It was somewhere between smashing down thugs with a giant traffic cone, singing karoke with my bro before investigating a sinister murder that I knew Yakuza 0 would be something special. It’s very own kind of special at that.
I’ve heard many a good thing about the Yakuza series over the years, but sadly never got into the games myself. Hearing that a prequel to the franchise was on its way to the west definitely interested me then, for there won’t be another point to jump on to the bandwagon quite this good again, short of some kind of…prequel prequel.
I didn’t really know what to expect though, and I’m not entirely sure that would have helped as I dived into this sandbox of two worlds. Following the stories of both Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, Yakuza 0 tells an intriguing dual tale as the two each follow their own stories in entirely separate cities. Every two chapters the story rotates to check back up on the other character, often leaving you in suspense as their stories reach a climax before leaving you hanging. Be it Kiryu’s tale of clearing his name of a wrongly accused crime as the city goes to war behind the scenes, or Majima doing anything he can to re-join the Yakuza after a job gone bad, even if it means murder. Each story constantly leaves you hungry for more, only helped by the constantly switching narrative.
The game is as serious as it is silly however, maintaining a fine balance between a serious narrative driving the plot and a charming silliness that constantly makes you laugh. Each city is as much a character as our two protagonists, lacking the size of other sandbox games to trade quantity for quality. Everyone corner of the map has unique side quests, properties to management, NPC’s to befriend or mini-games to play. It’s truly got something for everyone, and there’s no shortage of things to do. You’ll want to see it all too, with seemingly every character having their own story to tell, be it helping to direct a TV shoot, joining a cult or teaching a dominatrix how to punish people properly, before ending the day with some blackjack or pool. There are some truly colourful characters to find, that’s for sure.
It wouldn’t be Yakuza without many of the staples to the series though, and the beat ‘em up combat style nostalgic of the PS2 era is alive, punching and kicking, in the present. Controls rely on a combination of the different attacks, blocking and dodging, while you brawl within a set arena when the fight begins. It can be frustrating if you find yourself stun locked, but it’s a well-rounded brawler that adds flair and substance to fit some truly meaty combat despite some of the more ruthless move sets employed by your enemies.
Each character even has their own three combat styles to rely on which can be upgraded over time through an ability wheel for each, at the expensive of your money. Kiryu is a more balanced brawler while Majima just being…whatever Majima is. It took me a little time to adjust back into the rhythm of the button mashing sequences and combo attack finger dance made popular in early titles, but the robust system on offer is a fun if brutal affair. I did always find myself missing Majima the moment I changed to Kiryu for combat sadly, as his crippling combo’s and brutal bat bashing was by far the better to play in my opinion. The man break-dances for combat of all things! If you do find yourself in a tough spot though, you can always smash a motorbike over people’s heads or other equally ridiculous set pieces on offer, that tends to work quite well.
Whether you’re throwing bikes at people or running around town progressing the story, the game does certainly have its own distinct look at feel. Both cities of Kamurocho and Sotenbori are a real feast for the eyes, jam packed with so much detail that revives both the economic golden age of 1988 japan before the bubble burst and the lifestyle that came with it. While there are like nit-picks that could be made in terms of some textures and certain environmental corner cuts, the game still looks impressively good looking where it counts and runs smoothly throughout, especially in cutscenes and action sequences. It’s a colourful smorgasbord of city life and everything that screams Japanese culture, and its beautiful take on a rarely captured era. The smooth transitions between narratives and unapologetically cinematic shifts don’t hurt the style either.
It’s hard for me to personally compare to other titles in the franchise before it, but I can safely say that Yakuza 0 is a fun and action packed title with an engaging narrative, endless things to do and a tightrope walk between silly and serious that somehow plays off each other perfectly. It’s certainly different than most things coming out these days, and it’s the best jump in point to see why.
Worth a Go?