My introduction and eventual fandom for the “Yakuza” (or “Ryū ga Gotoku” as it’s known as in Japan) series is a saddening reminder just how influential brick & mortar video stores were to my gaming habit. In 2006, I just decided to rent a game for the next few days, but had no idea what was available that I hadn’t played yet as my primary gaming console was still the Playstation 2 – a console whose new releases were drying up thanks to its successor about to hit the market. Walking through the aisle one game cover caught my eye that I hadn’t seen before – “Yakuza”. I didn’t even bother reading the back cover and just gave it a shot. To my surprise, “Yakuza” felt like a 3D side-scroller beat-em-up featuring a fantastic story and pretty enjoyable dub. I poured a great amount of hours into “Yakuza” before seeing the epic ending. Two years later saw the western release of “Yakuza 2” and forced me to pull out my semi-retired Playstation 2 to play through another fantastic entry in this underrated franchise. While there were arguable quality dips during the Playstation 3 era (consisting of three mainline games and a spin-off), my hopes were incredibly high for the next “Yakuza” game that took things back to the series’ unseen beginnings featuring two of the franchise’s most pivotal characters.
Did I Complete “Yakuza 0”
The year was 1988 – nearly twenty years before the series’ first entry in its narrative timeline – and the country of Japan was in the middle of an economic boom that seemed to be on the verge of an inevitable downfall thanks to many factors including the growing power of yakuza bodies that, ironically enough, are starting to get so greedy that splintering is causing moments of grand, fatal betrayal. Having played every mainline “Yakuza” released stateside, I settled in with the general knowledge of what to expect during my playthrough – long-winded cutscenes featuring immaculate voice acting performed by actual famous Japanese actors, many interesting narrative shifts, side quests/mini-games reaching into the triple digits, and, of course, a grand amount of fights against both minor thugs and overpowered bosses.
Just like my time with the previous games (and maybe even more so thanks to the convenience of amount of things to do and only playing with two protagonists instead of five like the “Yakuza 0”) I dove into the glitzy world while trying to build up my respective empires and literally investing in the main characters to make them fighting monsters. The time just flew by and when the final cutscenes concluded I had racked up over 100 hours. While one would think putting 100 hours into a game like this would feature someone fully completing the game, the amount of stuff to do to reach platinum trophy status (including beating the game on its hardest difficulty and completing the 100% checklist that can be seen in-game and rewards the player with “Completion Points” that can buy special items, abilities and even women) would probably take me another fifty or so hours due to the difficulty (and randomness) of some of the mini-games (looking at you Catfight Club). With nearly seventy percent of the 100% completion list including all of the substories done, my playtime with “Yakuza 0” is slowly coming to an end as fighting “Climax Battles” (a mode where the player fights enemies under various limitations or stipulations) just doesn’t have the same flair without a story keep things interesting.
Did “Yakuza 0” Live Up to the Hype?
As noted above, having been a fan of the franchise for over a decade, my expectations of what was to come from this latest iteration were not only high, but to a certain extent reasonable thanks to the greatness “0’s” predecessors accomplished across five games (“Dead Souls” is not one of those games). And one of the main reasons for “Yakuza 0’s” success as another mostly fantastic offering from Sega is its story. Though it is the sixth numbered entry in the franchise, “0” is a prequel through & through featuring two of the series’ most important characters, Kazuma Kiryu – the franchise’s overpowered poster boy and lead protagonist throughout every game (essentially the equivalent of Goku in the “Dragon Ball” universe) – and Goro Majima – who, for the first time is, a playable character. The near forty hour main story starts off with a bang, yet settles into the stereotypical when yakuza/Mafioso/gangsters troupes start becoming the norm. This feeling of repetitiveness is easily forgiven as the story switches gears from Kiryu & the fictionalized town of Kamurocho to Goro & Sotenbori (another fake city) and eventually back again while this story of yakuza in-fighting becomes greatly intertwined with the then-current Japanese economic boom and its impending downturn that would crush the cities just made for unforgettable forgotten nights. There are several high points in the story that go well beyond the expected considering how the story initially unfolds, and features an endearing conclusion that’ll leave both long-time fans and those just giving the series a lengthy chance satisfied.
