the will to actually release it in the west.

Everyone likes to talk about the so-called "Sonic Cycle," but I've increasingly fallen victim to an equally devious pitfall: the Yakuza Cycle.

It goes something like this: Sega releases a new Yakuza trailer for TGS, it looks great, and I get my hopes up for a domestic release. "This one is on the PlayStation 4! Of course they'll localize it!," I think to myself. But then months pass following the Japanese release, and with it, all hope of an English localization.

The Yakuza Cycle, which has been ongoing since 2012's Yakuza 5, will almost certainly repeat itself with Yakuza Zero, which is being shown at this year's Tokyo Game Show. I've made my peace with it to an extent. But that doesn't make the reality of the situation any less depressing.

The fact of the matter is that Sega has messed up Yakuza's localization almost from the beginning, from spending a boatload of money on the voice acting, to giving it a generic name (in Japan it's the much more lively "Like a Dragon."), to failing to spend any money on its marketing. At times the degree of self-sabotage with Yakuza feels almost deliberate. It's the exact opposite of how Atlus has handled the Persona series, which is similar to Yakuza in its heavy emphasis on Japanese culture, but has benefited from the careful cultivation of its audience.

The frustrating thing is that Yakuza could probably be even more successful than Persona if positioned correctly. Yakuza's gameplay is much simpler than that of Persona, focusing on beat 'em up-style punching and kicking rather than complicated Demon Fusion recipes. It's available on the PlayStation 3 (and now the PlayStation 4), so it doesn't suffer from being in the so-called handheld ghetto. And it's not an anime, making it more accessible to the broad swath of gamers who have an inexplicable aversion to Japanese animation.

Sega has shown a real knack for killing potential though, and that's unlikely to change with Yakuza Zero, despite the potential afforded by being set in the late 1980s, complete with classic arcades like Space Harrier and OutRun (all playable, of course). Sega has a long history of misrepresenting what it is—Yakuza is many things, but Grand Theft Auto Japan is not one of them—or failing that, outright burying it. The long-awaited Yakuza 3 came out the same day as Final Fantasy XIII, while Yakuza Dead Souls came out of nowhere and vanished just as quickly. If Yakuza Zero does actually come out here, it will almost certainly suffer a similar fate.

All that said though, I would still like a domestic release for Yakuza Zero. I'm not generally fan of narratives in games, but I've enjoyed following Kazuma Kiryu and company over the years, and Yakuza's production values are second to none, utilizing some of Japan's top voice talent. Beyond that, I enjoy taking in the sights of the fictional Kamurocho district. What it lacks in scale it makes up for in liveliness; and though it can feel a little overstuffed with minigames at times, it's an indelible part of the Yakuza experience. I mean, if you're a Japanese gangster, of course you're going to frequent hostess clubs and sing karaoke. That's what you do when you're the king of vice in the east.

Being a prequel, it shouldn't require too much familiarity with the overarching storyline and universe, though it certainly helps. It'll be a fresh start of sorts for the franchise. The locations and characters will be somewhat familiar, but being a standalone story on a new platform will make it an ideal entry point to the franchise. Heck, if Sega wants to make any money with this entry, they should probably release the PlayStation 4 version in the U.S. If PS4 sales are anything to go by over there, they won't have much of an install base to cater to in Japan.

I suppose that's what's keeping my admittedly limited hopes alive for an English release. Out of all the recent Yakuza releases, Yakuza Zero is the best positioned to appeal to an international audience, featuring a new graphics engine on a new console with a story that should be relatively accessible to newcomers. Assuming that Sega hasn't given up entirely on localizing the series for the west, it's an ideal candidate for a series reboot of sorts. If Sega doesn't mind putting some money into the localization and the marketing campaign, it might actually find some traction for a change.

But that's me getting trapped in the Yakuza Cycle again. I should know better than to get my hopes up given Sega's track record with this series, but I can't help it. I keep hoping against hope that Sega will finally wake up and help Yakuza reach its potential over here. Maybe this time I won't be disappointed.

Tagged with Analyses, Sega, USgamer, Yakuza Zero.

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