It's a good time to be a fan of SEGA's Yakuza franchise. We've had news of localizations for both the upcoming Yakuza 6 and the remake of 2005's PS2 original, dubbed Yakuza Kiwami. On top of that, this month marks the release of Yakuza 0. I've been going hands-on with the game for the past couple of weeks (you may have seen my earlier preview) and I finally feel like I've conquered enough of this gargantuan game to bring you a thorough review.
A prequel to the ongoing story of the Yakuza series, Yakuza 0 gives us an insight into the origin stories of two of the series' most iconic characters; recurring protagonist Kazuma Kiryu and fan-favorite former villain Majima Goro. Predictably, this means that the game is full of nostalgia, nods to events that are yet to happen, and plenty of moments that will leave long-time series fans smiling. Interestingly, the game also manages to provide a good jumping-in point for newcomers. In setting up these characters for who they later become, the story of Yakuza 0 does an effective job of telling you who they are. Similarly, while the plot is full of characters who will appear in various roles later in the series' timeline, and the fact that this game serves as their introduction means you don't have to have any knowledge of those events to enjoy the story that is being told.
It's great that the story is accessible to all comers because Yakuza's twisting tale of revenge and murder is definitely the highlight of the game. It starts with a routine collection job for the relatively inexperienced Yakuza Kiryu. What he believes was an easy task turns into a nightmare as his target winds up dead, which puts Kiryu in the frame for murder. The consequences of bringing this attention to the family mean that Kiryu is kicked out of the clan, basically painting a target on his back and jeopardizing the clan captain's position of Kazama, the man to whom he owes his life. His quest to clear his name pits the young Kiryu against the very people he used to call brother and slowly draws him into the midst of a Tojo Clan internal power struggle centering around the unstable Captain's seat and a highly prized piece of real estate known as the 'empty lot'. The tale takes many twists and turns as events play out - some of which you'll see coming, some you won't - and there's a very satisfying pace to the delivery of the plot. Emotional hooks in all the right places keep you invested in events right up to the end.
This sense of pace is helped by great cliffhangers created by the structure of the game. Every couple of chapters, you'll switch from controlling Kiryu in Kamurocho to Majima Goro in Sotenbori. The change of location helps both the story and gameplay stay fresh even in Yakuza 0's final chapters. The developer made an interesting choice with the plot. While Kiryu and Majima's stories are interconnected, their paths never cross (apart from a brief but delightful moment of fan service once you've finished the game). It makes sense, as their first meeting has taken place elsewhere in the Yakuza fiction, but it speaks to the quality of the story writing that the way both tales are executed separately and still feel natural.
There's more than just a redemption story here as well. While the events surrounding the empty lot drive the plot, both Majima and Kiryu's tales are as much about the personal development of the characters due to the effects of those events. Kiryu is still growing into the man he will become and learning how to live on his own terms and Majima is desperately searching for a way to escape both a literal and metaphorical cage to do the same. Both character arcs are well defined and lead to some satisfying emotional payoffs toward the game's conclusion.
If you're thinking that the story all sounds a bit heavy, you'd be right. There's a relentlessly dark tone to the main plotline of Yakuza 0, definately befitting of a tale of the underworld. Fortunately, there's much more to the game than that. Between missions, your characters are free to explore the neon soaked streets of either Kamurocho or Sotenbori and take part in the various mini-games, side activities, and sub-stories that can be found all over both cities. The game does a good job of introducing you to these various events and activities, funnelling you to certain parts of the map or actively directing you to side activities at appropriate points. The tone of the sub-stories runs in total contrast to the main storyline, providing a zany contrast to the serious narrative. You'll find yourself doing such varied tasks as training a dominatrix, helping a hapless man propose through a crossword puzzle, breaking up a 'burusera' ring, (that's a term for the buying and selling of used schoolgirl panties, apparently) and much more. Rather than feeling out of place, these side missions serve as effective comic relief from the more serious moments and the flow of their delivery as you progress through the game is pitched just right.
The mini-games are a mixed bag and you'll probably find yourself ignoring some in favour of others depending on your preferences. I enjoyed playing this game's included SEGA classics in the arcades you can find in both cities, Super Hang-On, Out Run, Space Harrier and Fantasy Zone all make an appearance and the fact that there are a couple of side missions to progress by playing them adds some incentive on top of the nostalgia. There are some activities that receive much less love, though, the various gambling activities like blackjack, poker, and roulette, as well as eastern games like cee-lo and koi-koi feel like they were included 'just because'. If you have the patience to invest some time and effort into the more fleshed-out of these mini-games, you'll find that there are some real tangible rewards to be gained, especially in the establishments that allow you to build a 'relationship' with the staff. Everything from unique equipment to new gameplay elements can be unlocked through following these side stories, usually by beating whatever activity they are associated with, so they're rewarding but some require a significant time investment in return.
