No matter how much you invest yourself in video games, that's always that one series you've always wanted to play but never quite got around to actually trying. One such series for me is Sega’s Yakuza franchise. At first I was apprehensive to take on coverage duties for Yakuza 0 due to my unfamiliarity with the rest of the series. However, after spending several hours in the game, I’m happy to report just how welcoming Yakuza 0 is to those new to the franchise.
Yakuza 0 is set during the late 1980’s in a fictional Tokyo red light district called Kamurocho. In the game, you assume control of two characters: Kazuma Kiryu, a young fledgling member of the Yakuza; and Goro Majima, a manager of a very successful nightclub called the Grand Cabaret. I'll keep plot details to a minimum here, but all you really need to know is that both Kiryu’s and Majima’s stories are independent of each other while both characters are at odds with various clan leaders in the Yakuza. You'll alternate between the two protagonists as the game progresses.
There are a lot of cutscenes in Yakuza 0, but the good news is they're very well written and directed. In my 15 hours spent in the game thus far I've not once zoned out or had the desire to skip a cutscene. In fact, it’s hard not to relish in the moment whenever the story really starts to move forward.
The game is full of excellent characters, some of whom aren't going to reveal their true intentions right away. In crime fiction it's important there's an aura of mystery in the story, and Yakuza 0 will only show you its full narrative hand when the time is right.
From an outsider’s perspective, it would probably be easy to glance at Yakuza 0 and assume it was an open world crime game in the same vein of Grand Theft Auto, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. Yakuza 0’s Kamurocho district is not vast and sprawling as Los Santos in GTA V, nor can you drive around in vehicles; it is a much different game than that. Kamurocho is smaller but much more dense and well thought out than an what you would find in a game like GTA. Every location you visit has a distinct feel and purpose.
My favorite location thus is, of course, the Sega arcade. I've probably spent a good two hours of my playtime pumping money into the Space Harrier arcade cabinet. The attention to detail is truly impressive, and even being able to play real games in the arcade makes Kamurocho that much more well realized as a game world. You can really interact with the world in detail, rather than just admire it from a distance. It trades the scale of a large open world game for tightly packed city streets that are far more tangible.
What would a game with “Yakuza” in the title be if it didn't let you bust some heads? Yakuza 0 thankfully gives you all the tools you need to properly throw down. As you wander around Kamurocho you'll regularly be jumped by young punks just begging for a knuckle sandwich. Combat in Yakuza 0 is something like a modern adaptation of a 2D beat ’em up like Streets of Rage, only with a good degree more depth.
There are several fighting styles you can switch to in combat with the press of the D-pad, and each fighting style being quite distinct from each other gives you a nice amount of flexibility in battle. My favorite is the dance style that Majima has - you essentially break dance your way to victory. There’s something therapeutic taking out a swarm of enemies with a spinning handstand leg attack.
The combat also really shows off part of what I think is one of the most appealing aspects of Yakuza 0: its humor. As you’re viciously pounding away on an attacker’s face, you will see wads of money fly out from their bodies. The act of smashing someone’s face against a concrete wall sounds brutal, but when money starts flying out of them akin to a slot machine gone haywire, it’s downright hilarious. It is this sort of touch that acts as a bit of levity whenever the story really gets heavier. It also feels like a nice tip of the cap to Sega’s roots in arcade games.
Yakuza 0 is not just for those that like beat ’em ups, however. It also features a pretty hefty amount of RPG elements that should appeal to our site's crowd, which is why we're covering it to begin with. The currency you gain from battles in game actually doubles as experience gained as well. The fighting styles mentioned earlier all have their own talent tree where you can upgrade your character and unlock techniques.
Think of the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X and that’s basically how these talent trees function. You will spend the money earned from battle, progressing in the story, and various side activities to unlock points on these trees. One point might just be a simple health bar increase, while the next connecting orb might give you a new combo in battle.
Particularly strong about this system is just how it ties with the rest in the game. There are points in the talent trees that require substantially more money to unlock than the points before them. While you can continue to beat up thugs and grind them for money, it’s probably easier to take up real estate duties and collect money from your clients. While the main story in Yakuza 0 is very engrossing, it’s quite easy to get distracted by the myriad of fun side activities.
We can only say so much right now in what's officially the preview phase, but as I continue to plug away at Yakuza 0 it's safe to say that so far I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with it.
It's true that since I approached this preview as a total newcomer series veterans may have felt there may have been some redundancy in my words, but from the viewpoint of a newcomer the verdict is looking pretty good all the game: it's quite enjoyable and completely approachable without any real knowledge of the rest of the series.
Hopefully the positive momentum will continue throughout the game until the credits roll and it is time to publish our full review. As it stands right now, I have no reason to doubt Yakuza 0 will let up on the good vibes anytime soon.