As the Japanese alternative to what started out as somewhat of a Grand Theft Auto competitor, Yakuza has always existed in a niche market of gaming. Despite the impact it made when the first game hit shelves, the series has since struggled to find its feet in a Western market, with each game feeling more clumsily strange as the series progressed. Thankfully, that has all changed with the release of Yakuza 0, the most refined and easily accessible entry thus far, proving that game prequels can still pack a lot of interesting and unique ideas while retaining the heart and soul of its oddball persona.
Yakuza 0 takes place before the events of the first Yakuza, placing players in the shoes of Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima as they rise from regular street thugs to the eccentric and powerful figures we’re familiar with. What’s immediately noticeable about Yakuza 0’s story is how truly fleshed out it is, feeling more like the focused, epic crime saga of the first game than the more convoluted narratives of its sequels.
This is largely thanks to a diverse cast of characters that range from deranged mob bosses to the occasional civilian who may or may not be all what they seem. With plenty of surprises and twists along the way, the story is always gripping and involved. If I have but one complaint, its that the story tends to drag itself out at points, feeling more like a remedial chore than a natural progression of the plot. Also note that the game, even by Yakuza standards, is astoundingly lengthy and often pads itself by investing players in the extremely detailed and vibrant world filled with side quests, activities, and the run-in with the occasional thugs.
Combat in Yakuza 0 is without a doubt the most ludicrously entertaining aspect of the game and the soul of the series. Kazuma and Majima are each given three distinctive fighting styles, complementing their personality in various ways. For example, Majima’s cartoonish breakdancing fighting style lends to his offbeat personality, especially seeing how the game truly sinks its teeth into his character arc. Despite the variety of fighting styles, I often found myself always gravitating to a specific one, but that’s not a detriment to the combat as its so insanely enjoyable, you’ll forget about ever switching up styles unless absolutely necessary during boss fights.
Yakuza 0 masters world-building in unexpectedly unique and sometimes laughably fun ways. There’s never a shortage of side quests and activities to do in the city of Kamurocho, which line up every corner and street. From addictive karaoke button-prompt mini-games to more sporty activities like bowling, darts, pool, dating and dancing, among others, there’s something in Yakuza 0 for nearly everybody, opening itself up to a broader market while still retaining its often strange and zany antics. This is especially evident in karaoke, as players are usually subjected to seeing Majima or Kazuma replicate hilarious 80’s music videos or pull off some of the “grooviest” move sets in dancing. Ultimately, these side quests and mini-games are given a lot of attention and detail to add to the offbeat and believable world that the game so effortlessly weaves together, creating a solid sense of character and identity rarely seen in modern video games.
Sega have outdone themselves in the amount of unique and well-realized details packed into the game. Yakuza 0 features an intricate upgrading system that uses the in-game currency to level up both Majima and Kazuma, often giving them small perks, skills and abilities that can completely change the tide of a fight. In-game currency is centralized to both upgrade the characters and utilize in the world, usually to buy useful items and medicines. While this seems like it may be bothersome and require grinding, money is surprisingly easy to acquire as random encounters with street thugs often rewards you in the thousands, sometimes even more. Halfway into the game, you’ll have more money than you know what to realistically do with, which makes the upgrading tree a breeze to complete.
However, due to the excessive wealth your character will gain well after doing all the necessary upgrades, the game difficulty drops fairly quickly. Street encounters feel less challenging once Majima or Kazuma’s fighting styles are boosted to their maximum, empowering the player over the enemies in cartoonish fashion. Even boss fights in main quests tend to become tedious once you’ve learnt how to cheese one move set over and over until you’ve won. However, if you wish to strictly stick to the main story and ignore the admittedly enticing side activities, you’ll find much challenge and reward from the experience there.
Verdict: Sega have delivered the best Yakuza game in years. Yakuza 0 smartly diverts from the dreaded and tiresome tropes of prequels to create a stylish, unique and wonderfully detailed game that you won’t find in other ambitious open world titles. Majima and Kazuma are as charmingly entertaining as criminal protagonists can get, each earning a well-rounded character arc in a story that pays homage to old-school Japanese action/mob flicks and invites players to experience them first-hand in all their over-the-top, cheesy glory. Despite a few unbalanced hiccups in character progression and narrative, Yakuza 0 is an immensely satisfying game that lovingly respects its roots while building upon it.