Much like the decadent time period, glitzy locales and array of swaggering individuals that make up its evocative setting, Yakuza 0 is a game of excesses. From its rambunctiously romantic take on Japanese nightlife through to its extravagantly framed fistic conflicts, Yakuza 0 does a tremendous job of embodying everything that fans have loved about the series for over a decade. So effective is it in cultivating the series essence that Yakuza 0 not only makes a case for being the best entry in the series, but it also happens to be the most friendly for newcomers too.
New and Old Beginnings
Being a prequel, Yakuza 0 delves deep into the history of the series. Set in the franchise’s long-time stomping ground of Tokyo’s Kamurocho district, Yakuza 0 whisks the player back to 1988; a time where Japan is in the throes of an economic boom and more so than ever before, fame and fortune are there for the taking by those who have the stones to do so.
Without venturing too deeply into spoilerville, the narrative is all about the idea of power, respect and ownership; a trio of themes that the series has traditionally wrestled with for years, but with the added Shakespearian notions of tragedy, family and buckets of street violence (alright, maybe not that last one) chucked in for good measure. Stuck between their own keen sense of honour and the nefarious ambitions of the Yakuza families who seek to divide up Kamurocho and beyond for their own ends, Yakuza 0’s twin protagonists find themselves consistently drawing the ire of their tattooed brethren as chapter by chapter we see our protagonists evolve into the characters that we know and love today.
Frequent leading good guy Kiryu still appears to be very much a level-headed sort with a strong sense of right and wrong but here, in his mid-twenties, he seems a little different than the stoic wall of violence that later games have established him as. Though he still lacks the extreme braggadocio of his elder Yakuza peers, the younger Kiryu nonetheless still has a whiff of high confidence and naiveté about him; creating a mildly cocksure attitude that comes more and more into play as he begins to second guess his position and status within the Dojima Yakuza clan.
When you’re not playing as Kiryu, the action shifts to Sotenbori in Osaka where players will take up the role of series favourite Goro Majima. Much more tempered than his previous appearances in the series, the eye-patch adorning Goro Majima in Yakuza 0 is a world away from the volatile, mad dog persona that fans of the series have been used to; a fact which makes his gradual metamorphosis into the latter all the more enticingly tragic to behold.
Something which must also be acknowledged is the accuracy of the translation work that Sega has performed here. For the first time in the series, the translation team has nailed the honorifics that are so vital to the Japanese vernacular. And when you’re dealing with a group like the Yakuza, for whom measurements and approximations of respect can literally mean the difference between losing a finger and gaining a hole in your head, the extra diligence applied to the translation work proves all the more welcome. It also doesn’t hurt that the quality of the translation has also resulted in the English language version of Yakuza 0 boasting some of the funniest dialog in a good while; when Goro Majima encounters “The Walking Erection” the first time, you’ll see what I mean to name just a single example from a veritable sea of hilarity.
The action RPG redefined
For the uninitiated, what you actually do in these Yakuza games is pleasingly simple when you get down to it and Yakuza 0 makes no significant deviations from this well-practiced and well received formula. Essentially, the plot requires you to talk to various folks between which you often find yourself in face-rearranging street fights with the locals, gain experience from them (in this case money) and upgrade your character en route to bone-crunching showdown with the boss of each chapter. If you wanted to be especially reductive, the Yakuza games are what you’d get if Sleeping Dogs and Shenmue had a baby, and that baby was made of hammers.
Something which is common to all the games in the series is that the town of Kamurocho itself is every bit a character as the denizens that stalk its neon stained streets; the trip back in time providing an alluring depiction of late 1980’s Japanese urbanism that strikes an ostensibly romantic chord early and often. A veritable den of hedonism, both Kamurocho and Sotenbori boast a cornucopia of activity and opportunity, as vomiting salarymen after a night out mix in with the impeccably dressed economic elite and the roaming bands of bikers and thugs that the stalk the streets.
As much as Yakuza 0 provides insight into the pasts of its most enduring figures and locales, so too does it also remain a fantastic introduction for newbies unfamiliar with its intoxicating brand of RPG thuggery. Adhering to the roaming third-person action template that has defined all of the other home console entries in the series, Yakuza 0 splits up its narrative into sixteen chapters whilst allowing players more than ample opportunity to explore and engage in the side activities that form the bulk of its playthrough time.
Mountains of stuff to do
The range of side quests or “substories” as they’re called, are as numerous as they are varied and all of them not only eschew the typical fetch-quest mechanic seen in other games, but also do a grand job of tapping into the series’ penchant for depicting Japanese cultural excess. Such missions include teaching a meek dominatrix how to punish people, shutting down a teenage used underwear ring and retrieving a highly sought after videogame for a young boy to name just a few. What makes these side quests especially interesting however is that until you start one, they don’t actually appear on your map, but instead require you to fully explore the area before you are able to trigger them. As such, this adds immeasurably to replayability since from my own playthrough alone, there were a fair few that I missed first time around.
