Yakuza is a game franchise that most have probably at least heard of, but never had the chance to go hands on with before. It remains one of those curiosities of gaming, the niche franchise from Japan with a super vocal fanbase that won’t stop gushing about it, but one that others have simply never had the inclination to look into. If you count yourself among that number, it’s time to change the status quo. Yakuza 0 is a damn good game, and it is, without a doubt, the best foot forward that the series has put yet.
By a happy coincidence, it also happens to be the best game for new fans to jump into- you see, Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the entire rest of the franchise, which means that anyone who is new to the franchise won’t have to contend with the byzantine continuity that can so often deter anyone looking into getting into the franchise. Instead, all that awaits you here is a game with sublime mechanics, and an oddly compelling story, a game that is dripping with the flavor and charm of its setting, a game that almost feels like a Japanese take on Grand Theft Auto, with all the oddities and quirks that would entail.
The Grand Theft Auto comparison almost appears to be an accurate one, at least at first glance- Yakuza, too, is an open world (at least partially) game that follows the exploits of a criminal mobster, and his dealings with the various factions of Japan’s criminal underground. It, too, prides itself on the authenticity with which it recreates its setting, and it, too, offers the player a wealth of content for them to immerse themselves in. But the similarities end there- you don’t have to spend much time on Yakuza 0 to learn that the game is basically like a 3D take on Sega’s classic Streets of Rage franchise, with some RPG and open world elements thrown in for good measure.
"You don’t have to spend much time on Yakuza 0 to learn that the game is basically like a 3D take on Sega’s classic Streets of Rage franchise, with some RPG and open world elements thrown in for good measure."
This means that, yes, the combat in this game is as superlatively good as it was in Streets of Rage. Yakuza 0 allows you to mix and string up all manner of moves, from the unimaginative, but reliable punching and kicking, to the more brutal attacks inflicted upon an enemy’s body, to really imaginative and over the top environmental breakdowns, including slamming a person into a trashcan, ramming his head into a wall and hurling his limp and unconscious form at his allies, or picking up a motorcycle and throwing it at other combatants. Visually, combat is visceral, stunning, and extremely satisfying.
Mechanically, the combat manages to be just as good as it looks. Although it is technically possible to clear Yakuza 0 by just button mashing your way through the game (and to be fair, for a certain kind of detached, casual player, that has its own satisfaction, if only because of the spectacular finishers on screen), the true satisfaction comes from learning the nuances of combat. Stringing together combos is fun and addictive, and it ends up filling your Heat Bar faster. Once you have a full Heat Bar, that’s when you get to unleash the kind of spectacular and brutal finishing moves that were mentioned earlier. And while button mashing will still eventually build up your Heat Gauge, you will need to be extra careful, given that each time you take damage, your Heat Gauge depletes a bit.
Really, Yakuza 0 is a game that demands that you pay attention to it during combat, at least if you want to get the most out of it. For instance, being aware of environmental cues is great, not just because it means you can perform context specific finishing moves, but also because it means that if you find a dropped weapon, you can equip and use it. Using weapons is always advisable, because it nets you more money earned after battle than usual.
Yakuza 0 basically uses this to create a self fulfilling loop- you get money from battles (even standard button mashing nets you a generous amount of cash), and in large part, you will be spending that cash to unlock better abilities for yourself from the skill tree, which you will then use to earn even more cash in battles.
"Yakuza 0 is a game that demands that you pay attention to it during combat, at least if you want to get the most out of it."
Between just how much depth the moment to moment gameplay during battles has, and the skill tree, there’s already a lot to keep track of- but Yakuza 0 ups the ante even more by giving you two playable characters. One, of course, is Kazuma Kiryu, who’s been the series’ protagonist for the longest time now- Yakuza 0 gives us the chance to follow his story, and learn the events that basically led up to the first Yakuza game, and to everything that came after; the other is Majima Goro, who comes with his entirely different perspective on the game’s mechanics, and on its story.