The most significant side missions for each character take the form of their respective day jobs. Through events central to the plot, Kiryu winds up running a real estate company and Majima becomes the boss of a hostess club. These activities represent the main way of making money for both characters and both have their own secondary storylines associated with them that can be progressed by meeting various milestones. Both activities come with their own set of challenges, Kiryu's real estate business requires huge amounts of investment and careful management but can generate huge amounts of cash without much effort later on. Majima's hostess-management mini-game is much more hands-on, having you actively manage your club, assigning girls to customers, fulfilling orders, and generally keeping you on your toes for its three to four-minute rounds. I found Kiryu's more hands-off system of assigning staff, improving properties, and buying up parts of your opponent's business interests to slowly take over their territory to be more satisfying. I just could not get into the activities required to make a success of your hostess business, dressing up the models and going through dating-sim type scenarios to improve their stats started to feel like going through the motions to progress the storyline in disappointingly short order. I can confirm that both of the activity's storylines are worth progressing to the end as the rewards you earn for each character are really something quite special.
It's truly a testament to just how much there is to do in Yakuza 0 that I've yet to even mention one of the game's most significant gameplay aspects, the hard-hitting melee combat that can found both throughout the story's many scenarios and out on the streets of the city. The core of combat is much the same as it has ever been in the Yakuza series, it's about slow, deliberate, hard hitting attacks and overwhelming enemies with brute force. This has been both a blessing and a curse in the past, as it creates some brutal and satisfying attacks but has also felt inflexible at times. Yakuza 0 manages to address this by giving each of your characters three different 'stances' - different move sets and abilities you can switch between with a press of a directional button in combat. Kiryu's 'Rush' style allows him to dodge and weave between attacks more easily, making him much more speedy in both attack and movement. In contrast, his 'Beast' style is slow, hulking, allowing you to absorb punishment before countering with environmental weapons. The system feels flexible and adaptable, allowing you to tailor your styles to varying enemy types, environments, or bosses with unique attack patterns.
In my earlier preview, I mentioned that I had concerns that Majima felt a little overpowered in comparison to Kiryu when he first appears and it's true that you could close your eyes, mash the attack button, and win every time when he's fighting basic enemies. I'm pleased to say that the addition of enemies who can't be staggered, who carry ranged weapons, or who are just generally tougher force you to adapt your tactics and play smarter as you progress through his later chapters. However, the issues I mentioned with the uncooperative camera and a targeting system that can hamper your efforts as much as it helps them remain prevalent throughout. The camera particularly becomes an issue when enemies with guns come into play, it seems to almost struggle against your attempts to get a better view of the battlefield at times. The targeting system can be grappled with by knowing when to use it and when not to but it can be frustrating at times when an enemy's attacks track better than your own.
The overall difficulty of the game's combat varies. The story follows a fairly natural difficulty curve and some side missions are obviously harder than others, but you'll fairly easily survive everything the game can throw at you if you play on normal setting and stock up on healing items and equipment. Play on hard and you'll find a slightly stiffer challenge, albeit only in increased enemy health and damage. Once you've beaten the game, you'll also get access to 'legendary' difficulty which really lives up to its name and seems a bit extreme to me personally. If you can beat the game's gigantic, money-stealing, super tough side character 'Mr Shakedown' in this mode, I'd like to shake your hand.
This localization of Yakuza 0 is a faithful one, gone are the days of cutting out hostess clubs and culture-specific minigames like shogi. Even the more sexualized aspects like bikini catfights, idol videos and the hilarious but frustrating telephone dating game are preserved in all their glory. This is all important to the overall tone of the game, since one of the central themes throughout the narrative threads is the question of what it means to be a man. The game handles sexual themes in a fairly mature way and mostly in non-story related scenarios, addressing transgender characters, fetishism, and the delicate issue of barely legal or underage characters without flinching or pulling punches. In addition, it still manages to use humor in the right places to avoid being preachy with its tolerant attitude.
Almost every system in the game is driven by cash. You'll need it for your business, for side activities, for buying and crafting equipment, for food and healing items, and even for your character progression. As in previous Yakuza games, you'll meet various martial arts masters who can bestow their moves upon you through training missions. This time, each scenario will cost you cold hard cash too. Even unlocking these scenarios will require you buying the requisite upgrades on the various ability trees which, again, needs more cash. Luckily enough, there are plenty of ways to make money. Early on in your adventure, you might find yourself wondering how you'll ever afford the higher tier upgrades, but the game is just stopping you from progressing too quickly. Once you've gained access to the business management mini-games, you'll soon be rolling in dough. You'll want to flesh out whichever of the styles appeal to you as much as you can as well, the incremental progression of additional moves and strength leads to some very well rounded and free-flowing fights by the end of the game.
