Yakuza 0 Review (PlayStation 4)
For all the notoriety games like Saints Row, Sleeping Dogs and Grand Theft Auto have gotten over the years, Sega's Yakuza franchise has been often overlooked as holding court in the same arena. Yakuza has been around nearly as long as GTA, and had nearly as many entries, yet its engaging narratives, compelling characters, lightning-quick action and unique side quests aren't mentioned in the same breath --- save for a few devout fans championing the franchise. Yakuza just hasn't gotten the recognition it should, though it's always maintained cult success. With the best combat the series has seen, the easiest story to embrace, and some of the most hilarious bonus missions you'll ever have played, Yakuza 0 might just be able to put the series in the spotlight it so deserves.
The aptly titled Yakuza 0 is a great jumping-on point for players of any familiarity with the series, be it first-timers or veterans. This entry takes things all the way back to the late '80s, when Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima were mere twenty-somethings with big aspirations and lots of formality to deal with from the ranking officials in the yakuza. What's great about going back to the beginning in this series isn't just that it makes Yakuza 0 more penetrable for new players, it also expands upon the men Kiryu and Majima were before longtime players got to know the older incarnations.
With five core games, all of which lead seamlessly into the next, and a sixth due out next year, the series has built up quite a fictional universe. The layers of complexity in the relationships were hard to keep track of even if you've been around since the original PlayStation 2 days. Jumping into book five of Game of Thrones isn't the best way to do things when you're just starting out. The same holds true here with this deeply involved story about Japanese organized crime. That's precisely why it's a good thing Yakuza 0 is a prequel, and not another sequel. It's also true that the Yakuza series has just about as many characters, plots, twists, turns, betrayals, and as much violence as the fantasy epic. They both also happen in fictionalized cities on island nations.
Regardless of your familiarity with Yakuza's ever-expanding plots, Yakuza 0 is a testament to how well-written this game franchise has been since the start. Even for veterans of the franchise, the story presented a whole range of development for long-running protagonist Kiryu and frequent co-star Majima that's both perfectly in line with who they become later, and makes you want to learn even more about them in the modern era. What's more, learning the ins and outs --- fictional as they may be --- of the yakuza during the the onset of the 1990s makes for a fascinating base for this game's storyline. It was a time of near unrivaled excess, and even the yakuza knew one thing above all would maintain value: real estate.
Yes, Yakuza 0 is a heavy crime drama based around real estate negotiations. These negotiations just happen to use bullets and knives, embezzlement and blackmail to get things done. At least Kiryu's story does anyway. Majima's story --- told in alternating parts with Kiryu's --- focuses on his attempts to get back into the yakuza by tracking down and murdering a mysterious citizen. The two overlap at times, but for the most part, you'll be experiencing high drama about loyalty and conspiracies. I's no small thing to keep creating stories that are this compelling in the same settings with the same characters over and over. Yakuza 0's story makes a strong case for being among the best in the franchise, though it does have the fortune of knowing where each and every piece and player must end up by the conclusion for the rest of the series to make any sense.
All of the narrative excellence in the world can't save a game if it doesn't play well though, and Sega has made sure Yakuza 0 has the best combat and most detailed role-playing elements the series has seen. While that's great for everyone, it does leave us a bit concerned for the Yakuza remaster coming out later this year with regards to taking steps back when it comes to combat and leveling. That's a problem for another day however. Yakuza 0 gives Kiryu and Majima three distinct fighting styles each, with characters able to slip in and out of stances with the press of a button. Previous games limited you to just one style with a number of unlockable moves. Here, each style has its own moves, benefits and disadvantages, and it's entirely up to you how you want to play the game.
Combat beyond scheduled boss encounters unfolds as you roam the streets. Passersby will give you some guff, and you can choose to engage them or run away. It's almost never a bad idea to fight these street thugs, no matter who they are, as you'll earn valuable cash from every fight, which is then used to level up your character. Weapons can be equipped or picked up from the battleground, but they all have a limited number of uses. If you do run across any special weapons, it's often best to save them for cinematic battles rather than the street encounters. Learning how to adapt to each enemy fighting style is easy enough too, as you can tell almost immediately which of Kiryu's/Majima's stances will counter an enemy grouping the best by the stances they take.
In addition to rapid fire combos executed with Triangle and Square, and grabbing attacks done with Circle, each stance has a "heat" meter, which builds up as you do more damage to enemies. When the meter is full, you can execute special attacks --- many of which are context sensitive to the environment or nearby weapons --- to quickly dispose of enemies with lots of health. These "heat" attacks are vicious and brutal, and showcase the power each of the protagonists wields when unburdened by the laws of physics. You truly haven't lived until you've seen a man pick up a motorcycle and smash it into another man's head like it was a heavy book.
Building up these characters is important though, as the enemies will get tougher as you go along, particularly the bosses. These guys are damage sponges with multiple health bars and attack styles, and they have "heat" of their own they can unleash if you've manged to turn the tide in your favor a bit too much. Fortunately, by investing your money wisely in yourself, you'll be able to boost your health, how quickly you build "heat," and a number of other combat maneuvers to aid your quests. Leveling up Kiryu and Majima can get pretty expensive rather quickly though, so Yakuza 0 has a lot of ways for you to earn some extra income and ensure you always get to stay ahead of those who would see you fall.
As serious as Yakuza 0's main storyline is, nearly every single optional quest is equally ridiculous. Aside from being able to gamble in casinos, go fishing, play video games at the Sega arcade, and play darts, you'll also be able to bet on underground cat fights (women, not felines), run real estate development of your own, and even run a cabaret (Yakuza's hostess clubs). Now, there are a number of actual missions too, like helping kids who had their video games stolen get them back, or stopping a burusera ring (look it up when you're not at work), but these extra activities can become huge time sinks if you let them. And you will let them. You might not think running your own cabaret could be an addictive management mini-game, but it is. You might not think there's much excitement in real estate investment, but once the money starts rolling in and the competition in the area starts making trouble, you just want to put them out of business all day.
Of course, things like the cabaret and the cat fight ring --- as well as the telephone dating, which must be experienced to be believed --- are part of Eastern culture that may not translate perfectly to Western audiences. Despite knowing full well how running a club of women for men to ogle and shower with money --- which includes giving them makeovers to be sexier or more attractive --- might look to eyes outside of that culture, Sega doesn't pull back. In fact, it's the company's dedication to making these elements deep and rewarding that gives Yakuza 0 so much of its charm. This is true of the series in general as well, but Yakuza 0 sticks with honestly depicting the nightlife, locale, and regional personalities to great effect. That's not to say there aren't some elements that toe the line of taste, but the complexities of Yakuza's world lend the game some leeway when it comes to those portions.
With Yakuza 0, Sega's managed to give the long-running series a shot in the arm, re-invigorating it for longtime players, and making it accessible to anyone that was turned off by jumping in so late in the series before. The characterizations, overarching plots and combat are as sharp as they've been in the franchise's decade-plus history, and the bonus missions and side quests are as captivating as they are bizarre. On its third generation of consoles, the future now looks tremendously bright for Yakuza, and all it took was going back to the start.
This review is based on a digital copy of Yakuza 0 provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.