Beyond such side missions, Yakuza 0 also features a number of recreational distractions that add yet further texture to the experience. Whether you find yourself battering the scoreboards on arcade perfect recreations of Sega classics such as Space Harrier and Outrun, or taking part in some ten pin bowling, singing the night away in a karaoke joint, or just getting senselessly sloshed in a whiskey bar, there is always something to do in Yakuza 0 to take your thoughts away from the looming shadow of its overarching story.
Elsewhere, Yakuza 0 also continues the series grand tradition of allowing players to become entrepreneurs. Playing as Kiryu, you have the option of going all in on the real estate business, requiring you to assign property managers and security as you seek to buy up all the land in Kamurocho. Playing as Majima on the other hand, players instead find themselves tasked with having to manage a hostess bar, training up the various ladies, upgrading the premises and more to ensure that it becomes the number one nightlife destination in Sotenbori.
What all these side missions and activities have in common though is that they supply money, and money is the sweet nectar that you need to upgrade your character and improve their fighting skills to prepare for them for the many boss encounters in Yakuza 0. Ultimately, it’s easy, so very easy, to lose hours at a time immersing yourself in these side activities. A quick bit of time spent managing your hostess business, soon turns into a much longer vocation, as mornings pass into afternoons and before long your partner wonders why you haven’t come to bed yet.
And this is precisely why Yakuza 0, and by extension all the other games in the series, have often felt like a cut above the RPG norm. Improving your character and perfecting their abilities never seems like a chore; instead, it feels like something that you live, rather than something you might grind through half-heartedly, with the pad in one hand and your mobile phone in the other. Yakuza 0 is as much an experience as it is a game.
Taking names and breaking faces
Arguably one of the cornerstones of the Yakuza series has been its combat system and in Yakuza 0 combat combines a number of fistic styles and nuances to fashion a truly satisfying system of player driven violence. Simply, the combat in Yakuza 0 is absurdly satisfying. In addition to taking in a wide array of unarmed moves such as punches, kicks, throws and headbutts, these violent confrontations also make the most of the environments that they take place in, as players can use everything from a kettle and an umbrella through to a bicycle and a sofa to bludgeon their opponents into a quivering wreck on the floor.
Elsewhere, endlessly pleasing Heat attacks, which can be built up by attacking the enemy, also allow both Kiryu and Majima to leverage the environment to deadly ends too, with car doors getting repeatedly slammed onto heads, skulls getting rammed into walls and spines getting broken over metal fences. No other title with the possible exception of United Front Games’ superb Sleeping Dogs even comes to close to the level of satisfying brutality on display here.
Being successful in a fight isn’t just about how aggressive you are either. As it’s common to find yourself outnumbered in these confrontations, the deft application of defensive techniques such as evasions, blocks and counterattacks are also needed for you to come through in one piece. Every scrap is graded too, with bonus funds being awarded for special feats such as not getting hit, finishing with a throw or taking out two foes at once. No other game makes melee violence feel this good.
Finally, an additional number of modes which allow you to tackle various combat challenges against an online leaderboard, or, permit you to play any one of the game’s mini-games against a fellow human to name just a couple, serve to round out what is already a staggeringly muscular offering that on account of just its campaign alone, could conceivably run into more than a hundred hours of playtime. Yakuza 0 then, is a game that gives you an overwhelming amount of bang for your buck.
Some visual imperfections
With its roots in shared development with Sony’s last generation PlayStation home console (Yakuza 0 was also released on PS3 in Japan during 2015), it’s fair to say that Yakuza 0 hasn’t quite managed to shake off its last generation technical heritage. Though the models of the main characters look absolutely splendid in the real-time cutscenes, as do the majority of environments themselves during exploration, other models just aren’t afforded anywhere near that level of detail with poor lip-syncing, low detail textures and a rigidness to their animations that can be jarring enough to occasionally pull you out of the experience.
Despite not looking quite as good as it perhaps should, Yakuza 0’s transition to the more powerful PS4 hardware still brings a variety of benefits nonetheless. A much higher NPC count means that both Kamurocho and Sotenbori look far more akin to teeming metropolises than the ghost towns that previous games made them appear as, while the notable uptick in screen resolution also gives Yakuza 0 a pin-sharp look and a clarity that is streets ahead of the PS3 Yakuza titles.
The Yakuza series’ deft blending of action, arcade and RPG elements has never been as accomplished as it is in Yakuza 0. A genre chimera in the truest sense, Yakuza 0’s almost abyssal depth and near inexhaustible buffet of side activities is only paralleled by the calibre of its story, characters and resoundingly robust series of system that interconnect its multi-genre aspirations.
In a year that perceptibly has more Game of the Year candidates waiting in the wings than any other in recent memory, it’s a credit to the astounding quality of Yakuza 0 that it emphatically stakes its claim as a must-have title and the first true Game of the Year.