Dating back to the PlayStation 2, the Japanese-developed Yakuza series managed to muster a cult following of players worldwide. The series’ popularity began to slip off in the West over the years, but those most passionate about the 3D beat ‘em up fought to keep the games coming to the States. Despite tenuous confidence in how the series would be continually received here, publisher SEGA is taking another crack at American audiences with the prequel installment Yakuza 0, which is pitched as an ideal jumping-in point. As a fan of beat ’em up games but a newcomer to the Yakuza series, this invitation seemed the optimal chance to observe everything the games have learned thus far through a fresh pair of eyes.
Yakuza 0 takes us back to the very beginning, following the earliest events that would lead to a long line of future misfortunes for series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. This story is split between two characters; Kiryu in his early days of being a Yakuza, and Majima, club owner and ex-Yakuza whose desire to get back into the organization lands him in his own pile of trouble. The trials faced by each criminal take place in separate districts of late 1980s Japan, where each character is free to explore almost from the get-go. Vibrant shops and eateries are scattered around for the player to utilize, as are entertainment centers where one can enjoy karaoke, 16-bit arcade games, and more. These facilities make up for the rather restrictive size of each district. The transitions between the characters and their respective zones are rigidly alternated over the course of the game, but eventually the player is allowed to switch between them at will. Both zones have their intrigues, but their small size and relative similarities causes the excitement of exploring to fade after a while.
Two separate stories of redemption are told as the perspective flips back and forth between the two. Each is faced with their own struggles—Kiryu’s attempt to clear the name of his mentor, and Majima’s conflict between his own morality and his goal of getting his life back—and while the narratives are divided for most of the game, the connections between are revealed later on. The scenes played out by the leading characters and their supporting cast are generally melodramatic and overacted, but the genuine moral compasses of both heroes will cause players to root for them in spite of their naive idealism. As for the spiderweb of a plot they are both tangled up in, the twists manufactured from the constant backstabbing and politics that come along with a Yakuza-themed story of this length begin to prove weary after a while. The drive to see each main character overcome their own obstacles is enough reason to push through, though.
Players will progress through each storyline by partaking in bouts of 3D brawler gameplay—the very core of Yakuza games. The fighting system advertises a wide variety of combative opportunity through unique fighting styles, weapons, and character upgrades, but this doesn’t save the game from feeling notably dated. Most gameplay time is spent fighting—whether it be through story missions, side stories, or random encounters—and considering how much of it there is to do, its execution is both rigid and simplistic. Combos are surprisingly limited, and the novelty of weapons or pre-animated takedowns lose their charm when they are consistently used to up the monotony of what is essentially the same few combos over and over.
Majima and Kiryu each have their own selection of three different fighting styles that can be switched between mid-fight, which only adds variety for as long as it takes to try out every style several dozen times. For what it’s worth, Majima’s fighting styles are more interesting with a greater level of flourish in the combo design—such as one based on Capoeira—but the limited scope of the combo system means even the most interesting of these maneuvers will eventually get played out. No matter how lavish the fighting style, the game’s aggressively small amount of input for offensive and defensive actions means there are only so many variations to employ before one must start repeating the same few button-mashing sequences.
Unlockable skill trees are available to both characters to evolve their different fighting styles. The upgrades can be obtained by purchasing them with one’s hard earned money or by training in the skill with help from NPC’s met over the course of the game. These upgrades do add some flavor to the fighting system—making a style more complex the further one progresses in it—but the problem is that many of the upgrades are passive, working automatically and leaving player involvement to a minimum. These make the combat more manageable by improving the character’s efficacy, but actual additions to the combo systems aren’t as frequent or impactful as they should be.
Combat remains the gameplay focal point in everything from side missions up to the occasional boss battle, and they are the player’s most consistent source of income. Money gets to be in high demand in the later game when upgrades start charging the player an arm and a leg, and at this point both characters unlock their own management side business. Kiryu dives into the real estate game, buying up properties around his district of Tokyo, while Majima runs a Cabaret Club in Osaka, which he must manage to keep clients happy and keep the money rolling in. It is at this point that the game’s economy spikes, so while these side activities aren’t especially captivating, the exponential demand for cash makes any activity that brings in influxes of it weirdly additive.
Apart from the fighting, business management, and chapter completion bonuses, money and other perks can come from the game’s plethora of substories. The side missions are stumbled upon through random NPCs in the open worlds. They generally include at least one fight, but most substories are primarily made up of small branching narratives in which the player gets to choose dialogue options to learn more about the situation. These pleasant distractions offer appropriate punctuations in the lengthy story campaign, but from a gameplay perspective, their purpose is more for the rewards than the gameplay benefit.
These rewards come in many forms, often as cash or items that help the player along their journey. Consumables can help in combat with perks like boosting health or adrenaline, weapons can be equipped to give an edge in battle, valuables can be sold for a healthy profit, craftables can be used to make equipment, and bonus clothing options offer a collection of perks. Money is always helpful and weapons can occasionally turn the tide of a fight, but consumables, craftables, and clothing can be purchased in bulk from a number of shops found around each city district. Considering the generally lower value of these commodities—not to mention the more efficient methods of making money—substories begin to feel superfluous as any reason other than to flush out the world.
Outside of the main campaign, several of the game’s mini-games are available to play online or in local multiplayer. The mini-game options—such as bowling or poker—are different whether one is playing on or offline, and while the offline modes are just for their own sake, the online modes allow the player to wager their hard-earned campaign money for the tantalizing potential of a profit in the single-player. Another single player-adjacent option is the climax battles, which are a selection of combat challenges that are unlocked from progression in the main game. These alternative gameplay opportunities don’t add a significant amount of replayability, but it is certainly better for them to be there than not.
As a new player to the Yakuza series, I would ultimately not suggest Yakuza 0 as the best place to jump in. Nothing about the game is necessarily offensive, but its most ubiquitous features are where it struggles the most to grab my attention. Yakuza 0 passes the time, but it does not feel like the game that will turn me into a Yakuza fan.
Yakuza 0 takes it back to where it all began, but a mildly interesting setting and story don’t quite make up for the game’s more tedious elements.
M - Mature
|Yakuza 0 is available on PS4. Primary version played was for PS4. Product was provided by Sega for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Nick didn’t start gaming until mid-2006. Once his parents finally allowed a console into the house, it was all uphill from there. Starting out with a PS2, he grew an affinity for Sony consoles and moved on to the PS3, and now the PS4. He keeps his gaming palette wide, but, gun to his head, he’d have to say shooters are his genre of choice.