Yakuza 0 is the latest in the long running Yakuza series, which has been around for over a decade. It serves as a prequel to the series, telling the story of the series’ protagonist Kazuma Kiryu’s early days as a Yakuza (Japanese gangster). It’s a series with a reputation for not changing its formula much over time, but that’s understandable because it’s a really solid formula. Yakuza 0 brings the series to the PlayStation 4 for the first time, including some new refinements to the series’ tried and tested mechanics.
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Release date: January 24th, 2017
The story begins in 1988, as Kiryu is going about his business as a Yakuza. What seemed like a simple money collection job turns into a murder case after his target turns up dead, and Kiryu finds himself framed for the crime. Finding himself kicked out of the Yakuza, he desperately tries to find a way to clear his name before he ends up in prison. Meanwhile, Goro Majima, a character we’ve seen many times in previous games, becomes playable for the first time. Although he’s been known for his crazy behaviour in the series, surprisingly we see him here as much more of a gentleman. Running his own successful hostess club, he seems like a legitimate businessman on the surface. In reality though, he’s merely using the business as a way to raise money and buy his way back into the underworld. Suddenly, he’s asked to take on an assassination mission, but his target ended up being far from what he expected.
Although Yakuza 0 features less playable characters than its predecessor, it makes up for it with the addition of multiple fighting styles for both characters.
Like the previous games in the series, Yakuza 0 is set in the large fictional town of Kamurocho, which is closely based on a real life district located in Tokyo. It’s an impressively detailed recreation, and it looks better than ever on the PS4. In addition, Yakuza 0 features an area based on Dotonbori, a real life district in the city of Osaka. Both location really feel like living, breathing places with streets packed with people going about their business, shops and restaurants all over, and many events going on. One of the best parts is the fact that you can actually enter many of these shops, inside which you’ll find heaps of different items and meals to buy, all of which will have various effects on Kiryu and Majima.
Game progression revolves around two main elements, fighting and story events. Fighting is done in a beat ’em up style, with players controlling Kiryu and Majima as they take on groups of street thugs, drunkards, and rival Yakuza. Sometimes you’ll be attacked by these people as you run around the area, and sometimes you’ll need to fight as part of the story. Both characters have many different combat abilities available to them, which can be unlocked by training them with the money that you collect from defeated enemies. During battle, Kiryu and Majima have access to various combos of light and heavy attacks, as well as heat actions which deplete a special gauge when used. These are like super moves, and they’re all both brutal and spectacular. Although Yakuza 0 features less playable characters than its predecessor, it makes up for it with the addition of multiple fighting styles for both characters. Switching between these during battle allows them access to even more moves, and gives the player more control over how they want to approach each battle.
Make no mistake, the game certainly earns its MA15+ rating, with plenty of blood flying during battles and attacks that may make you cringe a little as your enemies receive bone crunching attacks. The fact that you pick up and use nearby items as weapons adds to both the variety and the carnage. The money that your enemies drop flies out of them and into the air as you hit them, which actually looks a little comical, but also helps to keep the fights visually interesting. It looks particularly spectacular when one of them gets kicked hard and spirals through the air.
The story is the other major part of the game, and like previous entries, there’s a lot of it. Yakuza 0 is not a short game by anyone’s measure, with 17 chapters, each of which will last for a few hours. The writing is as good as ever, and the way that the narrative switches between the two characters helps to keep things fresh. We do get left with a cliffhanger or two along the way because of the switches though, but they mostly serve to motivate players to keep progressing in order to find out what happens next. There’s also a handy recap of the last part of each character’s story whenever the game switches protagonists, which is a nice touch. Both characters make both friends and enemies with a colourful cast of characters, and there’s plenty of twists along the way to keep you guessing.
You can go bowling, visit a batting cage, go dancing, sing karaoke, or go fishing and that’s only the beginning.
You can’t talk about the story without also mentioning the substories, something the series is well known for. These are the game’s side quests, and there’s a huge number of them. What really sets them apart from side quests in other games is how naturally they’re worked into the flow of the game. You’ll just be casually wandering through an area when you suddenly hear a cry for help, bump into a stranger on the street, notice a strange scene unfolding, etc. From there, you’ll find yourself getting pulled into the beginning of a detailed side story, many of which feature some unique gameplay of their own. There’s a great variety of stories, from helping to shoot a music video for a character who parodies Michael Jackson, to rescuing a young girl from an evil cult, to reuniting a father and daughter. There’s never a dull moment.
The other thing that the Yakuza series is known for is its minigames, and Yakuza 0 has them in spades. You can go bowling, visit a batting cage, go dancing, sing karaoke, or go fishing and that’s only the beginning. Each of these is an enjoyable, well fleshed out little game of its own, and they make for a great distraction as you progress through the game. This time around, we’re also presented with two story related minigames in the form of Kiryu’s real estate business and Majima’s hostess club. These are both highly detailed, and take some skill to master. Kiryu can scout out new properties to buy, enhance and protect, each of which will earn him money over time and increase his share of the market. Majima can recruit new hostesses, modify their appearance, and then manage the club as customers come in and interact with the girls. These activities are an interesting way of progressing the story, and make for a refreshing break from the large amount of fighting featured in the game.
Overall, Yakuza 0 is an excellent package, and a strong entry in the series. The graphics are a considerable step up from the PlayStation 3 games, with some incredibly detailed character models and environments. The story is strong, and feels much more focused than Yakuza 5’s, which really helped to keep me engaged. The added variety to the combat is very welcome, and produces some entertaining results. The substories are as good as ever, and although some of the minigames are recycled, they’re still as enjoyable as ever. Since Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the series, it’s friendly to both newcomers and series veterans alike, and I encourage both to pick the game up. It’s easily one of the best games available exclusively on the PS4.