The Yakuza franchise is a series that I adore and love though I will admit I didn’t expect it to last this long. Plenty of its design choices and limited exploration can be seen quite archaic by today’s standards. So I honestly wasn’t expecting much going in, but thankfully I was wrong.
Yakuza 0 takes place in 1988 Tokyo and is a prequel that shows us the beginning of Kazmua Kiryu, a hot headed guy looking to make his way into becoming a Yakuza (a Japanese mobster). Since this takes place before the events of the main series, we get to see a younger more agitated Kiryu who’s still learning to become the character fans are familiar with. Its opening sequences alone shows us Kiryu collecting debt and beating the shit out of someone. It’s a side of him that I honestly haven’t seen and really gives us a more sinister view of the character. Not long after that things become more complicated for Kiryu as he gets framed for killing the man causing a lot of heat to his family and his chances of becoming a full-fledged Yakuza member. I won’t spoil more than that but if it’s one thing this game gets right is narrative pacing. At times I felt I was watching a crime drama thanks to a script that really brings these characters to life.
But this could also be a turn off to some players. For some reason Yakuza is considered the Japanese equivalent to GTA which I honestly have no idea where it came from. Short answer: it isn’t. Yakuza 0 is FILLED with cutscenes and dialogue that rival Metal Gear Solid 4. Even during gameplay you sometimes follow a character around and need to pay attention to the subtittles. Gamers who are used to watching anime will not find this annoying but those expecting to jump in and have fun will have to deal with a lot of story.
Let’s face it though story is the core selling point for the Yakuza series. It plays out a lot like an RPG with characters and their narrative taking center stage. Each chapter seems to introduce new mysteries and keeps you hooked until the very end. The cutscenes themselves are pretty crazy and many will go down and some of the best “did that just happen” moments in gaming.
Of course outside of the RPG aspects, Yakuza is pretty much a brawler. Similar to arcade classics like Spikeout, Yakuza 0 lets players experience an open battle system allowing you to beat your opponent silly with your fists or the environment. Emphasis on silly as some of these moves are pretty insane and totally break the realism aspect. But fun tops realism in this case and just like most SEGA arcade brawlers, Yakuza 0 plays like a dream. Combos feel smooth and seeing your opponents money come out like confetti is extremely satisfying. New here is also the ability to switch between various fight styles. Brawler for instance is the classic approach that lets you use environmental objects through your stamina gauge while rush gives Kiryu an extra speed boost that gets faster the more you build up your stamina. These skills can also further be expanded by spending money. Not sure how money = experience points but there you go.
Despite its silliness, Yakuza 0 is very atmospheric. The streets of Tokyo light up with people and noise (bonus points for playing this game in surround sound) and lots of activities to do. Bowling, Karaoke, and even visiting the 80’s arcade have their own identity and feel. Heck even the beeper has its own language code with the use of numbers. While its environment may not be as large as any other open world game, Yakuza 0 certainly makes up for it with depth.
In terms of visuals it can be a hit or miss. Facial models and animations details look stunning but some environments look drab and shallow, this could possibly be related to how Yakuza 0 was also launched on the PS3 in Japan and was then ported to the PS4. The benefit to this however is getting a steady 60 FPS but some larger areas show screen tearing.
Action adventure games have changed a lot through the years. Most borrowing from each other with its regen health and autosave, Yakuza 0 is at its heart still clinging out to that old classic Japanese game design. It does bring out a sense of nostalgia as the game doesn’t try to deviate and fragment its plot in order to extend playtime, it focuses mainly on a compelling narrative that will you keep you coming back. Its replay value may be lacking but Yakuza 0 is still an amazing entry into the franchise and a perfect time to start for newcomers.