Yakuza’s a video game series that’s been around for over a decade since its first release on PlayStation 2. Almost every release has made its way world-wide, or at least to the U.S., but the series has never been the big hit that it’s been in Japan. Whether it’s because of culture disconnect or it being a long-running series some fans feel they’re too late to join; Sega’s produced a fantastic solution with Yakuza 0, a prequel to the long-running franchise that’s got so much content, it’s bound to please no matter your history with the games.
In Yakuza 0, you play as Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima in 1988 Japan. The story moves throughout chapters switching back and forth between each character’s own personal story and the overarching plot that connects the two. Without giving too much away, Kiryu is framed for a murder he didn’t commit, and he’s trying to clear his name while keeping his alliance toward his foster father. Because the murder took place in an abandoned lot that’s lucrative to his Yakuza superiors, he’s got a target on his back by those looking to obtain the lot for the head of the Dojima family, who offers the second-in-command position to whoever can get him the lot. Majima begins his story running a successful cabaret club after being kicked out of the Tojo Yakuza clan for being disobedient to orders for a hit years ago. He’s offered a second chance when he’s given a job to kill a target, though the target’s identity makes him decide to protect them and figure out why the family wants them killed.
The story takes a while to really gain steam. In fact, the beginning can drag on for a little too long. Story threads get repeated, and it seems like you’re getting beaten over the head with plot points like the value of the abandoned lot and each character’s motivation. But the good news is that it picks up considerably and really makes use of the strong cast of characters at the game’s disposal. Enemies are menacing, and although this is a prequel, the story still engages and thrills as you progress through Kiryu and Majima’s own personal obstacles.
Yakuza 0’s combat is ruthless, and, no pun intended, holds no punches back. Combat is a beat ’em up within a walled-in area, with your ultimate task being to take down all the enemies in combat to progress. While you can epuip weapons like guns, knives and katanas, most of the fighting will be through hand-to-hand combat. Kiryu and Majima both learn three unique fighting styles to their character. Kiryu has a basic fighting style called brawler; a faster, boxing-like style called rush; and a feral, powerful and slow style called beast. Majima has his own basic style, called thug; slugger, a style based around a baseball bat; and breaker, a break dancing infused style.
These styles can be upgraded through each style’s respective skill tree. Upgrades can be as simple as giving Kiryu or Majima more health, or they can introduce new combos or elements that make you even deadlier, like upgrading Kiryu’s beast style so you can (and this is really in the game) dislocate both of an enemy’s shoulders, bash their face and then throw them. Upgrades are earned by collecting money, which can be done by fighting, playing games or selling items, and dumping enough money in that’s required to unlock.
Outside of beating the absolute hell out of whoever stands in your way, there’s a slew of playable mini-games and challenges that add a little more light-hearted fun to the mix. Bowling, darts, arcade machines and dance mini-games, among others, are littered throughout the two main playable areas, Kamurocho and Osaka. These aren’t just tacked-on games, either. Every mini-game is well put together – even the simpler one’s like darts. There’s also side missions called substories that have your character interacting with various characters in the game that either involve fetching an item or proving your brutish superiority by beating people close to death.
While roaming around between story missions or your own personal Japanese vacation, random enemy encounters will occur ranging from street hooligans to low-level Yakuza hit men. Battles are closed off, so there’s limited room to fight. Most enemy encounters are failry easy work, but early on in the game, you’re introduced to gigantic enemies called “Mr. Shakedown” who will take all of your money if they beat you. And trust me, they’re no pushover. While some encounters do feel tedious when you’re just trying to do your own thing, they do reward you with a good chunk of money to upgrade your character if you’re feeling under-powered. And if you don’t want to fight, you can press square to throw money and the enemies will be determined to pick up your cash while you run away.
Some multiplayer elements are included if you want to challenge friends on your couch or others online. You can play darts, bowl, pool, and dance against another player, though none of the progress transfers to your story completion. As for other modes, there’s some challenge fights included and flashbacks to previous story events and fights.
Yakuza 0 can pull off some stylish and impressive action scenes, but it’s hard to ignore the hints of this game’s origin as a PlayStation 3 game. There’s significant texture pop-in with NPC character models, with the high resolution only popping in when you’re shoulder to shoulder with them. There’s still some fantastic animation at work (just watch one of the boss battle cutscenes), but it can feel like it’s two games from different eras being sewn together to form an awkward mix of gorgeous and dated visuals.
For series regulars, Yakuza 0 is an awesome look into the early lives of two iconic characters within the universe; and Yakuza first-timers will find the prequel’s plot a good introduction to a series that’s eluded a lot of gamers state-side. Brutal and fun, if not slightly tedious fighting is backed up by an entertaining (and very Japanese) story that’s filled with tons of side missions and activities to do. Yakuza 0 is a perfect jumping on point for those looking to jump in this long-time fan favorite.
This review is based on a review copy of Yakuza 0 by Sega. Review copy provided by Sega.
- Ruthless combat
- Compelling story
- Lots of fun and worthwhile mini-games
- Story's pacing can stumble
- Odd mix of graphical quality