Yakuza 0 is the perfect introduction to the long-running Yakuza series. It tells a riveting story set in the world of Japanese gangsters in 1988 and a mysterious empty lot that everyone is killing to own. This brawler gives you plenty of action, plot, characters, and wraps it in a fun combat system. If you have ever wanted to jump into the Yakuza universe, Yakuza 0 is an ideal place to start.
The Yakuza series has been one of Sega’s biggest and most explosive. The original washed up on our shores in 2006 for the PS2. Since then, the franchise has gone on to make five sequels, a spinoff, and two remakes. Unlike another Sega game franchise with a speedy animal mascot, this one is not for the kids.
I had heard of the Yakuza games, but I had never played any of them. Somehow, I missed them on the PS2 and PS3, and it’s hard to jump into a franchise at the fifth or sixth entry. Until my fellow writer Hannah mentioned having fun with this one, I thought my ship had sailed. I’m really happy I gave it a try, because it is one of my favourite games of the year.
Yakuza 0 goes back to before the series began. It is an origin story for the series’ main characters Kazuma Kiryu and Majima Goro. The game is split between these two characters. You play a couple of chapters as each one before switching to the other. If you forget what happened, there is a very helpful synopsis of the events, and you can jump back into the story. That story is really the centrepiece of the game. It wants to give you a narrative that most games would struggle to convey with cutscenes that some gamers will despise. They are wonderful, but they are not short. There are times you can set the controller down for ten minutes or more of cutscenes. They are both CG and in-engine, and, although there were a few times I just wanted to get back to something else, I really enjoyed them. Outside the story, there is a web of family ties and history laid out in an easy-to-understand way. (George R. R. Martin take note on how this should be done.)
Every shot helps to tell a story here. Despite there being hours of video, there is nothing that will waste your time. The tale in this game is deep with plenty of plot twists. Revenge is best served from your fists, and some people want second helpings.
The narrative focuses on an empty lot. The city of Kamurocho is going through a revival in the glamorous 80s, and real estate is at a premium. Kazuma Kiryu lives in Kamurocho and has been framed for a murder that happened on that critically important piece of property. Not the type to take an accusation like this lying down, he decides to find who framed him and why this lot is so important.
Majima Goro, the second character, lives in the city of Soutenbori, and he is trying to get back into a Yakuza family. The price for re-entry is high, but he is willing to do whatever it takes. Both men are following different threads of the same story and eventually intertwine.
Most of the dialogue is voiced, and it is in Japanese with subtitles. You will be doing a lot of reading. If this is your idea of a slow torture, don’t play this game. For everyone else, you have to play this game.
I have been praising the story, but the gameplay is pretty good too. As either character, you will go to different locations in the city and usually beat someone up. To be fair, if all they ever did was talk about their problems and work things out without violence, we are looking at a bland experience. No one in Yakuza 0 is looking for a compromise.
There is plenty of variety in how you pummel your opponents. Both Kiryu and Majima have three different styles you can use and switch at any time. There is a balanced style, a faster style, and a powerful attack style. They each have their benefits and usefulness during certain situations. In case you are wondering, it won’t look as amazing, but even button mashers can have fun and still pull off some brutal moves.
Within the combat, you have heat actions. When you fight, you power up a heat meter. When you see an icon in the top right of the screen, press a button to see your character deal extra damage and look cool doing it. Whether you are smashing a head against a wall, the ground, or giving a thug’s jaw some impromptu dental work with a baseball bat, heat actions help you.
Each style has its own upgrade grid with different moves, more health, buffs to your heat meter, and more damage. The cost increases as you move outward from the center, and some of the upgrades are insanely expensive and locked until you complete certain tasks. You don’t have to reach them to complete and enjoy the game, but completionists will have to earn those last few moves.
Speaking of money, the game is not stingy on your necessities. At first, you are not making much, compared to your upgrade costs. If you are only buying health items or eating at a restaurant, you will almost always have plenty of spending cash on hand. This is not a money management sim. The real money-making activities are a separate mini-game. Kiryu becomes a real estate investor who starts a hostile takeover for the city. You can buy different properties in an area to increase your ownership and eventually take over the total area and revenue collections. Majima helps a failing cabaret club gather more followers and turn a profit. He recruits new girls and pairs them with customers looking for their attributes, such as cute or funny. The progression is similar to Kiryu’s. By accruing followers, you take on several clubs to become the biggest and most profitable.
