If you were to ask me if videogames were my go-to medium for fantastic storytelling, I’d have to pause and think of the most polite way to break the bad news to you. Sure there are tons of games out there with great stories, but I think we can agree that the batting average is a bit lower than that of literature or film. I believe this is especially true when it comes to crime fiction, a subgenre that doesn't quite have the best reputation in games. When it came time to review Yakuza 0, I had a slightly more critical eye given what I've heard of the franchise's pedigree and the subject matter it entailed. Fortunately, Yakuza 0 took any preconceived notions I had on the quality of its narrative and proceeded to bounce my head off the wall until I submitted to its glorious majesty.
Yakuza 0 is set in 1988, 17 years before the first Yakuza game chronologically. The story revolves around the origin stories of series veterans Kiryu Kazuma and Goro Majima who're deeply entangled in a web of the criminal underworld. They have their own unique reasons for getting caught up in this fledgling unlawful lifestyle and share a common incentive - both men's necks are on the line with all the wrong people.
Kiryu is a young up-and-coming member of the Tojo clan; all he wants is to follow in the footsteps of his father figure, Kazama Shintaro, and become a legendary yakuza. His journey begins as a collection thug in Tokyo’s red light district, Kamurocho. His first outing does not go as planned however and he ends up being framed for murder by the higher ups in the Dojima family, a powerful group within the Tojo clan. With the help of Kiryu's best friend, Nishikiyama, and a mysterious corporation known as the Tachibana Real Estate; Kiryu looks to clear his name.
On the other side of Yakuza 0's tale is Goro Majima, a manager of Sotenbori’s famous hostess club - the Grand Cabaret. Majima got this gig after he failed an important job for the Shimano family. Not only was he expelled from the yakuza, but he’s now a slave to them and is forced to run the Grand Cabaret as part of his punishment. All he wants is to be inducted back into the yakuza, so Majima embarks on a new opportunity to rejoin their ranks. His only trouble: the task is an assassination job and he's never killed anyone before. Worse yet, his target is a young blind woman. It’s a morally bankrupt job, and Majima has to decide if he’s willing to go this far to get back in the Shimano’s good graces.
A story with dual protagonists is a tough thing to pull off. Plenty of fiction writers try to avoid it outright. Thankfully Yakuza 0 handles things so well that the writers make it look like an easy undertaking. The format goes by chapter, where you’ll be switching off between Kiryu and Majima every two chapters or so. There’s never really a sense that either character’s story is more important than the other. The game likes to leave you on a good cliffhanger note with one character and you’ll almost hate to jump to the other character only for the same thing to happen! Neither story is more compelling than the other and that’s quite an accomplishment given how well penned the narrative is.
Perhaps most impressive yet is how well Yakuza 0 keeps up the momentum of its story. The main story quest of the game will probably take you about 30 hours to complete; each chapter takes about two hours.
Yakuza 0's story is a difficult aspect to discuss in a review. Mystery is an important element of crime fiction, and giving away any more details than I already have would be to the detriment of anyone that has even a passing interest in playing it. All I can really say with certainty is if you love games with excellent narratives, then you absolutely cannot pass on Yakuza 0. There are some stunning revelations in the game, and it ties lingering plot threads together in a way that’ll leave your jaw on the floor.
The only downside of the story for me was some pacing and presentation issues. Yakuza 0 is a very long game; nearly all of its story is told through long-winded cutscenes. While these cutscenes were expertly written and directed, there are times when the interactivity takes a back seat. This may not be an issue for most people but given the medium it's part of, perhaps there could have been a more elegant way to divulge some story information.
As a game with ‘yakuza’ in the title, expect *a lot* of violence. The streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori are filled to the brim with all manner of folk looking for a fight. They’ll always come after you in large groups. Yakuza 0’s combat is a modern take on old school beat ’em ups like Streets of Rage or Final Fight. With that arcade sensibility comes a bit of snark as you dispatch foes.
Whenever you strike an enemy, wads of cash will come flying out of their bodies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself laughing at the absurdity of roundhouse-kicking a guy in the face only to have a bunch of cash fly into my pocket. I think it was intended to be funny though, as it brings some much needed levity to the game at times. When the story really starts to hit hard and heavy, it’s nice to let loose and beat the hell out of some gang members for some cash. The whole tone of combat makes Yakuza 0 feel like a 'magnificent-bastard simulator' at times.
The actual mechanics are quite impressive too! Its combat is similar to a classic beat’em up sure, but that doesn’t mean it sacrifices depth. Both protagonists have fast, medium, and slow fighting styles available at their disposal to spice things up a bit and each style is unique to the characters. Kiryu has the brawler style that's akin to a jack-of-all-trades technique that allows you to grapple enemies and move around combat arenas at a good pace. On the other hand, Majima has a very fast breakdance style that specializes more in its quantity of attacks rather than sheer power.
