From Zeroes To Heroes.
Just over a year after Yakuza 5’s surprise release on the PlayStation 3 in the west, the hoodlums at SEGA have once again delivered another Japanese underworld epic for us lowly gaijin to enjoy. However, rather than simply picking up where the the last game left off, Yakuza 0 is instead a prequel to 2006’s PlayStation 2 original, offering a window into the origins of two of the series’ celebrated characters, Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, as they’re pulled into a power struggle that threatens to shatter the Tojo clan to its very foundation. Don’t let the 80’s aesthetic fool you, though. Despite its story being set in the past, Yakuza 0 marks a considerable evolution for the series that has us more excited than ever for the future of the franchise.
Yakuza 0’s story takes place in the year 1988 in Kumurocho and Sotenbori, a fictionalized version of Tokyo’s Kabukicho Shinjuku Golden Gai areas and Osaka’s Dotonbori areas. One night, Kazuma Kiryu takes on what appears to be little more than a simple collections job for a local loan shark. However, just hours after beating down the hapless guy he was charged with collecting a debt from in an empty lot in the heart of Kamurocho, Kiryu finds himself framed for his murder. If you’ve ever played a Yakuza game before, you know full well that nothing is quite as it seems. This murder on that dirty patch of land in Kumurocho becomes known as the “Vacant Lot” incident, and various factions begin fighting for control of this nondescript lot in the heart of the crime-riddled city, all while Kiryu fights to prove his innocence before it’s too late. About eight hours into the journey, you’ll also gain access to disgraced former Shimano family soldier Goro Majima, who’s working as the manager of a ritzy mafia-owned cabaret club in Sotenbori to pay back a debt to his former clan. But as you probably guessed, things get complicated quickly as Kiryu and Majima’s stories begin to intertwine.
The first thing you’ll notice when you step into the neon-lit streets of Kumurocho is just how much better things look this time around. Not that Yakuza 5 was an ugly game by any stretch, but the added benefit of the PS4’s processing power is evident right out the gate. For example, the annoying character model pop-in that plagued Yakuza 5 is a thing of the past. The game also moves at a silky smooth frame rate as well, even when you’re fighting a dozen bloodthirsty thugs at once. Late in the story the fights can get so crowded that the action begins to look more like one of developer Omega Force’s Warriors games than you’re average Yakuza title, and even then the high-flying melees unfold without a hitch. Between the added boost in performance and the incredibly lifelike character models, Yakuza 0 may not be the best looking game on the PS4, but it’s certainly the most impressive title in the series to date.
Like I said at the start of this review, Yakuza 0 brings with it some welcome evolution to the series, with the most notable of which coming in the form of a revamped combat system. Sure, it’s still the same rough-and-tumble brawler you’ve come to love over the past decade, but this time around each character is given three different fighting styles to take advantage of, each with their own skill tree.
For example, Kiryu begins the game with his brawler style, which delivers a mix blend of heavy and light attacks that provide a balanced output of both speed and damage dealing. However, switching over to Kiryu’s Rush style sacrifices damage in favor of pure speed. This mode allows you to unleash rapid-fire barrages of punches and kicks, which is handy for crowd control or closing the distance between enemies armed with guns and other nasty ranged weaponry. Lastly, Kiryu’s Beast style causes him to automatically pick up nearby objects to pummel his enemies with, which saves you the trouble of fumbling for weapons on the ground in the middle of a heated brawl. Majima also has some tricks up his sleeve. His Thug style snaps bones like toothpicks with some pretty hardcore takedowns, while his Slugger allows you to channel your inner Babe Ruth to crack the skulls of your opponents with a bat. And if you want to put on a real show, Majima’s Breaker technique delivers some flashy break dance-inspired beat downs.
The welcome addition of multiple fighting styles makes for combat that packs a surprising amount of depth beneath its beat ‘em up veneer. Of course, you can try to just rush in a button-mash your way through the crowds of gangsters that stand between you and freedom, but you’ll likely find yourself chugging a convenience store’s worth of healing items in no time. That said, you’ll want to learn the fundamentals of each fighting style and spend plenty of points to bolster your repertoire of street fighting moves if you hope to make it through the game’s more demanding boss fights.
Yakuza 0’s story is often a tense and emotional one. Thankfully, if you’re looking to take a break and escape the underworld melodrama, the cities of Kumurocho and Sotenbori offer the player plenty of fun ways to burn through their hard-earned yen. Armchair speed demons can customize and race slot cars in a local circuit. Or, if you’re not feeling the need for speed, you can hit the club and take out your aggression on the dance floor to a handful of catchy 80’s numbers, or sing your heart out at local karaoke bar. As always, SEGA has dumped a metric ton of brand fan service into Yakuza 0, so hitting up the local arcades is also a surefire hit for any fans of the company’s retro IP (remember, Yakuza 0 is set in 1988, after all.) You’ll find lovingly emulated versions of Outrun, Super Hang On, and Space Harrier just begging to gobble up all of your pocket change. These games all come with multiple visual filters as well, allowing you to customize each game’s display mode to your liking. If SEGA’s hit arcade games from the 1980’s are too newfangled for your tastes, you can also visit the local Shogi and Mahjong parlors and party like it’s 1889.
