Already available in Japan for two years, we western fans of the long-running Yakuza series finally get a chance to experience the saga’s prequel, which functions as an origin story of the game’s main protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, and the reoccurring madman, Goro Majima. Set in the late 80s, it’s a title framed by the era, with vibrant and neon-soaked locations, including the always present district of Kamurocho, as well as Sotenbori, which serves as Goro’s urban playground.
The 80s setting paints a very specific and dark picture of Japanese underworld life, from strict Yakuza rules of conduct and the organisation’s unwavering brutality against its enemies and betrayers, to the downright seedy nature of the city streets themselves. In only my first few hours of play I was saving women from groups of sexual predators, stopping a group of schoolgirls selling their used underwear to perverts, and helping a mother rescue her daughter from a cult whose leader simply wanted to get into her pants. Yes, these streets are far from family friendly, which is lucky, as Kiryu and Goro are far from defenceless.
There are actually two very different stories here, with Kiryu and Goro having their own chapters, often separated by a cliffhanger to leave you wondering what’s happened to the other. The two men have their own agendas, with a fresh-faced Kiryu being framed for a murder and striving to clear his name and that of his father figure, a captain in the Dojima family, and Goro wanting nothing more than to get back into the Yakuza life after being cast out and made to run a local night club as a civilian. Both have to deal with some nasty higher ups in the Yakuza, and both stories are written and told very well indeed.
In fact, I’d have to say this is the best storytelling in the Yakuza series thus far, and whether it’s down to the initial writing, and/or some very good localisation, this is intriguing stuff, with each and every character pulling off their roles with confidence. Kiryu is the stern, leading man with few words but an air of cool, and Goro plays the wolf in sheep’s clothing, trying hard to lead his civilian life and staying in the Yakuza good books, but bubbling with rage underneath.
Supporting characters are just as good, especially the main Yakuza big hitters who all have their own larger than life traits, such as Kuze’s old-school Yakuza brutality, or Awano’s sleazy back-stabbing nature. Each and every character fits into events perfectly, and despite the obvious culture differences in story-telling, such as the obligatory over-acting, hyper-charged emotional cries, and differences in general social trends, it still manages to reach those engaging notes and grasps your attention throughout.
Indeed, it’s the very Japanese elements that really make the game stand out from the crowd, and it makes for a story that’s very unique in so many ways. People have always compared the series to GTA, as it’s an open world affair about organised crime. This is so wrong. If there was a comparison to make, it’s to Sega’s other cult series, Shenmue.
Yakuza plays in a very similar manner to that game, with exploration and combat taking the focus, and all sorts of additional content mixed in. Here you can stroll through the streets and tackle thugs and Yakuza before popping into an arcade for a quick game of Outrun, and you can then go do some karaoke, take in a restaurant, and end up in a casino playing poker, or a bar for a few games of pool or darts. There’s so much extra content to indulge in, all of it well presented and genuinely fun. Hell, the pool game is probably better than most dedicated pool titles. A few may find some distractions a little creepy, though, especially the catfights. These are blatantly sexualised bouts of female wrestling that you can bet on, and using a combination of rock, paper, scissors (pun probably intended) and button mashing, you can amass a fortune very quickly. It’s hardly PC, but it’s just anther cultural difference that serves to hit the subject matter home.
Other diversions are a little more down to earth and necessary. For example, you’ll eventually get the chance to become a property investor, buying up property throughout the district. Once bought, you need to maintain and update your locations, and need to collect profits and protect them from rival groups. This is one of the best ways to make money, and it’s handled pretty well, not becoming too much of a grindstone around your neck.
You’ll need to partake in these side missions and diversions as money is very important this time, not only for buying healing items and other things, but also for leveling up. Doing away with the usual character progression system, Yakuza 0 instead makes you buy skills and enhancements for your characters, with the later upgrades costing millions. To afford this you’ll need to earn the cash, although chapter completions also pay out hefty bonuses. It’s all needed, as fights get tougher and tougher, especially bosses.
Combat is arguably the major core element of the series, and Yakuza is no different. It’s the main thrust of the challenge, and each character has multiple fighting styles they can learn. Sadly, the combat system hasn’t changed much from the last game, and as this game has already been out for two years, it stands out even more. Animations are stilted, targeting is hit and miss, and the range of moves for each style if pretty limited. Combat also breaks up the flow of the game, with each fight stopping the game for an intro, then pausing again for the score tally at the end. It just doesn’t flow seamlessly into the game, and is too jarring.
Combat is fun, don’t get me wrong, and you can pull off some crazy moves and environmental attacks, but it still feels very stiff and janky at times. Some of the boss fights border on just plain cheap and unfair, and on the whole I feel the game needed a totally new and revamped combat engine. Hopefully the upcoming remake of the first game will address this. As it stands though, Yakuza 0‘s main gameplay element is its worst, and whilst still okay, it could be so much better.
I should also mention that the game is also very, very, very story heavy. There’s a metric crap ton of dialogue and cut scenes, and you’ll be sitting reading text for long periods of time (unless you speak Japanese, of course). However, even if you’ve never played a Yakuza game before, it’s all easy to follow, and very engrossing. If you like your games with story, this is certainly for you.
The whole package is of high quality, and it’s clear a lot of time and effort has gone into it. The detail throughout the world, the excellent rendered cut-scenes and the general authentic recreation of 80s Tokyo all contribute to a game that’s fitting to be the first current gen outing of the series.