Going into my thirtieth hour of Yakuza 0, I thought I had seen all that the game had to offer. I participated in hundreds of fist fights, saw so much bromance that I thought I was on the set of MTV’s failed game show, and had completed the game’s story, which had more twists and turns than any rollercoaster I had ever ridden. That was when I stumbled upon an erotic video store, watched a video of a scantily clad Japanese woman playing with balloons, and then heard series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu moan as the camera panned over to a box of tissues.
Now, a lot of games feature virtual sex shops that players can see. Grand Theft Auto is filled with them (what PS2 owning teenager can forget Sex Shop XXX, after all?), but the interaction rarely goes beyond staring at the store’s front entrance. That’s because there are so few games that are willing to go all out. Yakuza 0, however, is clearly not afraid to go balls-out — it’ll allow players to force characters to do their business as often as they want. It’s that willingness to go the extra mile that has made Yakuza stand out in the past, and is exactly why the series feels so refreshing compared to the focus-tested titles that get far larger marketing budgets.
Every single aspect of Yakuza simply goes for it. From an amazingly dumb side story that’s based around Kiryu interpreting a “work visa” as “pizza” (which he then tries to order at a burger joint for some reason) to a very in-depth cabaret managing mini-game, there isn’t a single part of the title that feels slapped on. There’s a sense of commitment towards even the tiniest aspects of the game, and it’s why Yakuza can make a one-note character like the sex-loving Mr. Libido become one of the highlights of an over-the-top adventure.
If there’s a reason why Yakuza 0 seems a little further out there than the series’ normal brand of lunacy, it’s probably due to the setting. Unlike the rest of the localized series that has been set during modern day, this is a prequel that takes place during the 80s. It’s a time where Japan saw an economic boom (one that is seemingly so rich that money literally falls from opponents as they get pummelled into defeat), and just a genuinely weird point in history. It’s when modern technology was starting to really shine (everyone has a pager), but it hadn’t taken over the lives of an entire country yet.
Since it’s a prequel, a lot of younger versions of familiar characters are seen throughout Yakuza o. The game alternates between giving us the backstories of series mainstays Kiryu Kazuma and Goro Majima, as they both try to come into their own as men. Kiryu is almost immediately framed for murder, while Goro runs a cabaret since he’s been kicked out of his family for not following orders. Both are in pivotal points in their lives, and the stories (which inevitably intertwine) that are told show tremendous growth for both characters as individuals.
If there is one disappointment with the plot, it’s that the game takes place a bit too early in the Yakuza canon. Similar to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, it doesn’t really bridge the gap to its nearest sequel. It’s fine as more of an origin story (and certainly opens up the possibility for more prequels down the line), but if players were looking for more connective tissue to the 1995 beginning of Yakuza they’ll be disappointed. Kiryu and Majima’s strange friendship isn’t explored here, and many key characters are absent from the vibrant streets of Kamurocho (although there’s still plenty of fan service to be found).
While a lot of what Yakuza 0 has to offer will be familiar to series veterans, that’s not to say that the game doesn’t feature some new tricks. One of the biggest improvements upon its predecessors can be seen in the revamped combat system. It’s still a fast-paced brawler, but players can now switch between three character-specific fight styles by using the D-pad. From Zoolander-esque breakdance fighting to wielding a pummelling bat, each style is equipped with its own learning curve and skill tree to max out. New moves and abilities are purchased with the same in-game currency that the title uses for items (and a rather in-depth real estate simulation where you can manage various properties) which ties into the economic themes.
Despite the combat having been revamped, it still won’t be confused for DmC: Devil May Cry in terms of smoothness or sheer enjoyment, as it remains as one of the weakest areas of the game – something which isn’t helped by the fact that the best moves are locked away behind a fortune of yen. It isn’t a deal breaker by any means, and the combat is more than passable, but it’s disappointing to see that many of the series’ weak spots remain the same. Other past flaws, such as texture pop-in, are also seen far too often. I really hoped that the PlayStation 4 would bring an end to the technical woes, but this still doesn’t feel like a fully optimized game.
That being said, Yakuza 0 is absolutely wonderful. Depending on your perspective, the joy it emits will be either due to, or in spite of, its many quirks. Not only is the prequel a perfect place for players to jump into the series, but it also shows off why the games are so beloved in the first place. All of the extreme attention to detail is still present, as are the borderline insane side-missions that can go from serious to hilarious in a single sentence. More developers can learn a lot from the confidence of the Yakuza series: these are games that are totally unafraid of being judged in any manner.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version, which we were provided with.
While it still suffers from the same flaws as its predecessors, Yakuza 0 is a great reminder why Sega's series is so special.