In the world of Yakuza 0, excess is king. Scantily clad women are plentiful, alcohol flows in abundance and matters are resolved with fists so frequently that even the staunchest pacifist could be swayed to believe that violence can solve any problem. Despite all its superficial excess – at its core – Sega’s Yakuza 0 is a captivating story about the emotional and physical repercussions of being involved with a notorious crime syndicate such as the Yakuza.
Admittedly, prior to playing this, I had not cut my teeth (or pinkies) on any of the games in the series. However, as Yakuza 0 acts as a prequel to the series as a whole, it provides the perfect platform for newcomers to become acquainted with the, at times, brutal and amusingly bewildering video game series.Set in 1980s Japan, the game weaves an intertwining narrative between protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Majima Goro. Kiryu is a stern and strait-laced soldier of the Yakuza whose story primarily concerns the crime group’s inner workings and politics. Whereas Majima is a flashy and seemingly otherworldly presence whose story is grounded by the characters and tribulations he encounters. Your control of each character rotates back and forth as the story progresses, providing the perfect juxtaposition of economy and emotion. Each segment spent with a character strikes a perfect balance of story, combat and the opportunity to pursue a substory or go wherever the lights of the neon jungle may lead you.
As much as I would love to divulge in the details of the game’s story, it would be criminal (no pun intended) to reveal anything about it – as it is such a fundamental component of what makes this game great. Yakuza 0’s story is Die Hard, it’s Bloodsport, it’s Escape from LA. It knows it’s ridiculous and it revels in the fact that it is. Loaded with larger-than-life characters and more action tropes than you can shake a kendo stick at – its rambunctious personality permeates every aspect of the game but presents it all with a straight face – and the best part is, it totally works.
When it comes to combat, both characters possess three unique fighting styles that you can use to dispatch of the unruly inhabitants that roam the Japanese streets. The ability to upgrade and switch between fight styles prevents combat from ever feeling stale. Every blow you dish out builds your heat meter up which when full, allows you to pull off devastating attacks such as picking someone up above your head and piledriving them into the pavement below. Certain fight styles also allow you to use objects around the environment as weapons. Build up your heat meter enough and you can incorporate whatever you’ve picked up into dealing out some damage. My personal favourite is the salt shaker, which involves pouring so much salt into an enemy’s eyes it’d make an anchovy blush.
With money being such a prominent motif in the overarching story of Yakuza 0, it’s not too surprising that the experience you would typically earn from fighting has been replaced with money. For every fight you win, you gain a fat stack of yen. The great thing about this is, as you’re beating up enemies, you actually see notes and coins literally come spewing out of them. The money you earn from brawling can then be used to purchase fighting upgrades and any goods you may need from stores. Due to the free flowing nature of funds, the more sought after items and upgrades may initially appear to be ludicrously priced – however – once you gain access to the businesses run by Kiryu and Majima in their respective stories, they become a lot more attainable. That is, assuming you enjoy the work you have to do in order to turn a profit with their businesses.
If the stresses of living the Yakuza lifestyle or running your own business get to be too much, you can blow off some steam by playing a minigame or completing a short substory (aka a side mission). The streets offer a plethora of minigames to take part in – from singing till your heart’s content in a karaoke bar, to shaking your groove thing in a disco to a knock off of David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’, to betting on catfights where women wearing barely anything beat each other to a pulp – there is literally a minigame to satisfy everyone.
The surprising part to me about these minigames is that the majority of them don’t feel like throwaways. They have solid mechanics and definitely warrant more than one playthrough. It’s a testament to the amount of hard work that has gone into Yakuza 0, when you’re able to play a minigame that other video games releases base their entire game around.
If playing with yourself isn’t your thing, there are multiple substories to take on that generally centre around helping out civilians. Each mission is a distinctive amalgamation of absurdity and hilarity that generally concludes with a corny heartfelt message that you would typically see in an afternoon school special. The drastic change of tone and pace these substories offer may be jarring to some, but I really appreciated that every substory felt unique while also providing an entertaining detour from the main game.
An added benefit to some of these substories is that after helping a civilian you then develop a relationship with them that is measured with an on-screen representation called the friendship meter. This meter fills up incrementally with every positive interaction you have with that particular NPC. However, the friendship meter is not just exclusively tied to characters involved in substories. You also have the opportunity to befriend certain NPCs that occupy the streets and stores of whichever city you happen to be in.
Even though the main game’s narrative is full of twists and turns, the most surprising moment in the whole game for me came when I discovered what the reward was for successfully filling the friendship meter with an NPC. I advise you to stop reading now if you would prefer to be pleasantly surprised (or unpleasantly depending on your disposition) as to what the fruits of friendship in Yakuza 0 are.
Once your friendship meter has been filled with an individual, you unlock an “erotic video” that you can watch by visiting the adult theatre in town. Curiosity got the better of me and I visited the theatre to find out exactly what one of these videos entailed. I don’t know what I was expecting but it definitely wasn’t what I saw. The video I unlocked was of a real woman (real as in not animated) in a bikini posing suggestively while periodically holding up balloon animals up to the camera. I don’t know if that can be defined as erotic but I do know that the video has tainted every children’s birthday party I’ll ever attend in the future. Once the video finishes, the camera pans to a box of tissues with the dialogue exclamation “…Phew”. It’s a pretty implicit and bizarre addition to the game but if bosoms, butts and balloons float your boat who am I to judge?
Early on in the game’s story, Kiryu’s friend Nishiki proclaims that a Yakuza is only as good as his image. It’s a shallow but understandable perspective given the context but it’s a sentiment that Yakuza 0 thankfully does not echo. It’s a game that not only has impeccable style but also a wealth of substance. When it all comes down to it, what I really enjoyed about Yakuza 0 was its inherent ability to constantly surprise me even after putting over forty hours into it. Every time I thought I had a handle on the game’s limitations (whether it be story or gameplay wise), it would somehow subvert my expectations by constantly one-upping itself. Ultimately, Yakuza 0 is a relentless journey into the unforgiving underbelly of Japan that is as rewarding as it is robust.
The PS4 version of Yakuza 0 was primarily tested for the purpose of this review.
Looks and plays great
Plenty to do
Encountering Mr. Shakedown
Management of the businesses are necessary to earn lots of money