Yakuza 0, the latest installment in SEGA's long-running series following the life of Dojima family enforcer Kazuma Kiryu, is closing in on its January 24th release date. I have been going hands-on with the game for the past week and thanks to the first loosening of the embargo strings, I'm now able to bring you a set of first impressions on this latest tale of the Japanese criminal class. All impressions in the following article are based on the game's initial six chapters, as that's all we can talk about so far, and we'll be bringing you our fully formed opinion in due course.
Yakuza 0 opens, as many crime dramas do, with a betrayal. Starting in 1988 at a point in the Yakuza timeline previous to any of the preceding games, Yakuza 0 introduces us to long-standing series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu when he was fresh out of Yakuza school and just starting out as a new member of the Dojima 'family.' A routine collection job goes wrong and Kazuma is framed for murder shortly after the game's opening. Due to this, his position in the family comes under threat and since the Yakuza aren't particularly forgiving types, his closest friends and associates are under threat too. Thus begins the quest to find the real killer and clear his name before he and the man he owes his life to pay the price. One of the most positive things I can say so far about Yakuza 0 is how well it balances this ultra-serious storyline against the utter craziness of the rest of the game. To give you an idea of what I mean, up until finding out he's a murder suspect, Kazuma is engaged in a ridiculous karaoke battle with his best friend, Nishikiyama. It doesn't stop there, as you are continually served slices of craziness in the form of side stories, side activities, and mini-games between main missions, and you're mostly able to take these on at your leisure.
For anyone familiar with the franchise, the core of the experience will be much as you expect. For those new to Yakuza, this is an open world game with a twist. You'll have full access to a loving (and somewhat fictionalized) rendition of Tokyo's red-light district (dubbed Kamurocho) from the start. The map is of a size that facilitates walking everywhere, but that doesn't stop a lot of life from being packed into the area. As you wander the streets as Kazuma, you'll quickly discover that the core gameplay comes from the brutal, street-brawling, melee combat. Once you're used to the controls - which may seem a bit slow to those used to the oft-copied attack and counter attack style made popular by Rocksteady's Batman games - you'll be gleefully smashing heads with bins, car-doors, bicycles, or anything else you can find.
For me, combat is a highlight. It's smoother than previous entries in the series and the new system of having switchable stances with different move sets for your characters has allowed for plenty of variation and stopped the frequent encounters from becoming too repetitive. Kazuma's 'Beast mode' is probably my favorite style so far, as it solves a niggle I've often had with previous Yakuza games. Namely, this mode prevents you from having to break off from combat to pick up weapons found in the environment. While weapon attacks are powerful and look cool, turning your back to an enemy to bend down and pick one up could be a costly mistake. With Beast mode, your default combo attacks allow you to automatically grab weapons that are close by without breaking your stride and leads to more free-flowing encounters. Not every aspect of combat shines, as the lock-on system is next to useless (though also mostly unnecessary) and the camera angle can be stubborn and refuse to turn with you when turning to face opponents who are out of shot. The camera problems are mostly negligible but the lock-on system has caused me a few frustrations, and it remains to be seen whether this gets worse as combat ramps up in difficulty later on.
Kamurocho, and later the new area of Sotenbori, look fantastic. The bright neon lights and streets full of people create a great impression of a living city. Look closely and you'll find some bland textures and less than detailed character models here and there but the overall effect it creates is convincing. Yakuza games are rarely at the cutting edge of graphical fidelity, in part due to the time it takes for their localizations to reach us here in the West. Besides, it's honestly the consistent art style that really sells the locations. Cutscenes, however, are a different matter. In these, the detail is dialed up to ten; character models look fantastic, as do many of the settings. The subtext-laden dialogue between rival Yakuza creates the kind of moody tension normally found in a classic gangster movie. It's worth mentioning that there is no English language track for Yakuza 0, so you'll be reading a lot of subtitles. For me, this just serves to preserve the emotional tone that the game is trying to convey. This is slightly spoiled by the fact that side stories aren't voiced at all, so you'll be reading a lot of text conversations if you choose to pursue the game's many diversions. The dialogue itself rescues these scenarios by usually being amusing (or even hilarious) enough to stop them from growing boring.
