Yakuza (or as Japanese law enforcement calls them Gokudõ), is the criminal organization residing and ruling the underworld in the major cities of Japan. Their ideologies and the way they handle their business has always been a great source of ideas for writers, filmmakers and game developers. Sega is one of those developers that’ve created a series about the struggles and adventures of a single Yakuza called Kazuma Kiryu. The critically acclaimed franchise has been around for over a decade, having received a lot of instalments and spinoffs over the years. With Yakuza 0, Sega has introduced a new chapter in the series and turned it into a prequel, a story about the origin of Kazuma Kiryu and other characters that play a major role in the franchise. All this taking place in the late 80’s in Tokyo and Osaka, we put on our suits and straighten out our haircuts in order to step in to the harsh world of Yakuza.
The story of Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the series and revolves around the origin story of two major characters: Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. In Kamurocho, Kazuma Kiryu is an enforcer for the Dojima crime family, getting accused for murdering a civilian during a failed money pick-up. The murder happened on a real estate lot called the “Empty Lot”, a patch of land highly sought after by the Tojo Clan, damaging its market and strategical value. Unfortunately because of these events, Kiryu’s foster parent and father figure, Kazama Shintaro, a lieutenant of the Dojima family and captain in the Tojo clan, is held accountable for Kiryu’s actions. With Kazama’s honor, reputation and position on the line, Kiryu demands to be expelled from the Dojima clan and vows to find the real culprits behind the murder and the conspiracy behind ‘The Empty Lot’.
As for Goro Majima, he’s the owner of a highly successful cabaret club, ‘Grand Cabaret’ in Osaka after being banished from the Tojo clan. He fell from grace after a hit on the Tojo clan by the Ueno-Seiwa clan a few years earlier. Because of this, Goro feels like being imprisoned and mocked by other yakuza, inside his own club. He wants nothing more than his honor restored and the chance to redeem himself so that he can return to his rightful place in the Tojo clan. As he’s offered that chance, he must assassinate a high risk target. Despite accepting the job, he can’t complete his contract as he finds out that the target is a helpless, blind little girl. As he vows to protect her, he discovers that everything is related to a conspiracy about the real estate and might cause a war among the yakuza families and clans.
Yakuza 0 aims high and really succeeds by telling a strong and superbly written storyline. The story was always a strong asset of the series and yet again it delivers that same quality and even exceeds expectations. It even dares to compete with Hollywood-level scripts. The way the story unfolds and the cutscenes are presented differentiate as they brilliantly combine visual novel and moving cutscenes to change the mood and the level of immersion. Yakuza 0 is filled with interesting, compelling characters delivering a convincing, realistic experience with two strong protagonists and lets their story intertwine in a clever way. The action and drama pulling you in from the very first minute, delivering unexpected plot twists and even continues to reverberate after the end credits roll down the screen. The typical Japanese gags and the content of the side stories add a nice breather from the thrilling action- and drama-packed main storyline.
This game originally appeared on PlayStation 3 in Japan and was later ported/upgraded to the PlayStation 4 platform. Visually, the cutscenes and the character models look absolutely gorgeous and breath-taking. The characters look incredibly realistic and detailed, as every pore, tuft of hair or drop of sweat have been fine-tuned to an unseen level of realism. Especially the facial expressions and emotions are beyond compare. It’s as if you’re watching a live-action movie. Alas, this would’ve been one of the most impressive visual games if not for the sloppy work on porting the game to PlayStation 4. As the NPC’s and the environments may have been thoroughly polished, they still look quite outdated in comparison with other games and feels like a major break in style if you look at the great work Sega did with the characters or cutscenes. The environments and especially the towns of Kamurocho and Sotenbori look like giant neon-lighted card-box playgrounds. The stores, restaurants and the “side-activity” locations are easily missed that way and fade away in the boring, hollow buildings and streets.
