Release Date: January 24, 2017
ESRB: M for Mature
As a certain character would put it: "The Yakuza game, it's not like boxing. The man who gets beat down isn't the loser. The guy who can't tough it out to the end, he's the loser."
This statement somewhat describes the tenacity that overseas Yakuza fans have needed over the years. Years of getting their hopes pummeled out of them after many commercial failures and the business reality of localization simply being too high to justify bringing more Yakuza games over. Yet, slowly but surely, the series kept getting back up again and again due to fervent fandom.
And bless them and Sega, really. Because English speakers are now fortunate enough to play what is secretly a quintessential Yakuza entry for series fans and at the same time a fantastic starting point for would-be newcomers through the newest release of Yakuza 0 on PS4. Once you truly step into the criminal underworld it becomes pretty much impossible to leave it. And in the case of Yakuza 0, you won't really want to.
In a lot of ways Yakuza 0 is a blast from the past. Disco is not dead just yet, pagers are the main means of portable electronic communication, and money is anything but difficult to come by in 1988 Japan. More than just the times, however, the title does a wonderful job of showing the contrasts in familiar characters as well with their distinctly different younger selves. Kazama Kiryu, for example, is not exactly the well-natured man we've come to know in later entries. He's a fresh and upcoming Yakuza with a naive outlook of the criminal underground. Which, well, frankly gets him into the mess he quickly finds himself upon starting out when Kiryu is framed for the murder of a guy he beat up just hours before on shady loan shark's payroll.
Now, Yakuza 0's main narrative is far more complicated than that, especially when the perspective of the other playable main character Majima Goro comes into play. What I will say though is that it is pretty much without a doubt the best, as well as the darkest, story in the series. It is truly impressive how much Yakuza 0 retroactively makes its source material significantly better because of how brilliantly it tells an independent story while also cleverly making plenty of throwbacks to its would-be "sequels". I really enjoyed seeing the character development that Majima in particular sees because of how radically different he is in latter entries. Those that get a kick out of crime-based thrillers should be more than pleased with the exciting storytelling present in Yakuza 0.
The series is far more than a crime-based narrative, however. If anything, it's surprising that the storytelling is as noteworthy as it is when the main stay of the series has mostly been within its open-world design and fun beat 'em up gameplay, as with more recent entries. In terms of actual scale the two primary towns are hardly anywhere near as big as many would come to expect from somewhat excessively huge open-world games as of late like The Witcher 3. However, Yakuza 0 compensates for this through the absurd breadth of side activities you can partake in. It is not an overstatement at all to say there is pretty much something unique to do in every block in either towns of Kamurocho and Sotenbori.
Money is hardly a subtle theme in Yakuza 0. Whether it be in the grim main story or when punching in the face of random street thugs in a goofy way and having cash quite visibly fly out of them it is pretty obvious about it. Cash, or rather yen, is the life blood of the game and it is a tangible means of progression in more ways than one. For example, Kiryu and Majima use yen on themselves to strengthen their battle prowess -- literally.
Speaking of which, the beat 'em up styled combat is quite enjoyable in Yakuza 0. Although it isn't dramatically different from prior entries, it does rather notably change it up with new fighting styles. There are four different fighting styles for each protagonist which can be toggled between mid-battle by tapping the d-pad. For example, Kiryu's "Beast" style is more about crowd-control while ruthlessly swinging heavy objects in the environment and his "Rush" style is better suited for bobbing and weaving singular targets. Other than that, it follows the general beat 'em up rules of prior entries where characters try to accumulate "heat" gained from various means (like landing hits or taunting) to perform over-the-top and context specific actions. Grabbing a salt shaker on the ground and pouring it into some poor goon's eyes or smashing their head with a street sign is all fair game in Yakuza 0.
The Yakuza series has always struck a weird balance between being very self-serious with its main storytelling to extremely hokey with lots of the side content. And boy is there a lot of side content. I spent fifty hours taking my time with the title only to have it tell me I only saw about 30% of it after beating the lengthy main story.
Both protagonists have lots of optional activities that are specific to them when roaming between the two primary towns (even if Kiryu has a bit more). Sure, there exists some overlap, like how both can participate in sing/dance mini-games, or that they can both spend time at a local Sega arcade playing stuff like Outrun too, but an overwhelming majority of sidequests and their short story lines are not. Some sidequests are oddly heartwarming, like trying to help a mother get her daughter back from a dangerous religious cult, while many more are amusing in concept, like helping "Miracle Johnson" shoot what is basically a Thriller music video as zombies try and attack him. The great, and often witty localization helps sell the exposition regardless of context. Which certainly helps a lot for a game that can be as dialogue and cutscene-heavy as various RPGs at times.
What is actually really impressive is how many seemingly self-contained sidequests also feed back into other content as well. After a certain point both leads get control of the own businesses, such as Kiryu with a real estate agency and Majima with a hostess cabaret, each with their own unique and surprisingly nuanced mini-games associated with them. So that rude old lady that cut in front of you to buy takoyaki could be a potential recruitable hostess for Majima's cabaret, or maybe even that chicken you got from bowling more than a few times in a sidequest may just be the perfect real estate manger for certain areas in Kiryu's real estate business. Did I mention that Yakuza 0 gets really weird at times? It is a massive game to say the least and dense with quirky charm.
It is weird to reach the end of a game review and feel like one has only just begun describing the title. But that is just it. Yakuza 0 is terrific in the sheer variety of its overall strengths. To say it is the best entry in the series in both gameplay and storytelling honestly feels like it is selling it short. The storytelling is enthralling, gameplay is as crazy as it is fun (it is very, very crazy), and the worthwhile side content is massive to the point of being overwhelming. Without aimlessly rambling for much longer, the last thing that I will say is that if the Yakuza series has ever piqued your interests in the slightest there is literally no better starting point than the excellent PS4 title that is Yakuza 0. And for existing fans -- well, they should pride themselves while basking the richness that is playing the best game in the series.
+ Thrilling and dark crime-based storytelling that is the best in the series
+ Phenomenal sense of atmosphere that almost feels tangible
+ Flashy, vicious combat system that differentiates the fighting styles of both playable leads quite well
+ Sidequests range wonderfully from being bizarrely touching to downright hilarious in their writing and execution, more so hilarious
+ To say there is so much worthwhile content to see and do is a severe understatement
- Combat gets repetitive over time outside of certain intense scripted story events
- Exposition may be overwhelming at times for those not expecting it to be so verbose
- Some backtracking problems
Overall Score: 9 (out of 10)
Yakuza 0 is very much a stellar prequel through the lens of the future. But rather than excluding those without an established history, it embraces pretty much anybody with so much as a passing curiosity in the Yakuza series as what is essentially the perfect starting point for it in general. And, arguably, the current best game in the series as well.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.