Great Scott! The Yakuza series travels back in time to 1988 with Yakuza 0, a prequel to the long running Yakuza series, set during a time when the main protagonist of the series, Kazuma Kiryu, was a fresh young thug who was still working his way up the ladder. Also we get to see a young Majima Goro, making this the first time he’s playable in a non-spin off game.
As a fan of the series, the first thing that is cool to see is Kamurocho thrown into the wayback machine. Clothing is different, store fronts have changed, there’s no Millennium Tower taking up the skyline, and everything is familiar, yet has had a complete retro overhaul so it all feels fresh again. Not to mention that, as someone who grew up in that time period, it’s amusing to see the styles on display and the technology used. Welcome back pagers and brick sized cell phones!
For those who might be jumping into this as their first Yakuza game, the games are story driven beat-em-up games with RPG style leveling systems, and when I say story driven, I’m talking lots of dialog and cutscenes. Yakuza 0 is no exception to that, as in the first hour of play, I mostly completed a couple of tutorial fights that were over quickly and sang Karaoke, while the remainder of the time was spent going through storyline sequences. These games are deliberately paced affairs where the combat is only a part of the overall experience, but not the focus of most of the game.
Yakuza 0 begins by showing a more brutal side of the series’ main protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu. Kiryu is an enforcer in the Yakuza at this point, doing collection duties, and what seemed to be a regular collection job goes sideways, which throws Kiryu into a web of different factions within the Tojo clan, all of whom have different plans and intrigues going on that he finds himself an unwilling participant in. So far it’s interesting and different from some of the last couple of Yakuza plots, which mostly boiled down to someone making a mistake and Kiryu needing to clean it up. I feel like saying anything about Majima Goro’s story would be a spoiler, so I’ll only say that it’s different from what I expected it to be so far, while at the same time fitting perfectly within the pre-established character background.
What I love about the story so far is that someone can play it as a beginner, and while there are a lot of names and clans being thrown around, as a prequel there’s no prior knowledge needed of these characters in order to follow along. However, if you do know that background, it’s rewarding to play the first time Kiryu visits Serena, or have him hang out with Nishikiyama. Watching Kiryu as a rookie that is willing to give his life for his foster father in any way he can, while Nishikiyama trying to coach him on manipulating politics and people in order to get ahead because he wants Kiryu to move up the ranks with him, just fits so well with what comes later. Knowing Majima’s history from the later games makes some of his scenes more emotional, though they recap some of his and Saejima’s history as well, so even if you don’t know it you’ll be fine.
Graphically the game is kind of a mixed bag. The retro look is fantastic, with flashy clothing and money being thrown around in contrast to the garbage in the streets that pops up here and there. It’s a bacchanal atmosphere of people partying while also acknowledging the dark alleys those revelers are getting mugged in. Character models look fantastic, the battles run at 60 frames per second, and there’s a lot of different lighting effects being used. However, you can still see the PS2 roots in the game as well, like with the walking animations that look robotic now. There’s a lot of highly detailed surfaces, but also a lot of surfaces with flat textures that look like recycled assets from previous titles. There’s a new series of weird washed out looking cut scenes that occasionally happen where the characters don’t have lip movement at all, but other things in the background are animated. I think this is an intentional decision that is meant to represent memorable moments, but it’s always just kind of awkward. The great looking parts ultimately make the recycled stuff stand out a lot more, and while the visuals are mostly interesting, some things are harder to forgive than others.
Money in this game is one of the more interesting parts. In the first Yakuza game, 10 Billion Yen goes missing and it’s a huge deal in 2004 Kamurocho. In 1988 Kamurocho, 10 Billion Yen is still a lot, but you walk around with millions in Yen all the time. Cash rules everything around you in Yakuza 0. You no longer get experience points for beating people up, you get money, literally; as you smack people around, cash literally flies out of them like a flesh piñata. That money is used to buy items and to spend on minigames as usual, but it also is what is used to level up the characters and fighting styles, with most upgrades being in the tens of millions of Yen.
See where I said fighting styles? I meant the plural form of that word, as Kiryu and Majima both have three styles each. Kiryu has a Brawling style that’s somewhat similar to his method of fighting in other games. Then there’s a Rush style, where he can rapidly throw long combos together and weave in and out of range of attacks, but he can’t grapple. If you’ve played Yakuza 4 or Yakuza 5 it reminds me of Akiyama’s style with more punching. Then there’s Beast style, which is pretty much just Saejima’s fighting style; slow, strong, lots of smashing, but with this style if you are attacking and near a weapon you’ll automatically pick it up for use. Meanwhile, Majima has Thug style, where he has moves like eye poking and a chokehold, the Slugger style, which is slower but he has a baseball bat constantly equipped and uses to great effect, and Breakdance style, where he… well, breakdances, and does a lot of quick moves.
All of these can be switched between during combat on the fly, so if you are using one and it’s not working, it’s possible to try a different style to see if it works better, which is awesome and my favorite thing in the game. Playing as Kiryu but being able to switch to Akiyama’s speed or Saejima’s power at any time? That’s just the best. It adds a lot of depth to the combat as well, because instead of remembering one characters combos, you need to learn to use the combos of six different styles. Of course, you can just focus on one or another if you prefer that one as well, but there’s something just great about going from an eye poke combo to a spinning headstand, then ending with a baseball bat to the head on an enemy. It’s just the best thing.
Of course, Yakuza games aren’t just about the main plot and fighting, they’re also full of side stories and activities. Most of the activities remain in Yakuza 0, but with some changes and additions. The mainstays like the UFO Catcher, gambling, batting cages, karaoke, fishing, bowling, and so on are still around. There are, however, strange additions like telephone center dating, where you pay and wait for phone calls, then try to convince the girl to go out with you on a date. It’s like a really old school version of Tinder if you’re looking for an explanation of how this works as someone who didn’t grow up in the 80’s. You also can unlock, and trade with a couple of creepy pelvic-thrusting guys, different erotic videos to watch, which aren’t X-Rated but VHS tapes of real women the characters can watch at a peep booth. There’s no nudity that I’ve seen, as it’s mostly just girls in bikinis, if you were wondering. There’s video games to play at SEGA Arcades, and they’re all time appropriate, with Super Hang On, Outrun, Space Harrier and Fantasy Zone available. Disco dancing is a rhythm game that’s interesting to see, and there’s a Cat Fight Club with women’s wrestling tournaments that you can bet on and play Rock/Paper/Scissors during, but it’s mostly random and not fun. There’s also Pocket Car Racing, which is interesting and more involving, with custom parts for the RC cars.
There is so much more, and while I’m double digit hours into the game so far, it still feels like I’m just scratching the surface. It has all the usual things a fan of the series would love, but with a higher frame rate and a better fighting system.
For people new to the series, Yakuza 0 offers a perfect chance to jump in and see what it’s all about, and while I want as many people to play to keep getting more Yakuza games, I also think anyone who wants to play because they just want to melee smash a bunch of enemies or hates reading subtitles should really think hard before purchasing the game. I also think it’s worth mentioning that the game takes place in a red light district at a time of excess, meaning that in this Yakuza game more than any other there are a lot of missions involving sex workers or things involving the vice industry. On one hand, I’m very impressed that none of these things have been removed and that the work was done to localize it, but on the other there’s a sub mission involving an abused sex worker who gets her passport taken by her pimp… and the good ending of that is that she marries him. Just something to be aware of if it’s the kind of thing that might affect your enjoyment of the game.
I’ll have the review expanding on everything else later this month!