Yakuza 0 is the latest game in SEGA’s long running Ryu Ga Gotoku series to finally make its way to the west. With only 2 playable characters, revised battle mechanics, and more side activities to get lost in than ever is this game worth checking out, or should you just wait for the next one?
After past releases being somewhat turbulent, the localization for this long awaited game comes as a relief to many fans of the series. For newcomers, though, this is the perfect place to jump into a 10 year long franchise.
Set in 1988, Yakuza 0 stars a young version of series main character Kazuma Kiryu who’s joined by Majima Goro. It was a great time to be alive – at the time Japan was going through a bubble economy. Everyone is rich and the cash is burning a hole in their pockets.
Each playable character is locked into their own fictionalized piece of Japan, Kiryu being in the neon filled paradise of Tokyo’s Kamurocho and Majima in Osaka’s Sotenbori. Each city has distinct features based on their real world counterparts and unique characters, side stories, and extras. One commonality they share, though, is the grime. Trash lines the streets and the overall tone feels grittier than the other games in the series. Kamurocho specifically feels like it has its edge back. A tone we haven’t felt since the first game.
This fits well with the game’s criminal underworld in which both characters are intertwined. Unlike previous games that make you feel sympathetic towards the Yakuza, this one really shows off how dark and violent the gangs can be. Having a flagrant disrespect for the law it’s easy to feel the brutality and disregard for human life that would be expected from a group of career criminals.
As a prequel, the plot doesn’t rely on any past games to be coherent. Kiryu’s story starts with him being framed for murder and getting caught up in a conspiracy involving the purchase of an empty lot in the middle of the city. Meanwhile, Majima has been excommunicated from his Yakuza family and is being forced to run a cabaret club in Sotenbori to earn his way back in.
Organized crime might have a grim dark, serious connotation but Yakuza 0 is anything but. The story plays more like a 1980s shonan manga than a true crime novel and the young protagonists are far from hardened criminals. Kiryu has not yet decided on the kind of man he wants to be and you get to witness his coming of age. Majima, likewise, is not the mad dog we’ve seen in the earlier games. The unhinged psychopath is instead a lot more low key and reasonable. The villains are given mostly clear motivations at the beginning of the game and the supporting cast of characters keeps things moving along at a great pace. While every second chapter sees you swapping between Kiryu and Majima the game also has a ‘previously on’ style recap each time you switch so you’ll never forget what’s going on.
If you’ve never played a Yakuza game you’ll be introduced to a rich cast of characters many with unique motivations and sub plot lines. Seasoned fans, though, will get a bit extra out of seeing the origin to several main and side characters. Sometimes knowing where someone will end up detracts from the tension in story but Yakuza 0 does an excellent job of subverting expectations. Characters become more dynamic each time we see how they’ve changed between the 1980s and their latter day versions.
The gameplay is a culmination of 10 years of iterative game design. Systems in previous games have been expanded upon and perfected into the gameplay experience of Yakuza 0. Although two characters might be a step back from the 5 different characters in Yakuza 5, both Kiryu and Majima have a vastly expanded upon set of fighting mechanics. There are 4 different combat styles to unlock for each character – some of which are upgraded versions of fighting styles from previous games and others are completely new. We found ourselves changing stances depending on the fight at hand which made it difficult to decide which to focus on upgrading.
The upgrades systems have also been overhauled in Yakuza 0. In the past you earned points from combat and used those to level up different skills. Now cash is king – you need to spend it to level up. Instead of choosing a category and hitting upgrade, now you have choose which fighting style you want to improve on. Then you follow the upgrade path of your choice on a sphere-grid style move tree. You’ll have to purchase all the moves along the way, though, so you can’t always go right for the skills you want. Some are locked behind side stories and extra training tieing the in game world to the combat together in a meaningful way.
Most of your fights will be with random thugs and other Yakuza on the streets. These are basically random battles and you’ll be rewarded with cash literally flying out of their pockets with each hit. If things get dicey there are also heat actions you can perform which are special moves tied to items or the environment. There’s so many different context specific heat actions that we frequently found ourselves discovering something new which made the combat more exciting. Not to mention a weapons crafting system that while feeling totally unique will keep you fully armed to deal with whatever the game can throw at you.
