Well, it has finally happened. After almost a year of waiting, SEGA has decided to grace us with a Western release of yet another Yakuza title. The best part? Yakuza 0 may be one of the best in the series to date.
Yakuza 0 is the latest in the main series to come to the West (with Yakuza 6 slated for 2018). It’s a real journey through time as it shows you the humble beginnings of the series main protagonist, Kiryu Kazuma as well as a familiar face to fans of the series, Goro Majima. This is prequel to the main-series, so fans of old will catch all the foreshadowing of the previous games shown throughout the sub-stories, as well as new fans having a better sense of what is going on as they are introduced to the large world of Yakuza. With this being a prequel in mind, this may be the best starting point for anyone interested in the series as it really lays the foundation for the entire series.
The game begins with you controlling Kiryu Kazuma, the series main protagonist, in the ever familiar city of Kamurocho – which is set in Tokyo. From the very beginning you are thrust into the crazy world of yakuza hierarchy and honorifics. I found myself confused at remembering the significant placement on the hierarchy of a certain person or even what their name is. Framed for a murder, Kiryu sets out trying to find who was behind it, all while pissing off a bunch of yakuza along the way. As a veteran of the series, I found this to be an incredible backstory to Kiryu, as it’s really only given to you in pieces in the other titles in the series. While having this backstory, it really sheds a whole new light on why Kiryu is treated the way he is throughout the series. The second protagonist, Goro Majima, is set in Sotenbori – which is set in Osaka. Each of these cities are vibrant and come to life with their oh-so-typical 80’s neon signs and busy streets that make the city truly feel alive.
Within the cities of each protagonist comes one of the major hallmarks of the Yakuza series – mini-games. You can do things from karaoke, playing mahjong, fishing, hitting up the batting cages, racing pocket cars, playing a claw machine, and even going to the arcade and playing some of SEGA arcade classics. There are a ton more mini-games – too many to even mention – with each mini-game being very distinct from one another. These mini-games are a fantastic way to spend your time interacting within the city and taking time off from the main storyline. Most of these mini-games also allow you to gain money, such as playing mahjong, at the risk of losing an equal amount betted. So if your pockets are looking thin and you’re feeling lucky, hit the tables.
One of the major changes in this title is to the combat system. Unlike prior titles where you were stuck either punching, grabbing, or kicking your way through random encounters with other yakuza and local hooligans, Yakuza 0 introduces a brand new Fighting Style for each of the two main protagonists. Each protagonist starts with 1 style, then as their story unfolds, they unlock an additional style. 3 are readily accessible within the first hour or two of each major story per character, but the 4th and last style is an unlockable. Each character is also able to perform special moves called heat moves. These are skills that are usable when the three bars begin to fill up from hitting your foes. These moves are just downright ridiculous. The moves themselves range from curbstomping your enemy while down, to slamming their face against railing. Some heat moves are also products of their environment, so while you may think you’ve seen them all, you probably haven’t. While many critics of the series believe the fighting to be very repetitive and downright boring, Yakuza 0 bringing styles opens up the combat just that bit more. While it’s still the same basic formula of kick, punch, grab, and dodging, there is just something about the simplicity of the combat with the ridiculous heat skills that make the gameplay that much more enjoyable each and every time.
The leveling system in this game is also overhauled. In lieu of an experience based leveling system in Yakuza 0 – being set in the Japanese 80’s economic bubble – everything is now done through money! To level a skill, raise your health, and learn new skills, it requires you to have a certain amount of money to spend in order to obtain it. Luckily for us, just by engaging in fights and punching people we are able to acquire some cash as it explodes from their body, while using heat moves and tactical variations garner multipliers and bonuses to give you even more. While seemingly daunting at first, the story does progress to give you access to making money much more quickly. Kiryu will gain access to managing and maintaining properties, while Goro will have full control over a cabaret club. While making money becomes less of a burden, losing it becomes easier. In each respective city, there is a man walking around called Mr. Shakedown. Now, as the name implies, anytime you run into him or get caught by him, you’re engaged in a fight with this man who – from my experience – essentially 3-4 hit kills your character, thus taking all the money you have on you. Now, if you defeat this character, you get all your money back and then some, but I never bothered to try. Every time I ran into him I was just utterly destroyed and embarrassed. Now there are some items that you can equip that lessen the money he’s able to take after defeating you, but I found it easy enough to just watch where I was going and avoid him like the plague.
Side stories are another Yakuza series classic that help make the city feel even more vibrant and alive. As before, you’ll encounter NPCs who will either have you help them beat someone up, or fetch things. While sounding repetitive, the stories themselves are fantastic and there are just subtle enough details and references to the past games that really help a series veteran like myself really enjoy it, while also prefacing a majority of people and places for newcomers to the series. There are also some details in this game that really stick out to series veterans, such as Kiryu’s unfinished dragon tattoo on his back, as well as Goro’s lack of crazy incessant scream-voice and short hair.
While Yakuza 0 brings to the table the things we expect out of the series and then some, it also has it’s downsides. I found through my playthrough some minor screen tearing when panning the camera around, as well as some weird FPS drop on certain occasions. I also wish there was a way for you to switch styles OUT of combat. I think I found more frustration being stuck in one style at the start of a battle, that it slowed the general pace down a bit too much when I was swapping over and over again at the start of each fight. A minor oversight, but it did impact my quality of life with the game.
All-in-all, Yakuza 0 is a step in the right direction. The varied style of combat and superb story was terrific and Yakuza 0 has cemented itself as my favorite Yakuza game in the series. From the vibrant cities, insane amount of mini-games, craftily told sub-stories, Yakuza 0 is a world that will keep you coming back for more.