I’ll be honest. Despite having a heavy interest the series, I’ve only ever flirted with the odd Yakuza game in the past. The little of them I did play however, I liked, and so I jumped at the opportunity to get to grips with Yakuza 0, a prequel to the series and the first for the PS4 to be released in the West.
Essentially an action RPG, Yakuza 0 leads with a story that weaves the fate of two protagonists, Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. Both are members of the Yakuza who have somewhat fallen out of favour, and, unwillingly, both have been drawn into a power struggle at the centre of which is the Empty Lot – a three-square metre plot of land that stands in the way of a major redevelopment project. Each fighting their own personal battles, their paths are filled with twists, turns and a whole load of violence, but their strength, determination and unique moral compasses empower them to see things through.
It’s a great story that truly captures your attention, mainly due to its charismatic leads, although it does occasionally lull, often because of excessive exposition. The way it’s presented sometimes tries to sully the experience too, with dialogue reeled off via multiple types of scenes varying in calibre. You have infrequent but fantastically directed cutscenes, for example, complete with convincing facial animation. Then you have the more often used in-game cutscenes which are visually much less impressive due to Yakuza 0’s last gen roots. Most disappointing though are the rare scenes which are almost comic book styled, bereft of any lip syncing whatsoever. The eclectic way in which the story is told is indicative of the general nature of the game, however.
When you’re not engaged by Yakuza 0’s thrilling story, the variety and tone of gameplay on offer is huge – if you want it to be. The core of the game rarely requires you to do any more than travel around its two fairly small yet wonderfully created locations, Kamurocho and Sotenbori, beating up street thugs and yakuza along the way, but if you really want to thrive in Yakuza 0 you’d be wise to engage in some of the side missions and activities that are on offer. You can befriend the perverted Mr Libido and watch some questionable videos, show off your moves on the dance floor, race RC cars; honestly, there’s just so much to do and it’s all so excellently implemented that it’s hard to not be blown away by it all. Take Yakuza 0’s bowling mini-game; it’s better than most standalone bowling games I’ve played and yet here it’s just one of a vast number of diversions. And if you’re up for it, you can even devote time to developing yourself as a real estate agent and/or cabaret club owner. Both are worthy time sinks, and best of all, they’re great sources of cash once you’ve grown a successful business.
Cash is quite pivotal to Yakuza 0. It drives the motivations of a range of characters and is essential for the development of its two protagonists. Kiryu and Majima each have access to three unique fighting styles which you can switch between on the fly, but you’ll need to invest in yourself by buying new skills and upgrades within each of their trees if you want to fight effectively. Large amounts of cash can be obtained from combat, and so it is fortunate that this aspect of the gameplay proves to be highly enjoyable for the most part. Yakuza 0’s fighting system is easy to pick up but offers a great amount of depth once you’ve unlocked a wide repertoire of skills. Aggression is rewarded by a heat system that opens up advanced attacks, such a bone crushing special moves that are sure to make you wince, and the way the heat bar increases and decreases as you dish out and sustain damage creates an ebb and flow to battles. Sure, careless button bashing will get you so far, but to truly be effective you need to be proactive about your offense and defence. Problems can arise, however, when facing off against large numbers of combatants, especially when playing as Kiryu.
As you play through Yakuza 0 the number of enemies you fight against steadily rises. When you start you may only have to face off against a few opponents at a time who aren’t overly aggressive, posing little challenge at all, but eventually you’ll be going toe to toe with upwards of six goons competently vying for your blood. It’s not an issue when you’ve got room to manoeuvre, but sometimes the environments you’re fighting in feel suffocatingly small, leaving you little scope to successfully evade attacks or safely initiate your own assault. It’s a problem compounded by a clumsy lock-on system that’s next to useless, and the result is the odd moment of frustration as a single attack that gets through your defences opens you up to whole world of pain that you can’t do much about. After being punched, kicked and possibly stabbed enough to fall to the floor, you’re next task is to then manage to get back up without being assaulted yet again before you’ve got your bearings. When playing as Majima the issue is alleviated somewhat by his quicker, more flamboyant combat moves – particularly those found in the breaker style that damage opponents all around him- leaving Kiryu feel like the weaker option in comparison.
Kiryu’s combat shortcomings aside however, Yakuza 0 is an absolute blast, and a lengthy one at that. Completing the story alone will take around 30 hours, but those who play the game as intended, engaging in activities on the side to boost their cash and lighten the serious mood will find themselves playing for maybe double or even triple that time. It’s in all the extra content that Yakuza 0 becomes particularly endearing too, constantly surprising with its off-the-wall humour and refreshing boldness. Credit has to be given to SEGA for localising the title without cutting chunks of sexual content which some will no doubt find unsavoury or offensive. And the dialogue feels pleasantly down to earth, helping to bring out each character’s personalities. Honestly, every time Kiryu described something as a kick in the dick it warmed my soul. It’s nice to hear characters talk so frankly.
If you’re a Yakuza game veteran, Yakuza 0 should be considered absolutely essential, though it provides a great starting point for those wanting to get into the series too. There’s no better a time to get into it either, what with a remaster of the original title, Yakuza Kiwami, due in the west later this year. It may look a little dated at times and be a bit rough around the edges, but it offers a compelling story alongside some seriously enjoyable gameplay that is as varied as you want it to be. And not only that, but it does it whilst constantly surprising you with its mix of melodrama, charisma and oddball zaniness. To play Yakuza 0 is to deeply fall in love with its characters and world; a challenge that many games try to conquer, but only a handful ever manage to actually achieve.