Speaking of side activities, Yakuza 0 continues the series' tradition of including more mini-games than you'd find in your average party game bundle. As well as longstanding staples like bowling and baseball, you'll be racing pocket cars, watching 'erotic' movies, chatting up girls in a dating-sim/shooter hybrid that can only be described as "unique", and more. At least, that's according to the completion list that I've yet to encounter. Most of these activities are adequate diversions, but some serve as fully fleshed out side missions too. It's these more developed activities that have managed to capture my interest, as there's a surprising amount of depth to be found in things like customizing and racing your little battery powered circuit car. The standout side mission of Kiryu's story is a real estate management mini-game that is introduced through the main storyline in which you'll vie with other property tycoons for control of Kamurocho's industries. It's both addictive and lucrative and it seems to serve, at this point, as the main way of generating much-needed cash for Kiryu.
Worship of the almighty Yen is a central theme in Yakuza 0 and you need cash for literally everything from activities to equipment, to upgrading your fighting abilities and learning new moves. You'll still have to meet drunken masters and following their bizarre training regimes but this time you'll need to pony up cold hard cash as well. What this does is provide a good balance to your character progression, as in the early game you would find it very difficult to grind for the cash needed for higher tier abilities from fighting alone. In the first few chapters of the game, pacing and balance are both excellent, with the game introducing you to side activities and missions in an organic way in between your main mission objectives and at the same time slowly increasing the difficulty of combat until you're familiar with all your fighting styles. This is also helped by the fact that you're often free to divert yourself as you see fit if you don't want to rush on with the plot.
Once you've been given a chance to get used to Kiryu and his moves, which constitutes the first two chapters of the game's story, you'll be transported from the familiar surroundings of Kamurocho to the Osakan city of Sotenbori and introduced to the game's second playable character - series fan favourite side character Majima Goro. Majima has featured in several previous Yakuza entries, sometimes as the villain, sometimes as an ally, but always with a flair for violence and a badass eyepatch. His story is a little different from Kazuma's, Majima has been kicked out of his family due to events that occurred in the past (this was actually a key plot line in Yakuza 4 but enough is explained here that you don't have to have played that game to understand the plot) and he's trying to earn his way back in by managing a cabaret, or hostess club. It's not clear at this early stage how the two stories connect, though certain hints have led me to guess where the story may be leading, time will tell how this unfolds.
Majima feels a little overpowered in combat in his introductory chapters when compared to Kiryu, especially once you've learned his additional stances. Laying into goons with an indestructible baseball bat is fun, but fights do become a bit of a formality. This could change as the difficulty increases in later Majima chapters, as I've been led to believe that the protagonists swap every couple of chapters, and it will be interesting to see whether the challenge level can increase against his almost invincible-seeming move sets. Sotenbori also comes with its own side activities, like establishing a network of agents to bring you designs and components from all over the world that will allow you to craft weapons and gear. The pacing of story missions versus side content keeps up at a good pace, albeit slightly thrown off by the fact that you can wade through enemy encounters with ease. As the two maps of Kamurocho and Sotenbori are of limited size, I'm so far enjoying the change of scenery that comes with the character switching. The fact that the story points at which it switches are logical only adds to this effect.
As you can probably tell from the above, I'm impressed by what Yakuza 0 has to offer at this stage. I'm interested to see whether the intriguing story has a satisfying conclusion and whether the steady flow of content can keep up without becoming a mess of competing systems. There's also a host of online modes featuring many of Yakuza 0's minigames that I haven't been able to try yet. I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what promises to be a lengthy experience and I'm eager to jump back in and experience more as, most importantly, I've been having fun with the game's varying mechanics at every turn so far. I'll be back to fill you in on the rest once I've concluded our protagonist's stories. For now, I'm off to pour some hot sake and dive back in.
Yakuza 0 is being reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.