Kazuma Kiryu, his name alone brings up sensations of honor and justice, but it may be a misnomer if you from the West. The last main series game released outside of Japan landed on PlayStation 3 in 2011 in North America, but since then the series has seen multiple releases in Japan, including several spin-off titles and remakes. Sega surprised everyone, announcing the localization of Yakuza 0 to be released two years after the original release. Taking place in 1988, Yakuza 0 serves as a prequel and is the first game in the series to be available on the PlayStation 4.
Although some may believe that the Yakuza series is nothing more than a Japanese Grand Theft Auto, I can assure you; Yakuza plays nothing like the Rockstar franchise. There are so many different aspects to Yakuza that it makes it hard to put into words everything the game has to offer. I wouldn’t be amiss to say that if this is your first foray into the dark criminal underworld of Yakuza (it just so happens to be my first time playing the series), you are in a unique and satisfying experience. While I do think that the game is an excellent starting point for newcomers and fans alike, those who already have familiarity with the characters may find a deeper meaning behind the actions that transpire in the prequel narrative.
Yakuza 0 takes players back in time almost 30 years, with locations in Japan brightly lit with glowing neon signs, streets bustling with civilians, and of course, angry tattooed individuals loitering around every corner. The game takes place across two widely popular areas of Japan; Kamurocho, a fictional realization section of Tokyo, and Sotenbori, a fictionalized recreation of Osaka. After every two chapters, you’ll switch between the two characters Kiryu finds himself in the center of a framed murder plot, revolving around a key piece of land being fought over by numerous organizations. Majima, an ex-Yakuza, finds himself protecting a blind woman against the same group that he desperately wants to rejoin. Each of the narratives keeps the two protagonists in their respectful parts of Japan, but the seemingly separate stories connect along the way in an almost perfect fashion.
If you are unfamiliar with Yakuza, you’ll be traveling throughout the cities on foot, beating up rival gangs, troubled hoodlums, bikers, and anyone else that crosses your path. It is true that the series can be labeled as an open-world brawler, but there are key moments that will block off certain locations; limiting how far you can roam. Kamurocho and Sotenbori aren’t overly large places, making exploring by foot quickly and enjoyable. You'll come across hidden secrets, interesting places to visit, and some of the wackiest side-missions that exist in any game.
While the main narrative’s tone is serious, delving deep into the family values and honor of the Yakuza clans in both regions of Japan, the game’s side-missions provide plenty of humorous moments. There are 100 different side missions that you’ll discover just by wandering through the winding streets or chatting with locals. These tasks are optional, but help flesh out the world, and are lighthearted in nature. At one point, I was helping a mom rescue her daughter from a brainwashing cult, the next I’m impersonating a flamboyant TV producer, followed by convincing a group of high school girls not to sell their used underwear to perverts on the streets.
Not every building can be entered, but there are plenty of restaurants, shops and entertainment locations on every block. There are Sega branded arcades, letting you play classic arcade games, such as Space Harrier and Out Run, or attempt to win a prize from a UFO catcher. If you are looking for something more traditional, you could play a game of bowling, hit some balls at the batting cage, dance the night away at a disco, sing karaoke, or indulge in the erotic side of Yakuza in the form of softcore-pron video parlors. There is even an underground women’s wrestling league, letting you bet and influence the outcome. While some of these may seem out of place in today’s culture, you have to remember the game takes place during the 80’s where none of these things are out of place in Japanese society.
The first game in the series to grace the PlayStation 4, Yakuza 0 certainly looks sharper than the PlayStation 3 version of the game. While the protagonists and the other main character in the story are rendered with near photo-realistic facial features, the supporting cast is less believable. Animations for regular citizens are janky, and during some of the in-game cutscenes, there are closeups of characters and parts of buildings that contain extremely blurry textures. As the story progresses, it is common for the game to transition between in-game sequences and pre-rendered scenes with a much higher visual fidelity. I should note that all of the game’s dialog is in Japanese, but provides English subtitles for players to read.
As you make your way through the streets, you’ll frequently be interrupted by groups looking for a fight. Crowds surround you cheering the senseless public display of violence. Instead of locking your characters into a single fighting style, you can swap between different ones on the fly. Sometimes things can be situational, based on your surroundings and the type of enemies you’ll be facing. Majima’s slugger stance lets him swing a baseball bat in spectacular fashion, but you won’t want to use it indoors or tight corridors. If you find yourself surrounded by usable objects, you can switch to Kiryu’s beast mode to pound your enemies into submission with nearby signs, garage cans, sofas or bikes. As foes are tossed to the ground, money will generously ooze out of them. There are hidden heat attacks that change based on your location and what items you have in your inventory. I chuckled the first time Majima shoved an orange in a foe's mouth in the midst of the fight.
Each fighting style comes with a separate skill tree that unlocks new abilities and upgrades. I recommend using your hard earned cash on improving your health and damage output first. Eventually, you’ll gain access to things that let you avoid having to fight constantly, but I found myself enthralled by the surprisingly deep fighting mechanics that I didn’t avoid a single one. There is also a massive patrolling goon that can steal your money and beat you down before you even knew what hit you. Until you upgrade and learn new moves, I would avoid Mr. Shakedown at all costs. The last time I tussled with him, I lost over 8 million yen in under than 10 seconds.
You gain a sizeable amount of your income from fights and completing chapters, but both characters have their own money-making side business. These ventures provide a massive boost to your income. As you meet new people, you’ll discover certain ones that want to be your friend. Once befriended, you’ll gain access to rewards or even additional quests. Both cities also have a shrine, allowing you to spend CP to unlock other upgrades, such as increasing cash from fighting, dashing for longer periods of time, or even recruit new girls for Majima's Club Sunshine.
Yakuza 0 is clearly an early frontrunner for one of the best games of the year. Even after spending 80 hours with the game, I've found myself surprised by side-missions and all of the optional forms of gameplay. Heck, I’ve probably wasted thousands of yen on the UFO catcher, millions playing poker and blackjack, and tens of millions on purchasing new real estate locations and betting on fights. There are so many different options along the The main story is solid, but Yakuza 0 shines by providing players with so many optional challenges and side-missions along the way.
Note: The review for Yakuza 0 is based on a digital PlayStation 4 copy of the game, provided by the publisher.