For ten years, the Yakuza series has followed the struggles of Kiryu Kazuma, an ex-Yakuza member in Kamurocho, Japan who constantly finds himself wrapped up in a seemingly endless series of gang warfare and political intrigue. He’s a stone-cold bruiser with a heart of gold, and with every new release, we see time pass by a year in-game, showing Kazuma and the ones around him steadily grow and develop over the course of the series. Despite being the sixth main entry, Yakuza 0 is titled as such for a reason.
We’re brought way back to the bustling 80s of Japan, and the narrative squares in not only on a young version of Kiryu Kazuma, but also a young version of Goro Majima, a cartoonish rival character present throughout most of the series. Every two chapters, you’ll find yourself switching between the two characters, experiencing their separate stories in separate towns. Young, hot-headed Kiryu is caught up in a framed murder that ties into a war for territory, while Goro Majima finds himself protecting a blind girl from the men who want her dead.
They seem like totally separate stories that simply serve to explore what makes these character become who they end up being. Along the way, though, their narratives twist around each other, and while the Kiryu and Majima never come head-to-head in this game, seeing the events that shaped them into becoming The Dragon of Dojima and The Mad Dog Majima is an fantastic experience for players new and old.
The presentation of the narrative is helped by the ridiculously sharp visuals on PlayStation 4, although they aren’t always utilized effectively. The game flip flops between a lot of different styles of cutscenes, so you’ll sometimes get beautiful pre-rendered scenes with fluid animation and realistic depth-of-field, but largely have to live with in-game cutscenes where characters mostly stand in place or go through canned animations, robotically moving their head to look at whoever they’re talking to.
They don’t really look awful, but in comparison to the pre-rendered cutscenes that come immediately before or after a lot of these scenes, it’s jarring. It should be noted that in Japan this game released on both PS3 and PS4, but there are some noticeable cases of characters having really blurry textures that stand out like a sore thumb during in-game cutscenes.
As you experience the story of Yakuza 0, you’ll be exploring two familiar cities, dressed up with fresh, 80s visuals. Kiryu is located in Kamurocho, the mainstay city present throughout the series, while Majima finds himself in Sotenbori, a location familiar to players of Yakuza 2 and Yakuza 5. Your main missions have you going to other unique locations, but you also find yourself wandering around these environments for a lot of the time. Most of the missions flow very well, but there are a handful that have a mind bogglingly tedious that really weighs the game down, like having to fetch five different drinks from different stores in order to progress the story.
You could describe the Yakuza games as being “open world”, but that paints inaccurate comparisons to traditional open world experiences like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed. The locations of Yakuza 0 are nowhere near that size. However, in these small, densely packed environments, you’ll find just as many, if not more, activities than you would in any other open world title.
You don’t have a large sandbox to drive around and create mayhem in. Instead, you have stores and restaurants on every corner that you can walk into, peruse, and buy from. You can go to karaoke bars and pool halls, but on the way, you might bump into some thugs or some yakuza, and instantly find yourself in battle wherever you come into contact with them.
It’s the best example of quality over quantity I can think of. I remember every inch of Kamurocho, from the batting cages a block down and to the left of the park where the homeless hang out at, or the Don Quijote store next to the taxi near the bottom of the map. Every inch of the environment is detailed, beautiful, and it feels alive.
Combat, too, is hard to pin down an exact parallel to. You brawl with opponents in a variety of environments, similar to third person action games like Sleeping Dogs or the Arkham games, but the fluidity and flashiness of the combat, as well as the reliance on special inputs and combos, gives it an added taste of that Platinum Games/DMC action flair.
Both protagonists can switch between three different combat styles on the fly. For Kiryu, he has a fast martial arts style, a normal slugger style, and a ridiculous heavy style involving bear hugs and swinging bikes around. Majima has a similar balance in his styles, with a simple thug style, an intense breakdancing style, and one where he uses a baseball bat like a pair of nunchuks. Each one has beautiful animations, as well as their own advantages and disadvantages, so it’s up to you to switch between them in battle as suits the situation. Each style also plays a different fight song, and if you’re a fan of cheesy intense buttrock akin to Guilty Gear, you’ll love the music in this game.
Many boss encounters have multiple phases where you’ll want to switch up the style you’re using, so it’s encouraged to not only use all styles, but to upgrade them all as well. As you play the game you earn money that you can use to upgrade your abilities. Hoarding too much money at once is risky, though, as you have a chance of encountering Mr. Shakedown on the streets, a giant character who will set his eyes on you to fight, stealing money from you every time he lands a hit until one of you wins and takes all of the loser’s money. It’s an insane system that kept me from going too far down the upgrade tree early on, but not only is he easily avoided, he’s also easily dispatched once you get far enough along in the game.
With the release of Yakuza 0, a smash hit franchise in Japan has its biggest chance yet of becoming a smash hit overseas, too. Yakuza 0 is not only an achievement in video game storytelling, but it’s the best this franchise has ever felt, looked, and played.
It’s a perfect prequel that never steps on the toes of the original game, giving us great moments with fan favorite characters without ever stepping on the toes of Yakuza 1. Longtime fans will find an incredible prequel that perfectly fills in a gap that didn’t even need filling, while newcomers have their best reason yet to dive into the world of Yakuza. With the HD remake of Yakuza 1 coming overseas later this year, I recommend diving in as soon as possible.