Battles remain fun all the way through thanks to just how satisfying it feels. There’s a very distinct knuckle-on-chin impact to your strikes in the game. Blood splatters, screen shakes, blaring music, and sound effects come together in a harmonic symphony of destruction that makes you feel really empowered. When you face off with a villain that has been taunting you for the majority of the story, it feels great to repeatability bounce their skulls off the proverbial canvas. It happens all while money continues to funnel out of them like a haywire slot machine.
You may have been reading this review and wondering what about Yakuza 0 may specifically appeal to fans of RPGs. While I would probably not strictly call the game a role-playing game, it carries enough elements from the genre that should appeal to our readers. Money you collect basically functions like experience gained in a RPG. You see the aforementioned fighting techniques have skill trees tied to them that further expand the abilities of your characters. You can learn new combos, expand health bars, raise attack power, and increase the general utility of your fighting prowess. There aren’t character levels per-say, but the more points you unlock on a skill tree, the more powerful you feel; there’s a progression curve all the same. The skill trees resemble the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X, both in terms of aesthetic and functionality.
While someone might take a glance at Yakuza 0 and compare it to the likes of an open world crime game like Grand Theft Auto, it's not that kind of game. The streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori are small, but densely packed. Yakuza 0 is all the better for it. The game is all about these red light districts and the criminal empires that fuel them. I think it’s better to keep the player in these locations rather than bloat the experience with a large open world structure.
The overworld being smaller in scope doesn't mean it isn’t filled to the brim with side activities to indulge in though. There are quite a number of minigames you can play when you’re not plugging away at the main story. There’s martial arts training, a karaoke rhythm game, managing a hostess club, running a real estate business, disco dancing at nightclubs, phone line dating, and even arcades complete with fully playable versions of Sega classics like Outrun and Space Harrier. There’s plenty more beyond these; I just haven’t got to them yet because I’m still trying to hone my karaoke skills.
That’s the beautiful thing about Yakuza 0 - it gives you plenty of time to take a break from the main story and just lose yourself in some silly minigame. The humor continues to shine in this regard here too, as there’s something intrinsically funny about a tough customer like Kiryu getting booed off the dance floor at a disco club for performing poorly.
The city streets are also home to a number of folks that need your help and these tasks are what the game calls side stories. These are essentially side quests that give you an opportunity to get to know the residents of Kamurocho and Sotenbori better. Every so often you’ll bump into a NPC that’ll need assistance. For example, a police officer I met was so afraid to do anything in his job other than stop-and-checks. Through enough encounters with him, I slowly built up his trust and found out why he wasn’t the most confident police officer.
These friendship interactions can be a fun distraction but I find that they lack any sort of mechanical benefit. In the few side stories I completed, I was never really given a significant reward. The appeal seems to just be interacting with others which is a fine sentiment, but I see no reason why some mechanical consistency with the rest of the game couldn’t have been added.
It would be remiss of me to review Yakuza 0 and not talk about its presentation at all. The attention to detail in the city streets is truly impressive. Bright neon lights from every street corner kind of gave off an enticing aura, but also reminds you who runs the show. These red light districts are a big facade on the part of the yakuza to lure people in and take their money. I mean the player falls for it every time you play a minigame!
The game doesn’t really ever forget the time period it’s set in either. Technology has slow crept up on society since the 1980's and little touches like Kiryu owning a pager was a nice touch; it's a reminder of an era that has long ended. So many games in a modern setting allow you to just pull out a cell phone to communicate with other NPCs - not Yakuza 0 though. In this game, you’ve got to march right up to a payphone and actually put some yen in it! These things many not sound like much, but I always appreciate an artistic commitment to detail with regards to turning back the clock to a different time.
Yakuza 0 is by no means a technical showpiece for the PS4 though the visuals still manage to impress nonetheless. Texture detail on most NPCs is pretty good, particularly the main characters. The whole game runs at 1080p, 60 frames-per-second, and rarely ever dips below that. I think the art and unique time period of 1980’s Japan really gives Yakuza 0 a look that elevates the graphics and presentation as a whole.
If it wasn’t apparent by this point in the review, this was my first game in the series. While typically one would assume that a prequel isn't the game you start with in a series, that’s part of what makes Yakuza 0 work so well! It's designed to be a gateway for players that are new to the Yakuza series. While I obviously can’t speak for long-time fans and whether or not the game appeals to them, I have a hard time imagining that it wouldn’t. Yakuza 0 is a special game no matter how familiar you are with what has come before it.
There’s a lot of good things that can be said about Yakuza 0. It’s loaded with content that can last you upwards to 50 hours. Its plethora of minigames and fantastic combat system absolutely kept me engaged and had me laughing constantly. More than all of that though, it is a game with a truly excellent story. The trials and tribulations of Kiryu Kazuma and Goro Majima are not something I’m going to forget anytime soon.
Yakuza 0 is a game that demands the audience's full attention, and it’ll get that whether it’s through a heart-stopping revelation or a quiet moment that leaves the player with misty eyes. If a compelling narrative is what you look for in a videogame, then you’d best get ready for a night on the town with the Tojo clan.