I have to wind it back a second here and just make special mention of the telephone dating game I referenced above. This is a, frankly, bizarre mini-game in which you 'shoot' the correct answers to the girl on the other end of the phone's questions as they float around the screen. Get enough right answers and you can ask them for details about themselves like their figure or face and eventually ask them to meet up. It's very tongue-in-cheek and even the way Kiryu answers the phone is deliberately over the top and sure to raise a smile, but trying to follow its thread through to actually getting Kiryu a date was a frustratingly long endeavor. The game itself isn't too challenging to complete (though success is not guaranteed), but it has another layer to it. Some callers are real and some are ringers working for the club or people pretending to be something they're not. For every real ending, there are two joke endings where Kiryu is either stood up, fleeced out of some cash, or raped by an old lady (I'm not kidding). For me, the reward did not feel worth the effort and the mini-game wasn't compelling enough to follow it to the end. However, this is just one of many entirely optional activities. If I hadn't been playing for review I would have probably just ignored it and gone on with my enjoyable journey oblivious. The one positive I take away from the experience is that it taught me how to answer the phone like a real man:
The presentation in Yakuza 0 is good for the most part. Cutscenes are impeccable and convey the story with real drama and beauty. Both the main settings of Kamurocho and Sotenbori are great to look at, especially at night with their dazzling neon lights. Both cities also convey a good sense of being 'lived in.' There's a constant bustle of people, trash blowing in the streets and random encounters with people in need of help. A closer look at a few of the character models and textures reveal some areas where less attention has been spared and animations are less than believable in some of the side missions. It can, at times, be very apparent that assets were focused more in some areas of the game than others. There are also a couple of minor technical issues worth mentioning. Texture pop-in on less significant scenery like trash cans and street signs is a frequent occurrence as you roam the larger area of Kamurocho and there seems to be a noticeable drop in framerate every time I cross a particular area of the city known as Theatre Square, though I haven't encountered this anywhere else in the game.
Music is highly varied in Yakuza 0, with soundtrack pieces and background music that are the normal mix of heavy metal battle tracks and more mellow ambient pieces. There are also several authentic 80s tracks to be found in karaoke bars and disco clubs, and almost every activity you can do has one or two tracks to accompany it. This was much appreciated, as it means that as long as you vary what you're doing in the game you're never hearing one particular track enough for it to become irritating. That said, there aren't any standout pieces in the game that would have me running out to buy the soundtrack. Sound effects are generally good, although some of the gun sounds are a bit weak. Voice acting sounds great and preserving the original Japanese language track helps convey the emotional tone that the game aims at. The only disappointment here is that there are next to no voiced parts outside of the main story save for a few soundbites here and there. As such, even the most well-developed side missions never have the same impact as the well-acted plot.
If it's an abundance of content you're looking for, then Yakuza 0 will definitely satisfy. I've put in around 140 hours between completing the storyline and the major side missions and activities. According to my overall completion tracker, I'm only around 60% done. The only problem is that not everything is likely to appeal to you enough to make getting to that 100% completion mark worth it. Other aspects may pull you in and end up being inordinate timesinks you never expected, I'm warning you now, customizing battery powered pocket circuit cars can be surprisingly addictive. If everything that comes along in the main game isn't enough for you, you can also play in local co-op against a friend in pool, bowling, darts or the disco dancing rhythm game or hop online to play poker, mahjong, or shogi and compete in ranked leaderboards. On top of that, you can access one off battle scenarios with special conditions from the main menu. Known as climax battles, these unlock as you progress through the game's story and have score-based online leaderboards. The mini-games are all as functional here as they are in the main game, but it added little to the experience for me. I also have to say that I only played the online games against AI opponents, as the online population is sparse prior to release, but I encountered no issues for what it's worth.
There's something here to entertain everyone and with so many deep systems at play, it's pleasantly surprising to find the overall impression does not feel diluted as a result. Yakuza 0 tells a great story full of genuine pathos and emotion, managing to provide a fun and varied game to carry you through it with glee. I highly recommend anyone who's never tried the series before to use this game as a jumping-in point. It's not perfect, but the crazy and enjoyable ride provided by the game's story is more than a match for its minor flaws.
Yakuza 0 was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
- Great Story
- Brutal Melee Moves
- Flexible Combat Stances
- Genuine Laugh Out Loud Moments
- Cumbersome Camera in Combat
- Stiff Animations in Side Missions
- Lesser Mini-Games Feel Like Padding