The soundtrack of Yakuza 0 is very diverse and is hard to place them in a certain category. During certain cutscenes is fits the mood perfectly by adding some piano touches while during combat, a thrilling rock or pop theme plays in the background. But the soundtrack expands even further than that as you encounter an extensive selection of pop, rock and disco-like music songs in the karaoke and dance off side-activities, which were popular in the late 80’s in Japan. For Western fans, these songs may be completely unknown to them but they fit the theme and setting of Yakuza perfectly. The ambient sounds in the street or the people are really well done and add to the level of immersion as you walk through the streets and interact with the different events and activities taking place. As for the voice-acting, Yakuza 0 only offers Japanese voiced dialogues and cutscenes accompanied by English subtitles. The voice work is top-notch and lip-synchronization is one the best in the business. Unfortunately, not all NPC’s or characters have a voice of their own but this doesn’t feel like a disappointment as they’ve been granted slight sound expressions as they interact with the player or their surroundings.
Yakuza 0 is an action beat-em up where the main focus remains the same as ever in the Yakuza series: giving your opponents a serious beating by using your fists. Luckily, this game offers a lot more than just kicking the living daylight out of thugs and yakuza. New to Yakuza 0 is the addition of three combat styles, each with their own skill tree, for both Kiryu and Goro. During combat, you can switch at random between one of the three fighting styles where you can combine raw power with high speed boxing moves. Each skill tree, which gradually unlocks in-game, offers a wide range of attacks and combo’s, focusing either on raw power, speed or weapon combat that can be further unlocked through investment of money. Money is acquired either through combat as you rack up combos and perform special attacks or by completing certain side activities.
Aside from new attacks, dodges, blocks and abilities, the skill trees also allow you to upgrade your health or your heat gauge. This heat gauge is in matter of fact some sort of stamina bar that enables you to perform brutal, satisfying finishers and fills up as you connect punches, kicks or weapon attacks. Mostly everything in your environment can be used as a weapon and if there isn’t a weapon in your reach, you can always ‘gently rub’ your opponents against walls, furniture or cars. And don’t be mistaking as you enemies won’t be standing idle and act like brainless punching bags. Depending on which difficulty level and as you progress through the game, your opponents and especially bosses will increasingly dodge, evade or counter your attacks and won’t always be barehanded. This adds a considerable amount of challenge and requires you to think out multiple strategies to take down your opponents. A lot of players might need some time adapting to the controls and the combat, because the urge to bash the buttons is quite high and isn’t the known fluid combat like in the Batman Arkham or Assassins Creed games. You’ll soon find out that mindless hitting controls won’t help you survive certain battles and urges to consider other tactics.
Next to the excellent combat and storyline, you have the possibility to do some sightseeing in the streets of the semi-open world maps of Kamurocho or Sotenbori. Here you can participate in side activities and side-stories/quests. During these side quests, you’ll experience all kinds of stories where you’ll either have to make decisions or duke it out with enemies in order to complete these missions. They aren’t just pick up and demand missions, but offer unique and great stories that are worth playing and reward you with unique items. But that’s not all you can do. You can also try out multiple other activities such as bowling, batting practice, darts, pool, karaoke or arcade halls that allow you to play full games like Space Harrier and Outrun. And as you advance in-game, you can even do some dancing in nightclubs, brawling in underground fight clubs, work in the real estate business, even running your own hostess clubs and much more. There is an extensive range of possibilities as Yakuza 0 tries to emulate the nightlife of the late 80’s, in the major cities of Japan.
Finally, Yakuza 0 has apart from the main story mode a multiplayer mode where you can play mini-games like pool, bowling, darts… in local and online mode with a friend. Another mode called Climax battles, invites the player to take on multiple challenges and replay major battles with different conditions against the clock or survival-like conditions. At the end of each challenge, their scores are posted in online ranking tables where players all over the world can compare their rankings.
Yakuza 0 is the first of the series to make its debut on PlayStation 4. It’s an amazing game with an incredible well written story and addictive gameplay. It delivers so much content, it’s like having more than one game for the price of one. If the developers had put a bit more attention at the overall visual quality, than this game would’ve scored a 9,5 or even 10. Still, it’s already an incredibly great game and sets high hopes for future instalments. For players or fans of action games who aren’t familiar with the Yakuza games and are curious to try them out, then Yakuza 0 grants the perfect introduction to the series, offering enough content for 50+ hours playthroughs and much more. And for those who can’t get enough, Yakuza Kiwami (remake Yakuza 1) is to be expected summer 2017 whereas Yakuza 6 will be expected to release early 2018, both for the PlayStation 4.