Only a few years ago, the Yakuza series was forced to fight for its existence in English-speaking regions. Each and every time it felt like Sega’s move to bring over a single title could very well be their last if fans failed to rally up the troops. From the PS2 to PS3, we saw multiple Yakuza entries fail to release in the West – but beggars certainly couldn’t be choosers. Now, it seems like the tide may have finally turned as Sega have promised us multiple Yakuza titles in the coming years, and the first of the swarm is Yakuza 0. Originally released in Japan for PS3 and PS4 in 2015, the PS4 edition is finally making its worldwide debut. Fortunately, this is exactly the kind of game which both existing fans and total newbies will be able to enjoy.
Series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is back – or should we say that he has just begun? Yakuza 0 is so named because it’s a prequel to the very first Yakuza on PlayStation 2. The result of this is gamers are finally set to meet a lot of characters who were no longer big players by the time the rest of the series’ storyline kicked off. Of course, there’s still a handful of familiar faces beyond scruffy young Kiryu. Majima Goro also takes a central role as you’ll basically spend half the game playing as him. This all shakes out thanks to the dual storyline presented. First, players get a look at Kiryu’s life as nothing more than a yakuza grunt. This low level lifestyle leads him to take on what should be a simple assignment from a shady loan shark. It turns out this is the absolute worst move he could make as this single job results in poor Kiryu getting framed for murder.
Sure, the yakuza are known to kill people, but this is hardly the way for a no name family member to behave. Not only that, but the event shines a highly undesirable light on the Dojima clan which results in Kiryu’s ousting from the family. Majima is also down on his luck during the 1980s timeframe. After going against the wishes of his own yakuza family, he was already forced out years ago. Desperate to return to the only lifestyle he loves, he’s imprisoned in a seedy Japanese town and forced to do basically anything asked of him. Majima takes this in stride by becoming a renowned manager of a cabaret in order to pay off his substantial debts. Throughout Yakuza 0, players will swap between the storylines of these two men and deal with their cornucopia of issues. Things get intense incredibly quickly, and the main plot never lets up.
Gameplay matches the tone of Yakuza 0 perfectly thanks to its fast-paced and powerful beat ‘em up action. Both protagonists feature their own bevy of moves as well as styles. Some styles focus on quick combos while others hone in on extremely slow but strong moves. Others even focus on usage of weaponry, though most are all about fists and feet (or smashing found objects into enemies). With a variety of difficulties to choose from, novices to Yakuza pros should all be able to enjoy fighting. Interestingly enough, there are also multiple ways to rank up. First is an option which confers new moves and persistent upgrades. Spending copious amounts of yen is required – but highly beneficial. Then there’s another form of upgrade which consumes Completion Points (CP) which is accrued by completing side quests in game, and grants special abilities found nowhere else. Ranking up both is smart as well as necessary to unlock some other aspects of the side missions.
Being set in the 1980s allows for the game to go in a variety of interesting directions. For example, Kiryu isn’t always running around trying to get back with the Dojima clan; he also finds himself working together with a real estate magnate to buy up properties. This plot point is one which likely makes more sense for Japanese gamers. This is because, during the 1980s, Japan was experiencing a ridiculous bubble economy that was similar to the USA in 2008, as they bought up land due to the expectation of a continued rise in values. Eventually, the bubble burst and this plunged Japan into the Lost Decade. Yakuza 0 doesn’t deal with the ramifications of the collapse but instead allows Kiryu to play a part in snapping up land to make money. Every so often, yakuza clans contest these purchases, which force players to stop side questing or mainlining the game in order to resolve a dispute before they lose control of the land.
Majima has his own side gig thanks to his role as a cabaret king. He’s assumed the role of helping out a struggling cabaret club and does so primarily via a management minigame. In this Diner Dash-inspired mode, players must pair their lovely staff with customers to meet their needs. Hostesses also must be monitored to ensure they don’t lose their stamina or have a customer-related issue. You’re also able to improve your cast by training them one on one. Eventually, women start volunteering themselves to work in your club, which increases the variety of partners for the ever-growing customer base. Kiryu and Majima’s hobbies aren’t the only way to blow off some steam, though.
It’s almost impossible to play through an entire Yakuza game without engaging in any of its ridiculously silly side activities and missions. Yakuza 0 brings with it all manner of goofiness by way of hundreds of offbeat side quests, which are typically encountered by simply walking past unique pedestrians. Almost all the tales focus on characters acting strange or having weird needs that only Kiryu or Majima may solve. While weaving through much more serious main plot missions you’ll be able to find a great deal of humor by completing one or two side trips in between. Although completing side missions is rarely required, you’ll definitely find yourself wanting to see each one through thanks to how hilariously they contrast with everything else going on.
Japan really comes alive in Yakuza 0. Thanks to a loving attempt to recreate the 1980s, you’ll see characters with clothes and hairstyles perfectly befitting to the era. Shops and ads, too, keep things pertinent to the time frame with huge cell phones and other hideously trashy tech promoted. Disco clubs, cabarets, arcades with “new” games, and more all really sell the time frame. Although not the most gorgeous PS4 game in action, the CG cutscenes continue to set a high bar. Very few games are willing to show grimy, scarred, and muscular yakuza in all their frightneing glory – but none do it better (or more realistically) than the Yakuza series.
Yakuza fans are in for a massive treat with Yakuza 0. For the first time they’ll be able to live out events that led to the rise of Kiryu and Majima as they are known today. Not only that, but they’ll get to see an entirely different side of Majima – and view Kiryu at a truly weak point at the start of his yakuza lifestyle. With that said, anyone new to the series should absolutely jump in now. Sure, all games in the series offer a summary function, but having the story retold in a massive, but highly truncated, description is nothing compared to seeing things in action. Not only that, but since this is a prequel, players aren’t missing anything by being completely fresh to the world. Completing Yakuza 0 will leave newcomers poised to take on Yakuza Kiwami in the near future and then obsess over the rest of the series with longtime fans.