It can be argued that the real substance of the Yakuza series lies not with its main story or combat, but with the side content. It would be an understatement to say there’s a lot to do in 0. Fans of the series will see familiar mainstays like Karaoke and Bowling. There’s some new mini games to sink your teeth into this time around, too: Pocket Circuit where you build and race a custom slot car, a Disco Bar that merges a puzzle and rhythm game, and a telephone chat service where you can talk with women and potentially land a date.
If you’re feeling lonely there is also a place where you can view private videoes. These 30 live action clips were filmed just for the game and feature scantily clad women in all sorts of suggestive poses. In true Yakuza series style, though, you’ll be solving their problems before being rewarded with more clips – for your eyes only, of course.
Zero also adds two brand new systems that allow you to invest and grow your in game cash. The first is Kiryu’s real estate management where you purchase property around Kamurocho. These investments pay off and the more you own the higher the reward. Majima’s cabaret club, in contrast, is more hands on. You’ll be dressing up hostesses and coaching them on how to please customers. The gameplay of the coaching is similar to hostess clubs of past games with a deep management sim on top. Each of these activities has it’s own overarching plot where you’ll be taking on business rivals in a profit war. Eventually taking over their territories and unlocking extra skills while raking in even more money!
Along with playspots there are substories everywhere in both Kamurocho and Sotenbori totalling 100 between the two characters. These mini narratives feature side characters and have no bearing on the plot. Despite this each one is worth doing for its own reasons. Most are charming and funny while others are just plain odd. The weirdness of the substories in Zero feels like it’s higher than any other game in the series and it feels great! You can also develop friendships with certain NPCs, each with their own challenges and perks for maxing them out.
One example is a girl in a bowling alley that befriends you the more that you play. Eventually she’ll offer you a prize if you bowl a turkey which is three strikes in a row. If you’re successful she rewards you with a live chicken. Instead of cooking the chicken Kiryu names it Nugget and it becomes a manager to use in his real estate firm.
This is something that really stands out in Yakuza 0. Compared to earlier games where each sub story was kind of stand alone, characters this time around are more interconnected and the systems work harmoniously. Characters you befriend throughout now show up to help your business. Showing an epilogue to their story and, although it’s completely optional, giving you more incentive than ever to play the side content.
Graphically Yakuza 0 turned heads when it released in Japan nearly 2 years ago on both Playstation 3 and 4. It’s a little unfair to compare to current offerings and even amongst its contemporaries there are some obvious shortcomings. 1080p and 60fps looks great until the framerate dips or the screen tears. The camera also suffers and at times gets caught up on the geometry or in awkward positions. Still, the graphics hold up extremely well even compared to some of the newer games Yakuza 0’s competing with.
The long-awaited localization of this game is also worth noting. Nothing in game was cut from the Japanese version save for licensed music. And even then in the past licensed music was simply replaced with an existing track but this time SEGA went out of their way to have a completely new theme song recorded for the English release. This extra effort is echoed throughout the game with the localization being higher quality than ever before. Even if there is some very minor westernization tweaks nothing has been missed. Although it doesn’t affect our review score we’re also a little sad the Vita app never made it over to the west.
Yakuza 0 is the kind of game that you get out whatever you put in. You can rush the story and complete it in about 25 hours but that would be doing the game a disservice. Every piece of content is designed to feed back into the game’s core mechanics. The more time you spend lost in the back alleys and side streets the more you’ll find to do. There’s always someone to talk to, something to upgrade, something to unlock, or a battle to be won.
It just may be the best game in the series and now that it’s finally come west we cannot recommend it enough. Sure there’s some jank but the sheer amount of content, clever writing, perfect pacing, masterful battle mechanics, and a system that ties all of the side content together in a way that’s actually meaningful will keep you hooked for hours. If you’re new to the series or a Kamurocho veteran Yakuza 0 is as close to as perfect as a video game can get.