Yakuza 0 serves as a fitting reintroduction of the series to the West, an origin story for a new generation that may not have checked out the earlier releases. It refines and focuses on what Yakuza is all about, taking this opportunity to make a statement about what’s important: the combat and the storytelling.
The game focuses on young sometimes-Yakuza Kazuma Kiryu and enigmatic Goro Majima, both trying to work themselves out of some truly troubling situations. These are meaty stories despite Yakuza 0‘s prequel status, defining moments of their two lives rather than the sort of lighter fare that’s usually left before a series’ original starting point. Other recent games in the series have split the narrative in more directions, but this focus gives the tale more time to develop and the supporting cast more opportunities to act.
And that cast acts well. Yakuza is known for snagging top-tier acting talent, and even though we in the West don’t know most of them, it does still get us some compelling characters. Majima has a little more to him as you’d expect, but both still serve more as vehicles to interact with everyone else than entities of their own. Vehicles that do a lot of punching. The two tales have a different sort of character, each existing in different sectors of the Japanese underworld. Majima’s focus, at least early in the game, is in vice, while Kiryu deals more with violence.
Visually, Yakuza 0 is more about aesthetics than technical prowess. Its origins as a PS3 game ported to PS4 show through, with simpler environments augmented with overlaid visual effects as we’ve seen in many cross-generational or remastered releases. This look works for it, though, as there’s enough here to look at and the ’80s setting lets the lower fidelity serve more as scene-setting than a true problem. It also means it runs very well, as it’s not pushing any system specs particularly hard.
Combat has been a thing that makes or breaks a Yakuza installment, and 0‘s focus is on providing a variety of styles and options. Both characters have three separate skill trees of options to toggle between as needed, each with a different focus. Kiryu has a faster Rush mode, a grappling-heavy Beast mode and a traditional pickup-based Brawler option, and the most success comes from switching between these. You’ll want to grab the signs and bikes and such to use with Brawler when they’re around, but they aren’t always around. You’ll want to use Rush to dodge attacks more easily, but that form does less damage. And Beast is… just fun. Majima’s three styles are less tactical and more fun, letting you swing around a bat forever or win battles through dancing.
Combat has been a thing that makes or breaks a Yakuza installment, and 0‘s focus is on providing a variety of styles and options.
Still, combat may be the weakest element of the game, and it’s for one reason: it’s way too easy to get knocked down repeatedly with no chance of recovery if there are two or more foes around. It doesn’t happen every battle, but when a big story sequence ends in one fell swoop just because you let yourself get knocked down once and you have to watch helplessly as you get punched down over and over again before your standing animation completes, it’s frustrating enough without happening that often. This is largely mitigated by pushing your way through the upgrade trees early and gaining more abilities, but it’s a bit of a shame that you have to break the game to experience it.
The most fun in Yakuza 0 comes through its open world and series of minigame challenges. There are arcade games like OutRun and Space Harrier, sports like bowling and baseball and board games like shogi and mahjong, as well as larger systems like wrestling gambling, real estate, club management and tiny car racing. Not all of these are winners or for all tastes, but there are so many that you can pick and choose what you like best and go from there. Well… except for the real estate thing, which is the best way to make big money fast and buy those needed combat abilities. But that is okay, because you can enlist the financial savvy of a chicken to help you with that.
It should be noted that this game is very much about the seedier parts of Japanese society, and this content was not edited out for Western audiences. It’s not explicit or anything, but this game is about vice in all its forms and not everyone’s going to be into spending dozens of hours in its world. That said, the degree to which these things have been preserved is impressive.
The game’s side stories, whether minigame-based or standalone narratives, may be the true reason to play. Early examples include teaching members of a punk band how to act like punks, punching an escalating series of thieves of the same copy of a coveted Dragon Quest-like RPG and somehow getting a police officer to like you by repeatedly showing him the same small package of tissues. It’s an endearing world that’s been built, and because of that, you’ll be willing to overlook some rougher aspects to spend more time in it.
The game’s side stories, whether minigame-based or standalone narratives, may be the true reason to play.
Yakuza is a property that’s not so easy to localize, with its Japan-specific references that don’t totally, well, translate for Western players. The approached used here is to preserve things while taking the time to explain them when possible, which works within the game’s semi-serious tone.
If you’re looking to get into the franchise (or just seeking an open-world game with a lot of fun things to do), Yakuza 0 is a great place to start. Thankfully, though, it’s also just the start of a trilogy of Sega PS4 releases, each with something special to offer.