These are only a few of the activities available, but, when I first looked at the map for both cities, I was a little disappointed. They looked a little small compared to the vast open world games we see now. Although not a gargantuan place, the map is filled with scores of side stories, encounters, old Sega games in arcades, and locations to explore.
You run into people who need your help on almost every street from the longer side stories where you might pretend to be a boyfriend to rescuing people being bullied by thugs in an alley. Often a quick fight will come to you as everyone seems to hate the look of your face. These fights are a great way to earn some quick cash. These little gangs are walking money pinatas, and you will literally beat the currency out of them. You are also financially rewarded in multiple ways such as winning without being hit or taking down two enemies at a time.
Boss fights are much more difficult. Throughout the game, you will have to test your mettle against someone who is not so easily pushed around. They have a long health bar that needs to be drained multiple times to win, and they can give as good as they get.
As much as I really like this game, I have to acknowledge that it is also dated in some ways. Yakuza 0 was released in Japan in 2015, but we only received it in January 2017. That time gap was probably necessary in order to localize this game and make it understandable, but some of the design choices feel like they were held over from another era. The save system is definitely a relic of older design. Telephone booths are scattered throughout the city, and, like a save point Superman, this is where you go to record your progress. Due to the freedom the game provides, this is never a problem. You are almost always close to a save point.
The problem is that some of the movement and crowd animations in the world do not feel as fluid and modern as some other titles. This is never the case when you are fighting. That was finely-tuned and fluid for the most part, even though it never comes close to something you find in a true fighting game. It was more noticeable when you were inside a shop and had to turn around. The movement in tighter spaces can feel a little awkward.
This was also noticeable in the graphics and audio departments. The game looks very good, and the cities at night are a neon playground. Outside of the CG movies, the faces can look doll-like, doughy, and less detailed. Some of the interiors and textures can appear flat as well. The sound is almost universally excellent. The Japanese voice actors bring an authentic feel, and I cannot imagine playing this game without their dialogue. The sounds of the city bring everything to life. The music pumps you up for every fight.
The only minor complaint I found was the occasional sound effect. I noticed this primarily with the door sounds. Compared to the sharp clarity I heard throughout the rest of the game, it just seemed like a step down in quality like their mic was under a blanket. I am really nitpicking on the sound and visuals, because this game is so astoundingly good in so many other ways. In over 40 hours, I did not experience any crashes. There was the rare clipping here and there, but the game ran extremely well. It also never asked me to buy anything extra to play it. [Ed: Oooh, shade!]
Yakuza 0 was a big surprise for me. I am so glad I made time to play it this year. From its decadent 80s setting and exciting cinematic presentation to the little quirky characters and side stories, I always had something interesting to do or see. The dense world is filled with various activities and people who are only too happy to put your skills to the test.
Yakuza 0 is the perfect entry point for newcomers (like me) to the series, and it will not be the last Yakuza title I play. If you want something that will tell you a cool story, and you don’t mind reading the subtitles, I cannot recommend Yakuza 0 enough.
Yakuza 0 PS4 Review
Overall - Must Buy - 9.0/10
Yakuza 0 is a my biggest surprise of the year. With an action-packed story about two Yakuza trying to solve a mystery in separate cities, there are enough twists and turns with excellently realized characters to keep you guessing until the end.
The brawler-style combat with multiple stances and upgrades will be enough to keep you on your toes, and you can feel every punch. The heat actions add visual variety and flair to make you feel like the tough gangster you are.
Although there are some slight visual or audio nitpicks, Yakuza 0 is something I have no problem recommending to anyone who does not mind some longer custscenes and reading subtitles. If you wanted an entry point into the Yakuza series, you have to play this game.
Review Disclaimer: This review was produced using a retail copy of the game bought at the expense of the reviewer. For more information, please read our Review Policy.