Sometimes all you need is a push. I was tempted by the previous Yakuza games and even had Yakuza 5 downloaded on my PS3 at one point. I never played it. It can be hard to jump into a series so late and nothing I saw made them look like must-play games. Then along came Yakuza 0, a new prequel story, to provide the little extra nudge I needed. Combat and exploration are a little underwhelming, but the story and side content are poignant and hilarious. I’m all in on the Yakuza series from here on out.
You know a game is special when it makes you care about a story revolving around ownership of a small parking lot for over forty hours. You initially play as Kazuma Kiryu, a budding yakuza who is framed for a murder that took place on the contested piece of real estate in Tokyo. Eventually, you switch over to Goro Majima, manager of a club in Osaka, and from then on you flick between the characters every couple of hours.
Both men start the story in a spot of bother. Kiryu is kicked out of his clan and seemingly has half of Tokyo’s yakuza clans chasing him, while Majima is ordered to kill a young blind girl in a bid to restore his reputation with the Tojo clan. It will come as no surprise to hear that these stories end up linking together, however the exact connection takes a good twenty hours or so to become apparent. Even after much guesswork on my part, I still managed to be surprised at the eventual reveal.
Both Kiryu and Majima are compelling enough that you’ll be equal parts disappointed to stop playing as one of them and excited to play as the other. I was disappointed the first time the game switched me from Kiryu to Majima, however Majima’s introduction is a thing of beauty. Even if you never play Yakuza 0, I urge you to watch footage of Majima dealing with an irate customer in his club. It’s unparalleled and I immediately forgot about Kiryu.
The drama around the empty lot starts off deadly serious but descends into soap opera territory by the end. Characters are seemingly killed but cling on to life and the clan leaders come across as James Bond bad guys as they pretend that everything is going according to their grand plan. The eventual resolution is an anti-climax after such a long game, at least for players new to the series. Yakuza 0 sets up lots of future antagonists but fails to deal with any of them in this game. I’m sure series veterans appreciated being introduced to familiar faces and there would have been plenty of knowing “oh it’s him” moments. For newcomers, it ended up feeling like one huge prologue which is exactly what it is, for better or worse.
As a stark contrast to the main story, there are the light-hearted side quests that are dotted around the two cities. I’ll never forget the time I was in a cabaret club and saw a nearly naked man dancing in the background as a conversation played out. I thought it must be a glitch and assumed his clothing would pop into view when I got a bit closer. Nope. Mr. Libido appears numerous times throughout the story—never wearing more than his underpants—to tell you about all the new hot girls he’s discovered. He encourages you to visit the seedy video booths when you unlock footage of girls. Put like that, it sounds terrible. And it is, I guess. But the constant smile on his face as he talks about his excitement and dirty deeds is strangely amusing. Dare I say it? He’s charming. The dirty git.
Another side quest has you helping out a struggling dominatrix who lacks the spine to properly discipline her clients. By telling her how to act with customers, she eventually becomes a pro and you can watch the embarrassing shenanigans unfold. You also have to be stealthy and sneak around women to buy a dirty magazine that a young boy is too embarrassed to buy himself.
There’s more to the side stories than just sex-related activities. They occasionally venture into the mundane, such as when you help a boy cross the bridge without being accosted or do chores for a guy desperately trying to impress his needy girlfriend.
These side activities are silly and utterly disconnected from the main events and yet I never felt like I was wasting my time. Sure, a yakuza on the run probably doesn’t have time to help out a rock band before a performance but these side quests will be the parts that stick longest in the memory.
When you’re not helping sex pests get their next fix, you’ll be engaged in mini-street brawls and frequent boss encounters. Street brawls can start whenever you run into gangs while exploring. They never provide much of a challenge and are mainly an excuse to practice your moves and earn money. The boss fights are a little tougher, however, given that you can pause the game at any time to use health items, they’re more tests of endurance as you wear down the bosses’ health bars.
Combat is a lot of fun in the early stages. Kiryu and Majima have three styles each—broadly, a quick, medium, and slow style—and you’re constantly pulling off new moves and getting exciting upgrades. Successful combos build up your heat gage which in turn opens up special attacks to deal extra damage. You can also pick up nearby items such as bikes, signs, and even trees, to swing around and cause additional damage. Finishing moves are often brutal, with (non-lethal) head stomps and neck snaps a common sight.
Unfortunately, the combat became a chore in the second half of the game and left me wondering whether Yakuza 0 would have been better off focusing on fewer combat styles instead of spreading the content out so thin. The six styles all have their own upgrade tree. Early on I would change my style to suit the situation. For example, if an environment had a lot of items on the floor, then I used the Beast style that automatically picked up and swung nearby items. This flexible approach initially served me well, so I spread my upgrade points around all six styles. This might have been a mistake.
I ended up not being able to keep track of all my different abilities, especially if I had purchased one for Kiryu and then switched to Majima for three hours before getting to try out the new skill. In the middle of fights, I’d be trying to taunt an enemy when I’d remember that I unlocked the taunt for Kiryu’s Brawler style, not Majima’s similar Thug style. Or I’d forget whether I needed two or three full heat bars to pull off a special attack in Majima’s Slugger style. I’m sure anyone halfway decent at fighting games could have kept track of all this, however the fights rarely required deep knowledge of the mechanics so I finished the game never having mastered any of the styles.
Walking around Japan in the late 80s never gets old. If you want a distraction from the main story or the side quests, you can pop into an arcade to play Super Hang On, go to a bar to play darts and pool, or do a karaoke rhythm game. If you need more money, Kiryu has a property rental business to run and Majima can build up his cabaret club empire. The business management games are introduced a touch too late for my liking. To reach their full potential, you’ll need to spend a lot of time on them from the moment the option becomes available. This turns a fun distraction into a tedious chore. There is such a thing as too much stuff to do and Yakuza 0 occasionally crosses the line.
Parts of Yakuza 0 look phenomenal. Kiryu, Majima, and other major characters are so well defined in cutscenes that you can make out the individual pores on their faces, whether you want to or not. However, much of the game feels distinctly dated or like a remaster of an older game. The fully acted cutscenes feature excellent animations and voice acting, however there are also scenes performed in-engine with no voice acting and cheap looking subtitles. A few scenes resemble a graphic novel with barely any movement but strangely those ones do have voice acting. It’s a shame the high-quality cutscenes couldn’t have been maintained throughout although the inconsistency is understandable as there’s a hell of a lot of dialogue to get through.
I found it difficult to get immersed in Tokyo and Osaka due to the constant interruptions when moving in and out of buildings such as shops, restaurants, and arcades. You can barely move inside buildings so at times it felt like a graphic novel or Telltale game as you talked to the relevant people and then shuffled back out again. The two cities are relatively small, so it’s disappointing that the buildings couldn’t have been better integrated, although I hear this will improve for Yakuza 6.
Yakuza 0 is good enough that I regret not having played the other games. I plan to work my way through Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza Kiwami 2, however I fear I may never play Yakuzas three to five. Still, Yakuza 0 has room for improvement which leaves me hoping that the best is yet to come. I’ll be there for the next steps in Kiryu’s and Majima’s journeys, even if I don’t know their entire life stories. Not yet, anyway.