I’ve long been an advocate for the underappreciated Yakuza games. There is an old-school simplicity in the entire series, akin to classic side-scrolling beat-em ups such as Final Fight, Streets of Rage and River City Ransom but in an open 3D world. With its charismatic locales as the backdrop for the action, and the soap opera like story, Yakuza games are always a blast to play. Yakuza 0 is no exception.
Yakuza 0, as the prequel for the entire series, serves as a perfect jumping-on point for those who have never played a Yakuza game, or have found it too daunting to jump into the lore-ridden series with 5 (6 including Yakuza 0) localized games so far. But you should jump and in and play Yakuza 0 – it is a fantastic game, and worth your time and money.
The franchise’s story has always been about protagonist Kiryu Kazuma, and it’s no different this time around. The prequel’s premise gives us some insight into the character he would become in the first game and beyond. However, this time, fan-favorite Majima Goro joins Kiryu as the second player character, with his chapters focusing on his exile in Osaka from the Tokyo yakuza, and how he became the whackjob he is in the later games.
The story is very well done, with a fair amount of cutscenes and voice acting in Japanese (with subtitles, of course) giving the narrative some added depth. Faces are well animated and the dialog is matched well to the lips of the characters, benefiting the Japanese soap-opera style crime thriller.
The Story is set in 1988, and jumps between two cities, and the two main characters – Kiryu in Kamurocho, Tokyo, and Majima in Sotenburi, Osaka. These two locations are pastiches of Kabukicho, and Dotenburi in Tokyo and Osaka respectively. Both cities are well detailed, and are fantastic miniaturized dioramas of the cities they are meant to imitate.
The locations add a lot of character to the game with the vibrant lights and nightlife making the cities seem more alive. Although there is noticeably less detail in the character models for the people in the world, and objects like cars or bikes, the bright lights and location rendering distract you, helping you forget it was even something you would notice. The cut-scenes however, are of a high graphical quality. I won’t go into story details, as it is much better to experience the dramatic cut-scenes, the compelling characters and the general mystique of the storyline in your own time.
Like the preceding games, most of the main story line folloows the same basic formula, running around the city, watching a number of cutscenes and after angry shouting by someone or everyone, some fighting ensues. It is a fairly basic formula, but it is still a very enjoyable process to get into.
Combat plays out like previous games – an old-fashioned brawler where you string together combos and finishing moves. There is a sweet symphony of violence, with Kiryu or Majima conducting the orchestra with the help of some poor sap’s screams of agony, along with some blood and broken bones. It is rather cathartic to go off on a whole group of goons, and the combat system is simple enough for beginners to deal with, but some tight timing for the advances techniques and counters.
What is new in Yakuza 0 though is the style system -both player characters now have 4 different fighting styles, with varying strengths and weaknesses, and it helps give the combat additional depth. Furthermore, some styles require you to use weapons, be it the improvised sort or the lethal variety, to take full advantage of how the characters fight. There is also a skill tree that you have to invest in for each of the combat styles, making it necessary for you to go out to find a source of income either via combat, or through some of the mini games located in the two cities. During fights, the more brutal you are, the more money opponents will drop, so there is always an incentive to use heat moves as much as you can to make your opponents bleed money.
And while I have made the game sound super serious so far, I confidently assure you that is not the case – Yakuza games have always been of oxymoronic tonal styles, so don’t expect change in Yakuza 0. On one hand, you have the almost overly dramatic, almost overly serious crime thriller in the main story; on the other, you have the world outside of the main story – I am talking about side missions and mini games.
Utterly ridiculous, often hilarious, and generally pointless, the side missions you take on in the two cities you explore seem to place Kiryu and Majima as the straight man in the absolutely ludicrous situations they often find themselves in. Yakuza 0 revels in its tonal contrast, and somehow it never seems out of place – one moment you’re crying over a dead friend, the next you’re trying to chat up hostesses or getting a chicken as a gift, or asking a naked dancing man on tips how to run a cabaret, or helping a busker take a piss. Such is the utter insanity and charm of Yakuza 0 that consists of the dichotomy that makes Yakuza 0 so great.
so what kinds of mini-fgames are there? Well, just about everything. For starters, Kiryu can manage a real estate empire. Majima’s day job (or night job) is to run a cabaret. You stake and buy out land. Or control a slew of hostesses. There’s a Tamiya car “pocket circuit” car simulator. Casinos. You can go play baseball, try some darts in bars. Bowling is always good, right? How about some karaoke? Or gaming in an arcade? Or disco dancing? How about attempting to operate a phone sex line? Or betting on underground cat fights?
The minigames help flesh out the world, helping make the two cities vibrant and interesting. And since Kamurocho has been around since the first game in the Playstation 2 era, veterans of the series will feel like they’re visiting an old stomping ground, filled with memories of joy, or more likely in this case, copious amounts of video game violence.
So are there any negatives at all? Yes, yes there are. As I’ve stated, some of the background character models are not very detailed, but then again this game was co-developed for the Playstation 3, so some minor things like that are to be expected. You can expect to fight the same 4-5 enemies (besides bosses), because character models are, again, not that detailed. (I personally find it perfectly fine, as it adds to the game; Final Fight enemies were basically just color swapped so I apply the same logic here.)
Saving is done manually, which I know is a sore point for some gamers, and the story, while interesting, does splutter a little towards the end. And for all I’ve said about the side missions and minigames, it might turn into an OCD person’s worst nightmare because there are lots of things to do… perhaps even too much. (That might be both a good and bad thing, I suppose) In the grand scheme of things, these issues are minor, and it just feels like I’m nitpicking.
Yakuza 0 has the advantage of being a good starting point for beginners, and ike the rest of the Yakuza series, has a sort of dependability to it – If you start up a Yakuza game, you will always more or less know what you are getting into. It is always an enjoyable experience and a good time sink if you want it to be. Yakuza has always been under appreciated, and that is a damn shame. It is happy being a game where burly men slog out their differences. And I’m fine with that. And you should be too.