Yakuza 0 Review
Yakuza 0 is my first experience with a Yakuza game. The Yakuza series has made it through five major releases as well as a few side games, but Yakuza 0 is intended to be a prequel to the series and makes for a perfectly good starting point. I'm sure that there's plenty here that will resonate with gamers who have been with the series for a long time that I completely missed out on, but I never felt like I was looking in from the outside while playing the game. Yakuza 0 is both the perfect entry point for jumping into a series in progress, as well as a way to serve notice to gamers like me that we should have tried a Yakuza game long before this one.
Yakuza 0 transports you back to the Japan of the 1980s, an age when a super-heated economy turned the cities of Japan into centers of riches and opportunity, as well as hedonistic playgrounds. There are two protagonists in the game, Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, and while their stories initially seem to be unrelated you'll eventually find that they are actually on a collision course. The stories are intertwined in that you'll play through a couple of chapters as one of them and then switch back to the other, but it's done quite expertly, leaving you both disappointed that you'll have to wait to find out what happened in one narrative and excited that you are picking up again on the narrative that you previously left behind. Usually a game's story is not critical to my enjoyment of a game - it will only have an impact if it's really good or really bad. That being said, Yakuza 0 is one of those games in which I really enjoyed the story. It's a well-crafted gangster story, made even more fascinating by the look at the honor-bound but ruthless world of the Yakuza. There are numerous points in the game in which you'll watch extended cutscenes, but the story is enjoyable enough that you won't really notice that you haven't actually played the game for several minutes - and I usually do notice that sort of thing. That all applies to the main storyline - the game features a number of side quests and the storylines for these can be, for a lack of a better description, a little goofy, but all in a uniquely Japanese kind of way. It can be a little odd at times transitioning from Yakuza intrigue to, say, helping a Michael Jackson stand-in shoot a music video, but if you can't really roll with it the side missions are all optional so you can just stick to the hardcore gangster tasks.
The story scenes are all fully voiced in Japanese with English subtitles and are fully animated, but all other conversations including those for the side missions are not. The characters are more wooden during these conversations, cycling through the same limited animations, and when it's a character's turn to speak they'll make a monosyllabic noise and that will be it for the voice work. It can make some of the more inconsequential conversations feel tedious at times, especially since the same goofy jazz-like music sequence plays in the background for all of them.
While the Tokyo and Osaka neighborhoods that Kiryu and Majima roam are full of life and packed with things to, don't expect a Grand Theft Auto style open world city in Yakuza 0. The game's neighborhoods are ringed by invisible walls and the cars are just props to add to the atmosphere. Even so, it's hard not to feel like you're immersed in life in a foreign land at a level that's rare for a video game. The streets are crowded and noisy, and dining, shopping, and entertainment distractions abound. SEGA arcades give you the chance to play classic arcade games OutRun and Space Harrier or try your luck with a prize claw machine. If you prefer more physical activity, you can try your hand at bowling, batting cages, or a fight club, while fishing will help you unwind afterwards. If you prefer the nightlife, you can play darts or pool, do a little gambling, or cut loose with karaoke or dancing. While none of these activities could stand on their own as separate games, they all make for enjoyable diversions and you may find yourself surprised at how much time you spend with these diversions. Even when I was in the midst of a dramatic story mission, I'd find it tempting to drop into batting cages or an arcade that I happened to be walking past. These extra activities also serve as the game's multiplayer mode, so if you want to take on a friend to see who's the best disco dancer you'll have your chance.
Rival Yakuza families, gangs, thugs, and delinquents also roam the area and are always eager for a fight, making it difficult for you to get to your destination without getting involved in a brawl or two. And when you do make it to where you're going, you'll often find yourself fighting your way into or out of somewhere. The game's fight engine is relatively simple, but diverse. Each character can switch between three different fighting styles that roughly fall into slow, but heavy-hitting, fast, but light-hitting, and balanced move sets, and the three styles are different between the two characters to keep things interesting. You can switch between the styles at will with the D-pad, even mid-fight. When you're taking on random street gangs you can pretty much use of any of the styles and do well, but for the more challenging story mission or boss fights your choice of style can have an impact on your success. Fights are a bit of a button-mashing affair, but there's some skill involved in timing your attacks. As you land blows you'll build up a heat gauge that when full will allow you to unleash some brutal, context-sensitive attacks. Each fighting style has its own upgrade tree that will allow you to add new combos to your repertoire, but the cash required to unlock new skills ramps up rapidly and you'll have to work at earning the large sums of money which you'll need to max out your favorite fight style.
Cash is earned through fights - each time you knockout an enemy you'll see the yen pouring into your bank account - but each character has the opportunity to build a business empire and ensure a steady flow of income. With Kiryu you can build a real estate empire and with Majima a network of cabarets, both of which are entire sub-games in their own right.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time with Yakuza 0. I liked the game's story and the game's locations and atmosphere really sucked me in. And while there's a big difference in tome between the primary story missions and the side missions, I found the change of pace to be more enjoyable than annoying. The fight engine is pretty simple, especially by action game standards, but the fights were always fun and proved to be surprisingly challenging in the story mission confrontations. You'll certainly get your money's worth out of the game in terms of gameplay, and if, like me, you've never played a Yakuza game before, Yakuza 0 is an excellent opportunity to see what you've been missing.
Final Rating: 88% - Yakuza 0 goes back to the beginning and is a great point to jump into the series.