A little over a year ago, I graced Invisible Gamer with a review of Yakuza 5, a game I have no shame in saying is one of my favorite games of all time, in a series I think is incredibly under-appreciated in the West. I waited years to play that game, and even resorted to importing, because I thought we’d never get another Yakuza game over here. Maybe that review helped sell some copies, though, because it didn’t take long for Yakuza 0 to get a localization. And here we are, a little over a year later, and I’m so happy I can tell you about another game in this insane franchise.
Like the name suggests, Yakuza 0 is a prequel, telling the story of how series mainstays Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima rose to power within the yakuza. If you’ve played any of the previous games, you should know what you’re in for. If you haven’t, Yakuza 0 is a game about the Japanese underworld and the gangsters that thrive there. What initially begins as a plot to clear Kiryu’s name of murder spirals and unfolds into an enormous tale of love, power, betrayal, and loyalty. And as you switch play back and forth between Kiryu and Majima, what initially feels like two separate stories eventually weaves together in a pretty organic way. I just wish it didn’t take so long to kick into gear.
All Yakuza games are a bit of a soap opera. There’s plenty of overly-dramatic moments and exposition littered throughout the series but there’s always a bit of excitement right around the corner. Zero (Yakuza 0) doesn’t quite nail that balance as well as previous games in the series, especially in the first few hours. It definitely feels like a slog to get the ball rolling, which is really upsetting because a lot of the problem lies in its tutorials. Most of these center around the combat and simply do not need a deep and involved tutorial (complete with their own side-stories and characters) to get players familiar with the controls. Even with new additions specific to Zero, the combat is simple enough to grasp within seconds. Instead, you have to wade through about 15 minutes of text per all six of the games fighting styles. Ugh! Not to mention some of the translation, especially what I saw in the early parts of the game, is just bad, lame, and unfitting, even for the crazy world of Yakuza.
Luckily, after the game takes its time setting everything up, the magic of Yakuza starts to shine yet again. The game is split up into chapters, switching characters (and sometimes cities) every two chapters, and lets the player roam around a small open hub area. Kiryu normally walks the streets of Kamurocho while Majima roams around Sotenbori. While each environment is visually quite different, they share the same makeup that allow players to experience what Yakuza is all about and that is having a whole lot of fun with what the city has to offer while progressing through the story.
Sure you could run from marker to marker, triggering cutscenes and fights all the way until the credits roll. Sure, it would be an enjoyable tale of two honorable gangsters’ rise to legend, but you’d be missing out on so much. Oh, so much. When I mentioned that Yakuza games can be overly dramatic, I’m not lying. In fact, that may be an understatement. These games, including Zero, wear the cheese on their sleeve. They know how over-the-top and outrageous things can get and they absolutely lean into that, especially outside of the main story. For me, they balance the game perfectly by making me care about the characters by being serious and dramatic when they need to throughout the plot, and then make me love these characters even more by seeing them cut loose and get extremely goofy when they’re just out on the town.
Here’s some of the things I did in Yakuza 0: sing karaoke, dance disco, phone date, pretend to be a movie producer, play Outrun at the arcade, and race slot cars after pimping out my toy. These are all real things you can do in the game and that’s only a fraction of what is available. What’s so appealing about Yakuza 0 is the game allows you to have fun by not just letting you roam the city freely like in so many open-world games, but by letting you participate in actual games with their own rules and gameplay. There’s so much variety here that it’s hard to get bored once you have so much of the city to experience. Some of these games, like the disco dancing game, could legitimately be beefed up into its own standalone game. Personally, I really appreciate things like that in a video game and go a long way towards my overall enjoyment of it.
Zero’s problem is it leaves so much of the game to the player’s willingness to explore. I almost completely missed the Slot Car shop and that ended up being one of my favorite side activities to participate in. Instead, they end up steering players into these management games that allow both Kiryu and Majima to make quite a bit extra money by either micro-managing real estate (yes, I said real estate) or by running a night club. Surprisingly, these side-jobs are actually okay, but their menu-based gameplay doesn’t quite fit the excitement and spectacle that I expect and look for from a Yakuza game.
This variety bleeds into one of the core components of Yakuza 0, the combat. As previously mentioned, the game boasts a total of six fighting styles, three for Kiryu, and three for Majima. This is a huge improvement over the previous games where each character only fought one way. The button-mashy combat is back, where you wail on enemies with your fists or weapons in the street, building up a HEAT meter that allows you to unleashing amazingly brutal special moves at the touch of a button, but giving the player multiple styles to fight with really adds a nice spice to keep things from going stale throughout the entire game. There’s even tactical advantages to use some styles against some enemies i.e. switching to the fast style when fighting a bigger, slower opponent. It’s not much, but it’s something.
You can also upgrade your character with the money you win in fights, which happen all throughout the streets of the city, as well as throughout the story. You can use that money to buy new weapons, items, or upgrade your character. I like this idea but I didn’t think it was implemented that well. Too many upgrades cost so much money without enough reward. By the time I finished the game, I barely had half of each characters moves unlocked and I was taking a good amount of time to roam around, do extra fights, and see a lot of the side content. Even with that, I barely unlocked many new abilities because I kept running out of money and your trainers won’t train you in the best moves unless you upgrade your characters. It all ended up being a bit frustrating compared to the simple and fun combat the game delivers.
Yakuza 0 is not the best game in the Yakuza series, but it’s still pretty damn great. It does a wonderful job of giving players an enormous amount of variety to play around with, games within games, but never beats you over the head with them. It gets serious when it has to, delivering a great story with a entertaining cast of characters, but always is there to lighten the mood and get goofy to keep players from getting bored. I think Zero was in need of an editor, especially in the first few hours. It fails to reach some of the crazier, most entertaining moments that the series has reached throughout the years, but it’s still a solid entry in franchise, if not a little more subdued. Still, I’m happy to say, if you’re interested in the series, there’s no better jumping off point than Yakuza Zero.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Yakuza 0 is based on final review code for PlayStation 4 provided to us by Sega. The game is currently available at retail and for download on PSN.