For those who have played the previous “Yakuza” games, the little odes and nods to what will happen in the narrative’s future are there to reward long-time fans, but the story in itself isn’t hindered by the franchise’s legacy. As any good prequel should do, “Yakuza 0” fills in the unknown blanks without condemning the player/viewer for not experiencing what came before it in terms of release (and what will come in the franchise’s actual timeline). The voice acting and lip-synching are absolutely phenomenal, but for people who don’t enjoy reading subtitles there is no way you’ll enjoy “Yakuza 0” as there isn’t any dubbing. Also cutscene length might prove to be a problem for some. In the same vein as the first three “Metal Gear Solid” games (or more appropriately, the previous three “Yakuza” entries), cutscenes can get lengthy at times. Halfway through the story there’s a very monumental turning point, but the cutscenes that bring that moment together are almost twenty minutes long. Thankfully you can pause and even skip the cutscenes. While it isn’t suggested the player skip any cutscene during a first playthrough, pausing and maybe getting a drink isn’t out of the question. Also associated with the cutscenes are graphical shifts. There are several types of cutscenes seen throughout, but the initial moment of seeing Kiryu walking through Kamurocho is in no way an indication of how the rest of the game looks. Essentially being a Playstation 3 port, “Yakuza 0” isn’t the best looking game on the market thanks to a mixture of bland textures, building & townspeople pop-ins (with the latter being responsible for a random, unavoidable fight from time to time) and minor character/enemy models being almost indistinguishable from one another outside of clothing.
The gameplay is both mostly unchanged and incredibly different from what has been seen in the past. Kiryu & Goro can mix light and strong strikes with the touching of the square and triangle buttons in a timed sequence, grab and potentially toss opponent courtesy of the circle button, and evade with the X/cross button. Both protagonists can block attacks and even counter with well-timed attack button presses. With each successful attack dished out by the main character, the “Heat Meter” located under the protagonist’s health bar will rise so the player can unleash a brutal “Heat Action” that can range from a series of body punches to pro wrestling style attacks including a suplex across a steel traffic rail. Beyond the fundamentals are the drastic changes to not only the characters, but also the battle system. For those who have played the previous games, the innate sense in regards to how Kiryu plays is completely wrecked when one is introduced to the fact Kiryu (and eventually Goro) have three different fighting styles (with a respective fourth being hidden behind two grandiose mini-games) that forces the player to switch things up from battle to battle with the touch of the d-pad when the fists, feet and weapons start flying. For example, Kiryu’s styles include a counter-based, mostly elementary version of his future self (“Brawler”), a fast-paced, low-powered kick boxer style based on evasion (“Rush”), and the heavy hitting, weapon based, yet unwieldy & slow third style (“Beast”). In previous “Yakuza” games (especially the 5th) you quickly become accustomed to each character having one way of fighting and adapt to that style. In “0”, the player must adapt to the fight and plan what abilities will help the player in the long run.
One of the other drastic shifts in regards to the franchise’s battle system is the implementation of money. You don’t just need money in this game to buy health items, play the dozens upon dozens of mini-games, or pay for equipment searches (the latter being another extensive system added specifically for this game). The player needs money to actually upgrade the fighting abilities of both characters instead of experience points as per the norm of previous “Yakuza” games. While beating up enemies will net the characters money, it isn’t until two-thirds into the game when the player is introduced to the “Real Estate Royale” and “Cabaret Czar” mini-games/subplots (for Kiryu and Goro respectively) that one can make enough money to actually buy the outrageously priced upgrades through systems that seem complex in presentation, but are incredibly simple & player-friendly in execution. Both feature that incredible feeling of building an empire, but are terribly grind heavy. Depending on how many substories and completion points are completed and earned respectively, completing both subplots to earn those hidden fourth fighting styles and create true sources of wealth will take upwards of twenty hours (with some of that time being used to complete other substories and, at times, simply putting the controller down to do something else for a few minutes before coming back to collect your earnings).
