In many ways, the Yakuza series is very unique to other franchises within the action/sandbox genre. As popular as they are in Japan, SEGA has been reluctant to localise each entry in the series and bring them over to the West in the past. Yakuza 0 hopes to reverse that tide, and I think it’s the perfect place to introduce newcomers to the franchise. Yakuza 0 was actually released on the PlayStation 4 in Japan in 2015, and after being praised by our brethren in the East it’s now being released in the West. However, as a newcomer myself, I feel I should draw people’s attention to how Yakuza sets itself apart from other franchises in the genre because Yakuza games are very different from your typical Grand Theft Auto or Mafia games.
Kiryu is a protagonist that makes bad asses look good
Effectively a prequel to Yakuza 1 and 2, the game takes place in Japan during the 80s where long-time protagonist Kiryu is caught in a power struggle within the Yakuza. Amidst all this, Kiryu is expelled from the organisation after being framed for a murder, and must prove his innocence if he wishes to exonerate himself. The game actually has another protagonist you control named Majima, a successful club owner who is also outcasted by the Yakuza after refusing to carry out an assassination that tests his moral fibre. The game is full of twists, turns and over-the-top drama and I actually quite enjoyed the writing, as corny, predictable and cliché as it could be. There’s a consistent sense of tone and mood that fits the experience well. The story itself has more serious undertones to it, while side quests and activities have a sillier light-hearted vibe. The end result is the creation of a type of sublime Japanese soap opera, and once you’ve spent a bit of time in Yakuza 0’s world you’ll find it hard to leave again.
All things told, the campaign is pretty lengthy taking around 30 hours to complete. I was just under 10 hours in before I was even introduced to the second protagonist. The length is protracted by the many long cutscenes and dialogue sequences, all of which are in Japanese. Personally, I found these engaging and the Japanese voiceovers make the whole experience feel authentic, however I can understand how this may be a barrier for some. In order to understand what’s going on, who characters are and why you’re doing what you’re doing you will have to read all the dialogue, and there is a lot of it; there are some sequences that that can last up to 15 minutes without ever controlling the character. People may get impatient with this, but I thought the localisation and cutscenes were well done.
One of the unique things Yakuza 0 offers is the ability to play as a second protagonist; the charismatic and deadly club owner, Majima
I now understand why fans are attracted to Kiryu; he is essentially your Japanese John Wick. He oozes a certain cool in the way he walks, talks and composes himself, and also doesn’t take crap from anybody. Mobs try to persuade, trick and deceive Kiryu but nothing gets past him; he’s the best at what he does, and he knows it. He also really, really, likes fighting…a lot. Majima on the other hand is more charming, and you’ll get the chance to control both over the course of the campaign. Majima’s disarming charm and Kiryu’s deadly cool is a great juxtaposition that works well for the plot.
Yakuza 0 perfectly combines an arcade brawler with some action and RPG. Swinging a motorcycle at your enemies is more satisfying than it sounds
The combat is also very different to what you expect from your typical action-sandbox game. In fact, it plays like an old-school street brawler game. As soon as a fight is about to begin, the game places you within an arena of sorts, and you can’t proceed until you’re the last man standing. Each of the protagonists have three styles of fighting, which can be swapped at any time. One basically acts as a balanced style, while the others go for a light/fast or strong/slow setup. There are light and heavy attacks, grabbing, blocking, dodging and more. Mixing these up creates amazing combinations, while plenty of upgrades and fighting schools help you learn new moves. Combat is fairly simply but there are some great RPG elements at play that keep it engaging. Beating the crap out of street hooligans is probably my favourite thing to do in Yakuza, mostly because of the really over-the-top ways Kiryu or Majima absolutely pummel their opponents into submission.
While combat is quite enjoyable, the mission and level design is certainly less special. Locations more or less serve the purpose to engage in combat scenarios or have a conversation with someone to progress, and it ends up being fairly repetitious. Also, one thing that did frustrate me somewhat was the lack of proper map markers for some quests on the mini-map, and sometimes you’ll just have to wander around to find a key item to progress the mission. There isn’t really a quests tab in the menus either, which makes tracking missions even more difficult. Often half the battle was figuring out what the hell I was supposed to be doing.
When you’re not busy taking down the Yakuza empire, you can relax by playing SEGA games within a SEGA arcade within a SEGA game! #SEGAception
Unlike Grand Theft Auto the map is tiny, with the area split into mini-hubs where you can traverse and participate in their offerings. To my surprise, you cannot even drive in Yakuza 0, but this is hardly an issue given its size. It feels like most open world games try to go big and as a result need an effective transport system, but Yakuza 0’s comfortable size means it only takes a couple minutes to go from one side of town to the other. While the map is small, it’s nonetheless teeming with activities in which to partake, and outside of the main story and side missions there is a tonne of stuff to do. There are SEGA arcades around the city with a bunch of mini-games, card games like poker, darts and that’s really only the tip of the iceberg. In an interesting design choice, many of these mini-games and side activities can even be played online with friends. It’s such a weird thing to do, taking such a small part of the game and giving it multiplayer functionality. However, I cannot argue with trying to fit as much gameplay into this title as much as possible, and maybe playing a game of virtual darts with a mate is the perfect way to wind down after a hard day of being chased by the Japanese mob.
Presentation-wise Yakuza 0 is fantastic. It nails the 80s Japan theme and the city is one of the most authentic I’ve seen. The colourful signs and the claustrophobic and slightly chaotic building layout really create a buzzing atmosphere you don’t get to appreciate as much in other sandbox titles. I played Yakuza 0 on the PlayStation 4 Pro and while it does have some of the hallmarks of being a two-year-old game, it still looks crisp and bright. Character models are all excellent, however texture blemishes and a lack of fine visual effects like smoke were noticeable.
One of the many things Yakuza 0 nails is its replication of Japan in the 80’s. It’s mesmerising, it’s buzzing and it’s authentic
Yakuza 0 is a weird game for a sandbox/action game; it’s all in Japanese, the cutscenes are long, the combat is very arcadey but with deep RPG elements, you can’t drive any cars and the map is tiny. However, it’s all these things that make it stand out from your typical Ubisoft or WB Games open-world titles, and all things said and done it’s fun and it’s got a unique sense of identity to it. But if you’re not down with long cutscenes and just how quintessentially Japanese it is (might be a reason why they were hesitant to bring the series over to us) you might struggle to maintain interest. It’s difficult to give an instant recommendation, but I certainly had a fantastic time playing it. On the back of my experience with the game I will most certainly be picking up the next two Yakuza games that have recently been announced for Western release.
Reviewed on PS4 Pro