Yakuza as a series has had a somewhat rocky history in the west. With the initial PS2 release, it seemed like SEGA was really trying to push the game with an all star western voice cast, including Eliza Dushku, Michael Madsen and Mark Hamill. Yet, even with this cast, the initial game didn’t seem to meet SEGA’s sales expectations. With subsequent releases, SEGA opted for subtitling the games for the western audience and generally had long tails between the Japanese and western releases. The games were always praised but generally were niche titles. This year, however, SEGA is making a second attempt at making Yakuza in the west with three game releases. The first of the three, Yakuza 0, serves as a perfect introduction for new players and shows off a series that many have been missing.
Yakuza 0 tells dueling tails of two characters. Kazuma Kiryu has spent his life adoring the Yakuza life. Now that he is finally in, his lifelong mentor has been put in jail. Kiryu is sent on a job to collect money from a client, but after leaving him beaten in an empty lot, the client is found dead from a gunshot. It appears as if Kiryu is being set-up and in order to find who is trying to get him, he must abandon the Yakuza and work with a major real estate agency that seems to have a lot of information on him.
Goro Majima works as a manager of a massively successful host club, where the customer is king. However, years earlier he worked as a yakuza, but due his loyalty to his friends above the yakuza, he was forced out with one less eye to show for it. He’s given a chance to re-join the yakuza, but only if he’s willing to kill someone. But when he discovers that the target isn’t who he thought, he’s forced to re-examine how badly he wants to be in the yakuza. These two characters lives become intertwined in later games and here we get the chance to see where they came from.
Right off the bat, most prequels rely heavily on referencing later games, but Yakuza 0 avoids these heavy references. Instead, we get more of an origin story that can be enjoyed by fans and series veterans alike. Moreover, the story is really compelling and the cutscenes are framed in a way that make you actually feels the intensity of all of the characters. Even some of the more wormy characters all feel like they are willing to murder you on the spot and, as a result, it feels like a really intense yakuza drama.
The general moment to moment gameplay puts you in a semi-open world version of two major Japanese cities in 1988, a few years before Japan’s economic bubble burst. You can go around this town that feels like it is literally drowning in money. As you walk around, you’ll be approached by hooligans, yakuza or any number of unsavory characters who want to fight you. You’ll then have to fight these individuals to get money, which can be used to invest into skills for each of your characters. Initially, these upgrades cost a relatively low amount of money, but eventually the upgrades begin costing way more money than you’d ever be able to get in these fights.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t tell you but later in the game there is a whole new area where you can make massive sums of money. For Kiryu, it’s in the form of investing in real estate and for Goro, it’s running various businesses. It feels a lot like Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, and that is absolutely great. You quickly go from making a few thousand dollars per fight to tens of millions of dollars every few minutes. Unfortunately, this makes those minute to minute fights almost entirely useless as you just don’t need that minimal amount of cash.
However, the real major draw is in the side stories and world that SEGA created. So, yes, there is this super serious story about yakuza drama and murder, but then there’s an entire substorms centered around helping a dominatrix become more confident. There’s another one where you have to help out a totally original pop star called “Miracle Jackson” shoot his zombie music video. Or there’s one where you have to beat up a series of kids who keep stealing a video game from each other.
These stories generally follow the same setup: select the correct response to a series of questions, beat up somebody, rinse and repeat. However, what makes each of these stories so interesting is how well they are written. One story, around hiring a new employee for your real estate firm, ends up with an actually heart wrenching moment at the end. And a lot of these side stories are written this well. On top of that, there are a lot of these and completing these will help you later on by giving you staff for your companies.
Then, there is all of the additional content not tied into the story. You can go to karaoke bars, play games at a SEGA arcade, dance at a disco and other things throughout the areas. Every single area feels full; there is no dead space. It makes the entire experience feel unlike any other open-world game in that there is always something to do. You can easily spend 80+ hours and still feel like you are having fun.
One thing you can say bad about Yakuza 0 is those random fights come up really often and eventually there is no point in them. While you can run away from some of them, you’ll eventually go into a fight that wastes your time. Also, Goro, as a character, plays a lot better than Kiryu. Kiryu has three different styles that all have trade offs. The speed style isn’t as strong, the strong style is super slow and the rounded style isn’t great. Goro, on the other hand, has a normal style, a speed style that hits with incredibly powerful strikes and a breakdancing combat style. Just the fact that he has a breakdancing style of combat makes him instantly better.
Yakuza 0 is a super strong start to a year of western Yakuza releases. There’s a huge amount of well written content, with a sense of style all to itself. It feels like a Japanese Saint’s Row game and, as a result, it feels like it’s own game. Fans will definitely find something to love and if you’ve never played the series before, Yakuza 0 is the perfect way to start.
SCORE: 9.5 out of 10
A code for Yakuza 0 was provided for to Pixel Related for review.