Looking at the current plans for the Yakuza series in the West, it is hard to imagine that just a few years ago the prospects of the franchise were in question. Now not only is the sixth game confirmed long before release, but the remake, Yakuza Kiwami, has also been planned for Western release. Such a long running series might be a bit much for some but Sega is ready with Yakuza 0, a prologue set years before the first game, that not only serves as a fresh look for fans of the series but a great way to introduce newcomers to the series.
Set in 1988, Japan is at the height of prosperity with business owners regularly pulling in large profits and lucky individuals becoming extremely rich. With so much money flowing it is easy to see that some of the shadier businesses want to tap into those profits and those that want to let off some steam so ready to spend their extra cash, the two districts of Kamurocho and Sotenbori see quite a lot of profit to the point that even the smallest piece of land is fought over.
Kazuma Kiryu is tasked with the simple job of roughing up a debtor to encourage him to pay off a loan-shark, a simple job for a skilled fighter that is moving up the ranks of the Tojo clan in the yakuza. Unfortunately while this job may be easy for someone of Kiryu’s skills, the fact that his mentor Kazama Shintaro left a void in the family makes him an easy target for the higher ups in the Dojima family. With the man he beat up found dead and the blame placed on Kiryu, it is up to him to try and clear his name while trying to keep those close to him from being dragged into the conflict.
Alongside the classic Kazuma Kiryu Yakuza 0 also follows the story of Goro Majima. After failing an important job in the past, Goro was given the job of managing the hostess club, the Grand Cabaret. While he is extremely successful at this task, he knows that he is always under watch from those who exiled him to this task and wishes to prove himself as someone capable of more. When such an opportunity arises, we see just how far Majima is willing to go to try and regain his status in the Tojo clan but also just where he draws the line.
More recent entries in the Yakuza series have expanded their story to cover numerous characters so while covering only two may seem like something of a downgrade, it is actually for the better in this release. By focusing on Kiryu and Majima the story easily keeps players invested by following the adventures of each character for two or three chapters at a time before swapping to the other character, usually leaving the other story off with a cliffhanger.
Without delving into the mystery aspects of the game players will find a truly well written story here that players will find hard to step away from, even though the game gives players plenty of chances to unwind at their leisure. In fact, there are numerous substories that range from simplistic to hilariously absurd. These short events tend to only involve a few small characters that often only appear once but place the characters in fun odd situations that often reward the player with useful items when completed. With an intriguing core storyline and fun substory diversions that run the gambit of being simple to completely absurd, there is a lot to enjoy in Yakuza 0’s storyline.
Whether you play as Kiryu or Majima the streets of Japan tend to be a bit rough around the edges and both characters will often find themselves in the middle of a brawl. Nearly all fights happen to be groups coming in to take the player down and these battles really deliver an arcade style experience thanks to the cash mechanics and tightly designed combat system. You see, when beating down an enemy their cash will literally fly out of them and the amount of money they drop is often multiplied by various bonuses that include winning quickly, without being hit, or through some unique means.
Both characters feature unique fighting styles that can be swapped between over the course of the game and while they can both be described as being a fast, normal, and slow fighting style, they are quite different from one another. Kajima has a standard Brawler style that allows for weapon use, grappling and basic strikes, Rush style that emphasizes movement and mimics boxing techniques, and a Beast mode that is slow but automatically grabs environmental objects to use as weapons that otherwise cannot be used.
On the other side of things, Majima has a balanced Thug style, a Slugger style that literally allows him to use a baseball bat with infinite durability compared to the flimsy standard weapons that players can purchase, and a Breaker style that serves as his mobility style with breakdancing combat moves always keeping him on the move while dealing out flashy damage. No matter which style players use, as they’ll often find themselves switching to best face off against certain opponents, the combat feels hard hitting and visceral. Each strike has a satisfying feel and takedowns are bone-crunching in nature, especially when some of the more brutal takedowns, which are now triggered through a single button press at the cost of the Heat gauge, are used. The fact that almost every opponent manages to stumble away from a fight is shocking considering some of the brutality that can be seen in a fight.
While players will be able to use the money they earn on plenty of side activiites in the game, one of the first things they are taught is to “invest in themselves.” This is meant literally in the game as there are no experience points to level up but rather all money earned can be spent on unlocking various skills and boosts in each of the three styles for the characters. This means that players can choose to invest heavily into a certain combat style they like or spread things out through the sphere-grid style upgrade system.
Outside of combat there is a massive amount of content to explore and while this isn’t really an open world game, it is a sandbox that allows for players to spend as much of their free time exploring the various activities as they feel like. Beating down a gang of delinquents and then taking their cash to spend at a karaoke bar rhythm game or dancing at a disco is just a small example of what you can do. Managing hostess clubs, running a real estate company, dating, and even partaking in arcade machines that include the Outrun and Space Harrier Sega classics are all things you can do to step away from the story if you feel like it and even that doesn’t really touch upon everything. With so many side activities and aforementioned substories to explore, players will find it easy to sink countless of hours into the game by messing around in the world.
Visuals & Audio
As mentioned earlier, Yakuza 0 takes place in 1988 and the developers have made sure to portray that time period quite well in the world. Neon lights advertise the various side activities and places where the wealthy can squander their cash and Kiryu’s pager requiring him to travel to a payphone to actually respond to a message are all nice touches to help bring the setting to life. That being said, while the game always runs at a great pace the actual graphics are fairly standard for the PlayStation 4 but considering the aesthetic and design choices made, players will easily be able to overlook this.
As for the soundtrack, players can expect the standard set of music from the Yakuza series as well as some catchy karaoke songs to play along with when visiting one of the parlors. In signature fashion for the series, the title has been released in the West with only the Japanese voice track though considering how fitting this is for the setting and atmosphere of the game, players shouldn’t have it any other way.
Yakuza 0 is the type of game that can serve as both a great entry point for those who are looking into trying a series they have long heard about but thought inaccessible as well as a satisfying experience for those long familiar with the franchise. With a gripping storyline that is hard to walk away from and a wealth of side content to constantly revisit, once Yakuza 0 gets its hooks in you it is hard to put down, even after you’ve already sunk well over fifty hours into it.