When we last saw our Japanese hero, Kazuma Kiryu, he was driving a hack in Fukuoka and trying to remain hidden from his past life as “The Dragon of Dojima.” Well, as we would soon learn, when you live the life of a Yakuza crime lord your past tends to catch up with you. Kiryu’s past is about to come back a second time with the release of Yakuza 0, but this time we’re actually traveling back to the 1980s to live the life of “junior Yakuza” Kiryu and participate in his rise to power. For its maiden voyage on the PS4, the Yakuza series has delivered a wholly original, completely engrossing and absolutely essential gaming experience.
For those who may be joining the Yakuza for the first time, the good news is that there’s no previous experience required. The prequel nature of the story being told enables newbies to leap into it with no knowledge of what has come before (or after, as the case may be). The fictional Japanese city of Kamurocho in the year 1988 has been created with breathtaking detail, based on actual locations throughout Japan. That is not to say that the title isn’t without flaws, but, as they put it in Hollywood, it’s “all the right flaws.” Beautifully detailed and obnoxiously vibrant, the city appears to live a life of its own inside your PS4. The game’s overall execution tends to lean toward gaming generations of the past, and the repetition involved in the combat does nothing to quell this notion. The series has always reveled in its imperfections in design or combat and, dare it be said, it wouldn’t be Yakuza without them. The Yakuza series is the gaming equivalent of those cheesy, B-movie crime dramas of the eighties we all knew and loved… and with Japanese flavor.
Zero does a bit of streamlining in the story by only including two main characters (as opposed to the five mains portrayed in Yakuza 5). This allows for a much more in depth character study of both people and their motivations. The story puts both characters in the middle of a whole bunch of things that go wrong once two criminal organizations start battling each other over a “vacant lot” real estate deal. When Kiryu is accused of murdering a man who is found dead in this vacant lot, he decides to “cheese it” out of town in an effort to hide from assassins and unravel what has happened. Our second character, Goro Majima from Osaka, comes to the realization that his life as a successful cabaret owner is nothing but a prison; a way for his bosses to keep him under their thumb after an unfortunate past incident gave them reason to doubt him. In order to get back into the good graces and break free of this pseudo-captivity, he accepts the responsibility of completing a hit for the organization. When he realizes this ‘hit’ is a very young girl, he begins to question his entire life. By the time the story nears its conclusion, you’ll be both shocked at what desperate people will do to survive as well as totally engrossed and eager to see what happens next.
Zero also proudly displays all of the classic Yakuza style diversions, for those times when getting in the middle of two warring mafia factions has your nerves shredded like an udon noodle. You can manage side businesses, race matchbox cars, play pool, go dancing or bowling, hang around the arcades and play Out Run or Hang on, charm some pretty ladies or, if the mood takes you, take part in over one hundred side quests. After all, when running from organized crime organizations (who have framed you for murder) what you really need is three hours out on a date with a girl who wants you to impress her father. As weird as the Yakuza series can get, this is exactly the type of game the industry needs to keep things in balance.
The combat system is slightly different from past games, inasmuch as our protagonist will upgrade his fighting skills by simply paying for them. The title leans on the notion that the excessive 80s had most criminals throwing limitless money around all over town and, when the well got dry, would simply beat the tar out of a local gang of street toughs until the money bursts out (which it does, Mario style). Each character you can control can shift between three different fighting styles, depending on the situation and enemies at hand.
Yakuza 0 is everything fans of the series want it to be. It contains its trademark style, enhanced graphics, smooth framerate and an excellent story. By design, it is also a throwback to older gameplay styles and tropes and is not only proud of the fact, it’s downright smug about it. It is a game to be enjoyed, savored and explored, warts and all, for as many hours as possible. While not perfect, it is definitely an instant classic and worthy of your time and money (which you can always earn back by stomping on street toughs in Kamurocho).
Reviewed By: Russell Garbutt
This review is based on a digital copy of Yakuza 0 for the PlayStation 4 provided by Sega.