Review: Yakuza 0

Unsurprisingly given its title, Yakuza 0 is a deeply Japanese game.

The latest in the long-running series from Sega, it is also the earliest Yakuza title in terms of its timeline. A prequel of sorts to the regular numbered entries, it introduces versions of two primary series characters earlier in their lives: Kazuma Kiryu, a low-ranking member of the Dojima Family in Kamurocho and Goro Majima, a former yakuza serving penance as the manager of a hostess club in Sotenburi. A the height of the 1980s, each is facing a challenge due to their involvement in the yakuza – Kiryu finds himself exiled from the Dojima Family after a debt collection target shows up dead, while Majima works to redeem himself to the Tojo Family and reclaim his rightful place in the organisation.

To deliver this story, Yakuza 0 makes use of the age-old, Kojima-approved Japanese tradition: cutscenes that never end. For a game primarily about being a criminal and participating in fisticuffs, the cast of Yakuza sure do spend a LOT of time chatting! While a lot of it is important to the overall narrative, delving into the characters’ backstories and motivations, it also does so in the most drawn-out way possible. You may have noticed the Kojima reference above, and it’s particularly relevant because some of these story sections will rival Metal Gear Solid for length. While it is surely part of the translation challenge from the original Japanese to English – our Eastern friends have a different narrative and conversational structure that doesn’t always translate perfectly to a familiar layout in English – it still means a lot of characters emphatically and repeatedly stating their intentions in a single conversation.

This issue certainly isn’t mitigated by Yakuza 0’s insistence on rotating through three distinct cutscene formats, either. Firstly you have the traditional hands-off cutscenes, rendered with higher quality models and lighting with spoken dialogue and subtitles at the bottom of the screen. Most commonly, you’ll experience in-engine cutscenes with dialogue boxes, which you can skip through as fast as you can read (unless a character has to walk or perform a specific animation, in which case you’ll be waiting that bad by out). Finally – and most confusingly – Yakuza 0 has these visual-novel style cutscenes with subtitle-style dialogue displayed over near-still images. I say near-still because the character models in question stay frozen in place, except for minor loop animations like shifting eyes or minor mouth movements. This is especially odd, as in at least one such cutscene the NPCs in the background were still walking around as per normal. I have no idea why Yakuza breaks the story into these three different forms of presentation, as the content doesn’t show any distinct separation. If nothing else, it does keep the game interesting.

In practice, much of the game amounts to wandering through the two primary hub locations as Majima and Kiryu, beating down on various aggressive Japanese men. While you’ll regularly be tasked to migrate from one story event to the next, you’re free to wander in between – with side-quests popping up regularly for both characters, as well as side content such as gambling or playing with capsule machines. It’s a real grab-bag of content, with sidequests ranging from fetching certain items to chasing down bad guys, or pretending to be a girl’s boyfriend to get her dad off her back. The central plot may be serious yakuza work, but the side content is goofy as hell.

When you’re not tracking down new batteries for some nerd’s portable bag phone, you’ll spend a lot of time beating up random thugs – and this melee combat is where Yakuza 0 really shines. While it may be the first game chronologically, the Yakuza series had at least seven titles under its belt before 0 was even a twinkle in Toshihiro Nagoshi’s eye. Combat is fluid and intuitive, switching between grapples, weak and strong attacks and finishers, with the combo counter always on your mind. The prequel introduces a new twist to the formula as each protagonist has three distinct fighting styles to accumulate over the course of the game, as well as being able to use held weapons. Kiryu opens with the Brawler style, focusing on medium speed offense, adding the boxing-style Rush and heavy-hitting but slow Beast styles over time. Likewise, Mjima starts with the dirty-fighting Thug style, and later learns the weapons-oriented Slugger style as well as Breaker, a combat method inspired by break-dancing he sees one time.

This combination of styles gives you the option to tailor your approach to any given fight, or focus on a single style that fits you best. Even so, some fights can become an exercise in frustration. Givne the narrow streets of inner-city Japan are faithfully rendered here, it’s all too easy to get cornered between multiple enemies and end up stuck in a constant knock-down loop as you watch your health bar trickle away. As you rack up cash from successful fights however, Kiryu and Majima can spend it to upgrade their abilities in each of their three styles – which especially makes the beginning of the game an exercise in budgeting for the best upgrades, given that you quickly hit some that weigh in at a thirty million yen price-tag.

These prices become less daunting as you unlock each protagonists’ income-earning operations – Kiryu’s entrance to the world of real estate and Majima’s expansion and improvement of his nightclub. By the time all the games’ various features are unlocked, it’s a lot to juggle – but it also means you’ll never be at a loss for something new to do.

I’d never played a Yakuza game before this one, much to the dismay of certain friends. While it’s definitely a daunting franchise to enter into, Yakuza 0 is simultaneously the best and worst starting point for newcomers like myself. While there’s no doubt plenty of nods to the future of the series’ story that I’m missing, it also does a great job of laying out the origins of these two big players in the ongoing Yakuza narrative. I do think I’ll stick with the franchise beyond this introductory entry, as it errs just on the right side of Japanese weirdness. Potential fans can also rest assured that the next chronological entry is being remade as Yakuza Kiwami, tentatively due for Western shores later this year. There’s never been a better time to indulge your fantasies of beating up strangers with break-dancing moves as a one-eyed 80’s nightclub manager.

6.5 out of 10

The good

  • Solid combat mechanics.
  • Goofy side content.
  • A good intro to the series.

The bad

  • Story can be sluggish.
  • Features are trickle-fed.

Yakuza 0 was reviewed using a promotional code on PS4, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.

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About the author

Matt Gosper

aka Ponk – a Melburnian gay gamer who works with snail mail. Enthusiastically keeping a finger in every pie of the games industry. I'll beat you at Mario Kart, and lose to you in any shooter you can name.