Okay, let’s talk about that story some here. Yakuza 0 is, as mentioned before, a prequel. That makes it a great jumping in point for newcomers to that franchise, but that also means that the game is full of subtle fanservice to long time fans, including nods or references to events that happened in previous games in the series, as well as gradual explanations for what led to things being as they are in the other games in the series. That alone makes it immensely satisfying for fans- newcomers to the series, on the other hand, are probably going to find a pretty well told, if cheesy and over the top, Japanese crime drama, that won’t win any awards for writing, but is oddly endearing and compelling nonetheless. The deftness with which the game switches back and forth between Kiryu and Goro’s stories, and how it spins its yarn from there, will alone keep players invested.
That charm is actually pervasive throughout the game and everything it does- I know I speak from an outsider’s perspective, but Yakuza 0 seems to be a shockingly accurate recreation of Tokyo’s Kabukicho and Osaka’s Dotonbori (Kamurocho and Sotenbori in game respectively). The game is dripping and oozing Japanese flavor from every pore, and it is truly like a window into Japan- you can simply lose your time trying to explore how a Japanese city is laid out, or listening in on NPC chatter to get an inkling of the kinds of conversations you might hear in public were you in Japan. Yakuza 0 is also a painstakingly accurate recreation of Japan as it was (or as I think it was) in the 1980s, with every part of it, from how the buildings and signage looks to what people are talking about, reinforcing its Bubble Economy setting. The game truly sells its setting, making it a fully fleshed place, situated in a definite instance in time, with the game being a window for you to glance into it, rather than being the entire reason for the world’s existence. If for no other reason, Yakuza 0 can work simply as a form of virtual tourism, in space and in time.
"The art alone makes the graphics stand out- add to that the game’s 1080p resolution, steady framerate, and just a consistent and cohesive look overall, and Yakuza 0 is one stylish looking title, even if it’s not the best looking one."
A lot of how well the setting is sold is contingent on the game’s graphics and sound- graphically, the game struggles to escape its PS3 origins, and in most cases, it ends up looking too shiny or plasticky to come off as truly impressive. There is a decent amount of screen tearing, and a lot of important conversations adopt a pseudo graphic novel style, which can be jarring and break the immersion this game otherwise goes to such lengths to create, but on the whole, it looks pretty good. The art alone makes the graphics stand out- add to that the game’s 1080p resolution, steady framerate, and just a consistent and cohesive look overall, and Yakuza 0 is one stylish looking title, even if it’s not the best looking one, with all of that style going towards creating and recreating visual immersion for the player.
But while the visuals are a mixed bag, on the audio front, Yakuza 0 is stellar- the music is absolutely amazing (including some really great changes in tone and intensity to match the varying pace and flow of gameplay, as well as a great licensed soundtrack), the voice acting is really well done, and never over the top to the point of being off putting, like so much Japanese voice work can be, and the sheer attention to detail paid with even the ambient noises all goes towards building up a world that is truly alive, independently of your interactions with it as the player.
It is also a world that Yakuza 0 will let you interact with in a variety of ways. Combat, of course, remains the main gameplay loop of Yakuza, but there is simply so much else to do- you can engage in karaoke (complete with a rhythm minigame that is all too difficult, and simply should not be as addictive as it is), dance, and even get into managing a real estate business which is basically fully fledged business simulation within Yakuza 0, and which also further reinforce the game’s setting.
All of this comes together to create a truly cohesive whole that transcends its individual components and gives us something that is more than the sum of its parts, and truly special. Yakuza as a franchise has so far failed to gain any traction in the west- if ever that were to change, there is no better game than Yakuza 0 for that to happen with.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation 4.
Incredible atmosphere, great sound design, extremely satisfying combat, a whole lot of things to do, a whole lot of nuance and depth, a mostly well told story, a lot of fan service for long time fans
The graphics are disappointing, the story is a bit predictable and cheesy
Yakuza as a franchise has so far failed to gain any traction in the west- if ever that were to change, there is no better game than Yakuza 0 for that to happen with.
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