This is where the game’s biggest problem comes into play as these new implementations to a system that, while somewhat stale due to its unchanging nature for several games, hinders a system that still exceeds where other games have struggled to properly implement for two gaming generations. Needing great amounts of yen to purchase style and even health upgrades, both fighters start off horribly underpowered for the first half of the story (and could be underpowered throughout if the player doesn’t take the time to really build up each protagonist’s financial status). Kiryu suffers more from this problem than Goro as all three of Majima’s styles feel all-around solid and mostly powerful from jump – “Thug” (the mostly balanced brawling style), “Slugger” (a baseball bat-oriented style where the bat can practically become a pair of nunchucks), and Breaker (a flashy style built around break dancing). Goro’s lack of strength is counterbalanced by easily exploitative moments of invincibility connected to the last two styles’ common combo strings. Outside of sacrificing a little bit of mobility when utilizing the Slugger style, Goro has the ability to thrive in battle a lot better early on compared to Kazuma. Even Kiryu’s fourth style feels dumbed down and inferior compared to what Majima gets as his fourth style – the incredible “Mad Dog” ability where his Breaker style throws a powerful knife into the mix. To really enjoy playing as Kiryu in battle (which is something yours truly had trouble with during the initial chapters after spending a good amount of time learning Majima’s styles) one must invest ridiculous amounts of money into his upgrades – something that probably won’t happen for the player until the final third of the game.
As per the norm, “Yakuza 0” is chock full of stuff to do outside of the main story including 100 substories that can feature everything from heartwarming (teaching a cop to become a better officer), to ridiculous (helping a group of punk rock stars find their inner thugs), and plain disturbing (befriending the pants-less Mr. Libido) moments; as well as two of the toughest fights in the game and even a few lumbering powerhouses that can rob Kiryu & Goro of all their money if they lose a battle to these beastly men (though they can fight and win all the money back). The great amount of mini-games isn’t hindered by the year the game is set in – in fact gets a boost thanks to the era. You can go from playing “OutRun” & “Space Harrier” in a SEGA branded arcade to disco dancing or even partaking in this game’s version of phone sex. A majority of the mini-games actually play a role in completing several substories; be it karaoke, majoge, fishing, and even pocket racing where the player can modify and actually race motorized miniature race cars – thus avoiding a sense of heaviness throughout while throwing in a quite a bit of laugh-inducing humor.
Sadly some of the mini-games are based more on luck and less on skill – which can produce some long-winded, frustrating moments when it appears completing a particular substory is nearly impossible. Plus, with every mini-game playing a part in the 100% completion checklist the game demands completionists to try out everything (and, at times, be really good in the process). There are also six trainers (three per protagonist) who the player can seek out to learn unlockable maneuvers otherwise in different ways depending on the trainer. No matter where you are, both cities are brimming with life and excitement. Outside of the main game are several modes for single players and online aficionados with the latter based around the mini-games and the prior focusing on combat, but don’t feel extraordinary or memorable unlike the main game.
While “Yakuza 0” does have some problems (mostly thanks to the battle system and character upgrade experiments), the overall experience is something to behold and feels less like an unnecessary prequel to pad a franchise already loaded with lore, but instead a once missing piece to the puzzle finally found that long-time fans didn’t truly realize they needed; and a great introductory point to the franchise for people who have been too afraid to jump into the deep end of a series once requiring dedication and, most importantly, play time across five separate games.
Should You Play “Yakuza 0”?
Like its predecessors, “Yakuza 0” proves to be a genre bending experience – part beat-em-up, part RPG, part party game that, while somewhat overwhelming thanks to the various amounts of things the player can do without progressing the story, still feels tight and not bloated to the point of exhaustion. Fully immersing oneself in the world of “Yakuza 0” can bring forth a wealth of different experiences both negative and positive, but the overall feeling is nothing short of satisfaction thanks to an epic narrative, more mini-games and substories than one could imagine would fit in a single game, and a mostly fun, though aged battle system. “Yakuza 0” doesn’t just rank high as one of the best entries in the franchise, but also as one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had thus far during gaming’s eighth generation.