Review: Yakuza 0 (Sony PlayStation 4)

Yakuza Zero
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Ryu ga Gotoku Studios
Publisher: SEGA
Release Date: 1/24/17

I feel it’s only fair to say right away that I’m a Yakuza series fanboy. I bought the first game based on the review by Insidepulse’s own reviewer Mark so long ago. Since that first game it has become one of my favorite video game series. I’ve seen the movie, imported games, made T-shirts, bought toys, etc. Every time one is released I find myself buying and trying to savor every moment under the assumption that we were lucky to get the latest game and due to sales that might be the last Yakuza game I’ll get the chance to play. Amazingly we keep getting them released in the West, and Yakuza 0 brings us all the way back before the beginning to show how two of the main characters evolved into the badasses we know and love.

Since this game takes place as a prequel to the series some players may ask if this is a good starting point to the games. The answer is yes, it is. Yakuza 0 requires no prior understanding of the games to enjoy, however if you are a fan of the series you will have a deeper appreciation for things that occur within the game. A concern with prequels is the potential for creating situations that conflict with later entries or hurt some characters (*coughStarWarscough*), and I can say that is not the case with Yakuza 0. If anything the game foreshadows future events of the first and second games in such a way that it adds to them rather than subtracts from them.

The game is split between two protagonists, Kazuma Kiryu and Majima Goro. Kiryu is a young Yakuza who enlisted because he feels he owes his foster father, a high ranking Yakuza member, his life. He and his sworn brother Nishikiyama are in the lower rungs of the Yakuza career ladder. Kiryu as a foot soldier collects money from people who owe it; the game begins when a man he roughs up is found with a bullet in the head. Framed for murder Kazuma Kiryu finds himself quickly over his head in a mess of internal politics and plots.

Majima Goro is being punished for not following orders in a creative way. In order to escape his punishment he is tasked with assassinating a person, a job that turns out to be part of a larger web of intrigue.

There’s so much to say about the story, however that would ruin the pleasure of experiencing it first hand that I do not want to talk about it in too much detail. I do want to say that the story builds slowly with a pacing that might be too slow for some. This is not a FPS game where you rush to get to the next checkpoint and there are a lot of cut-scenes. In fact there are even several types of cut-scene. There are fully animated scenes that play out like movies, there are scenes that are partially animated and are strangely muted with no lip syncing that appear to be an artistic decision to emphasize important moments, and there are scenes which require the player to press a button to progress through the lines of dialogue.

Make no mistake, Yakuza 0 is a deliberately paced game. The story walks through twists and turns, all of which work well overall. The game is well written and continues to build slowly adding layer onto layer until it reaches a melodramatic peak. That doesn’t mean it is without flaw however, at this point it’s almost a running joke that Kamuza Kiryu is part of the Tojo Clan and yet is fighting them every game and while Yakuza 0 had a chance to show his history as a young thug instead we’re seeing a familiar cliché play out again. Unlike some other games in the series however the plot continues to build and never feels like it gets bogged down.

The main story is only part of the overall game though. One of the main selling points of the Yakuza series are the sub-stories, side quests where minor narratives play out. Yakuza 0 has a lot of them and nearly all of them are very entertaining. There are all sorts of weird and wild ones, and it is worth noting a lot of them involve the sex industry. At least more so than any previous Yakuza game. There’s no nudity but a lot of adult themes for those who might be thinking about purchasing this for a younger family member.

The sub-stories are optional and can be skipped but I recommend playing them, they’re the soul of the Yakuza games. They involve everything from knock offs of 80’s icons to dance contests to teaching a dominatrix how to be better at her trade. Note that in some Yakuza games you could miss side missions by advancing the story, and in Yakuza 5 they were marked on the map. In Yakuza 0 they are not marked on the map, though you have the potential to get an item that shows them, none of them will disappear so you have the chance to hunt them down later if you would like to.

In addition to the sub-stories are Friendship quests. There are people on the map you can befriend and it will start a friendship meter. As you fill it there might be a mission that pops up related to that character. If you befriend a character there’s all sorts of benefits, from items you can obtain, to help in the management missions, to having that character assist you in battle when you are in their area of the map.

Then there are the management missions. Kazuma Kiryu has a Real Estate Royale management mini-game he can do, which is sort of like Monopoly. In that one you buy properties, assign managers and security, use advisors to invest, and collect the payments. Majima Goro has a Cabaret Club Royale management game. In his you hire women to work as hostesses in your club, train them, dress them, and help them with customers. Both are well thought out and great ways of making extra money. Additionally it’s nice that characters from the sub-stories can become employees for these management missions after completion.

Graphically the game is a mixed bag. There are some great effects when it comes to water or reflective surfaces, or with animated signs. There are also a lot of flat textures and animations that appear to be handed down all the way back to the original PS2 games. It’s a really strange blend of graphics that appear dated and effects that look new.