In addition to ample opportunities to burn through your cash, Yakuza 0 also introduces a few new and exciting ways for industrious gangsters to make some extra coin. As the story progresses, Kiryu eventually gets a gig in the real estate business. Shortly afterwards, you’ll be able to scour the streets of Kumurocho and buy up properties to generate extra income. As your business grows, you’ll attract the attention of a group of billionaires who don’t play by the rules and compete in a turf war to buy up all of the expensive real estate in the city. You’ll scout locations and acquire them, then recruit characters you meet during side quests to work for your real estate empire as either managerial or security staff. Each of these potential hires has their own strengths and weaknesses, meaning you’ll have to choose them carefully to maximize each business’s earning potential. Sometimes problems arise those, and you’ll need to take matters into your own hands. Occasionally punks will make trouble at one of your businesses, and you’ll need to go and crack some skulls before you’re able to collect your payments. It may sound tedious on the surface, but it’s actually incredibly addicting. And most importantly, it nets you a ton of cash that you can spend on bolstering your business and upgrading your character. But let’s be real – you’ll probably burn through it playing hours of Space Harrier. It’s okay, we’re not here to judge you.
Majima also gets his own business to run. Rather than conquering the real estate world like Kiryu, he instead takes on the reins of cabaret clubs. It’s here that the “Mad Dog of the Shimano Family” will have to scout out talent from around the city. Then, after hiring them, he can doll these hostesses up by customizing their makeup and attire to suit the varying needs of their clientele. Once the club opens, you’ll try to match girls to the correct guest by observing their tastes. When they’re seated, you’ll need to tend to each table’s needs by serving the guest, bringing their check, and occasionally kicking out an unruly guest. A poor performance can cause guests to walk out or spend less money. While doting on your patrons can net you huge rewards. It can be tricky though, as managing a full house takes zen-like concentration. Again, it sounds tedious in practice, but it’s executed very well, and it’s incredibly satisfying to watch your bank account skyrocket as your business thrives.
If all of these mini-games seem too tame for your tastes, there are quite a few more risque ways for sweaty-palmed players to enjoy the seedy underbelly of Yakuza 0. For starters, there’s adult video shops in each city that allow you to view brief erotic shows featuring 30 actual Japanese adult film stars. Finding these stars in the game and helping them resolve their problems will gain access to each of these racy reels. If you’re looking for some more hands-on action with lovely ladies, you can also visit an underground cat fighting circuit where scantly clad warriors go toe-to-toe and bet big bucks in their spectacular showdowns. Unfortunately, the gameplay here is about as deep as a game of rock, paper, scissors, but the ridiculous spectacle alone is worth it. Perhaps the most bizarre of these pervy pleasures is the telephone chat mini-game, which is best described as a weird fusion of a “choose your own adventure” story and a light gun game. If that sounds weird, that’s because it absolutely is. Still, hear me out. While chatting up the half-naked woman on the other end of the line, you’ll have to quickly aim at the correct dialog choices when they appear, and turn a rotary dial with the other analog stick. Successfully doing so will score you more points, and deliver viewers with a steamier show. Does it make any sense? Absolutely not. Is it entertaining? You darn well better believe it!
This weird juxtaposition between gritty crime drama and unabashed absurdity is a huge part of what makes the series so irresistible. It’s the video gaming equivalent of the mullet. Looking Yakuza 0 in the face you’d think it was a no-nonsense underworld epic that sometimes takes itself a bit too seriously. However, upon closer inspection you’ll find a game which, like those brave folks who sport the preferred haircut of the Appalachians, is wild and free, rebelliously doing donuts in its souped-up red Camaro around the player’s expectations without a care in the world.
I know I’ve spent a pretty sizable chunk of this review talking about Yakuza 0’s side content, and with good reason. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a game much more densely packed than SEGA’s latest offering. While the game’s story mode — which is incredible from start to finish — can be wrapped up in about 40 hours, you could easily spend twice as much time immersing yourself in everything this game has to offer. And while not every last one of these distractions is quite as polished as others (the dancing mini-game is particularly unpolished), most of them are well worth experiencing, and will likely keep you coming back for more time and time again.
A modern masterpiece, Yakuza 0 is a game crafted with the meticulous care of the colorful irezumi that adorns the back of a hardened Japanese gangster, and stands as one of the most fun and emotional adventures I’ve played in years. The updates SEGA has made to the combat system add a welcome layer of depth to the bare-knuckle brawls. And players craving a content-rich experience will find enough here to keep them busy for weeks on end as they complete tons of side quests, scour the streets for collectibles, and build up their real estate empire. Simply put, there’s an unbelievable amount to see and do, and you’ll love every minute you spend on the seedy streets of Kumurocho and Sotenbori. Those looking for a game that tells a deep and mature story while delivering some of the most satisfying beat ’em up action around need look no further. Yakuza 0 is a criminally satisfying masterpiece that deserves a spot in your PlayStation 4 collection. Now bring on Yakuza 6!
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: SEGA ; Developer: SEGA ; Release Date: January 24, 2017; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Yakuza 0 provided by the game’s publisher, SEGA.