Aesthetically the game delivers in creating a late 80’s version of a Japanese red light district. The location is familiar with anyone who has played prior games…only through a retro time machine. The NPCs sport time specific clothing, familiar places have not even been established yet, and there’s evidence of the excess of the time period everywhere. Everything looks expensively garish and yet there’s garbage littering the streets. The dedication to the time period and cultural norms of that period are impressive.

It also makes me feel real old to consider the 80’s as a historical period.

While the story and graphics are important how the game plays is what people want to hear about. Yakuza 0 is one of the best Yakuza games from a sheer control perspective. The game is a RPG Beat-em-up adventure game. You will walk from point to point in a sandbox of a city taking on missions or going to and from objectives. As you walk around there will be random encounters with various groups, at that point it is all about putting foot to ass. There is a minimap in the corner you can consult and pressing down on the touchscreen portion of a DS4 controller will bring up a larger map.

Beating people up is where the game gets interesting. In the default style the game has two different attacks, square for regular attacks and triangle for the end of combos and Heat moves. X for dodging and circle for grappling. R1 to face an enemy and L1 to block. This has been fairly constant throughout the series. You can string together combos through different combinations of the square and triangle buttons. During each battle the character increases their Heat gauge which allows for special context sensitive moves, like curb stomping an enemy.

Yakuza 0 provides a number of differences. Instead of one Heat bar you have three, and depending on what level of Heat you’ve obtained it might result in different abilities. Not only that but there are three different fighting styles per character. Kiryu has a Rush fighting style that’s quick and has a lot of evasive moves, a Brawler style that’s well balanced, and Beast style that has him Hulking out and smashing enemies. Majima on the other hand has a Breakdance style which is full of spin moves, a Thug style that has eye pokes, and Slugger where he has a baseball bat that he can put to cruel uses. Having access to different fighting styles really shakes up the combat of the Yakuza games. Being able to switch from a style that works better for crowd control to one that is better for individual beatdowns is smooth and feels like a great evolution of the game.

Another nice detail is that these styles of different Heat colors, pink for fast, blue for balanced, yellow for strong style. When you switch between these the PS4 controller also glows in those colors. It’s a small detail but a nice one. On top of that each style has different background music as well. Between the Heat color visuals, the controller and the music you know what style you are in.

Beating up enemies in prior games meant that you would get experience. Yakuza 0 has changed all that, instead you get cash money. Beating up enemies is like taking a thwack at a flesh piñata, money just falls out of them. Money is used for everything in this game, from buying items to paying for mini-games to upgrading your character. This leads to some interesting cost/benefit choices at the beginning of the game; do you buy a health item or an upgrade? As the game progresses money isn’t too hard to come by so that becomes less of a problem, however it’s an interesting concept that really pushes the narrative about how flush with money people at that time were.

From a game design level Yakuza 0 might be the best in the series in that all the systems complement each other. Fighting earns money, which can be invested in management mini-games, which work better if you’ve completed sub stories, and that money can be used to increase fighting skills, which means you can beat more people up and repeat the cycle.

The music of the game is top notch even though the title music was better originally. There are goofy sympathetic tunes for cheesy moments, to full on music videos. The voice acting while in Japanese fits and the performances add a lot to the different characters.

Honestly I can talk about the game forever. There are a ton of minigames. The mainstays like the UFO Catcher, gambling, batting cages, karaoke, darts, pool, fishing, bowling, and so on are still around. There are strange additions like telephone center dating, where you pay and wait for phone calls and then try to convince the girl to go out with you on a date. That it’s like a really old school version of Tinder is the best explanation that I can think of. 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 old school arcade games to play at SEGA Arcades and they’re all time appropriate with Super Hang On, Outrun, Space Harrier and Fantasy Zone. Disco dancing is a rhythm game that’s interesting to see. There’s a Cat Fight Club with women’s wrestling tournaments that you can bet on and play Rock/Paper/Scissors during that is mostly random and not fun. All that and more.

Again I do want to note that the content may not be for everyone. There are scenes of torture, several suggestions of rape and there are underage characters involved in the buying and selling of underwear and pornography. There’s a scene where an abused sex worker agrees to marry their abuser. There’s a metric ton of violence. The game involves a lot of characters of different factions and is steeped in Japanese culture.

With that out of the way Yakuza 0 manages to be that rare prequel that makes the later games stronger. The game features a fantastic amount of content and the updates to the battle system feel like a natural part of the series. You can breakdance battle, make chicken friends and hit people with motorcycles. The game is amazing and I highly recommend it.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Yakuza 0 is a fantastic entry into the series. A perfect starting point for new players while also providing an engaging storyline, great characters, a fun combat system and an abundance of stuff to do. The game is not a fast paced affair and might be niche enough to turn some away however that is their loss as Yakuza 0 is a game that continues to deliver memorable moment after memorable moment as you play through it.



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