"Yakuza 0 has one (technically two) of the most satisfying stories in the entire series."
Period pieces can be tricky to pull off in any form of media, let alone video games. No matter how accurately the creators try to portray the decade, there almost always seems to be something a little off. There's often a modern sensibility that somehow sneaks in, coloring the past they're trying to portray faithfully. Ah, but when it's pulled off correctly, it can feel like you're literally traveling back in time. That's the experience you get with Yakuza 0, the prequel to Sega's long-running Yakuza series.
Yakuza 0 is divided into parallel stories set in 1988: those of Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, two of the main characters from the series. After Kiryu, a low-level enforcer for the Dojima family, is framed for murder, he finds himself drawn into a yakuza conspiracy over the sale of a tiny piece of land that will determine the future of Kamurocho, Tokyo. Meanwhile, in Sōtenbori, Osaka, Majima is enjoying fame and fortune as the host of the most popular cabaret in town, The Grand. Unfortunately, all he wants to do is be let back into the yakuza after he was kicked out (and physically tortured) over a mistake he made a year earlier. Offered a chance to get back into the Tojo clan if he pulls off a successful assassination, Majima soon discovers there is more to his target than meets the eye. These two stories, set worlds apart at first, begin to converge as we discover the forces that shaped these two men into the yakuza legends they eventually become.
And boy, they have a long way to go because these are definitely not the men that we met in the original game. Far from legends, they're currently on the lowest rung of the yakuza ladder. No one knows who they are yet, and they are always under the thumb of more senior yakuza. This gives both of them an underdog feel, raising the stakes of the story considerably.
Kiryu, who in the other games is considered to be a paragon of virtue within the yakuza, is little more than a brutal punk here, beating up people for loan sharks. He is a decent brawler but hasn't developed his almost godlike fighting abilities and is regularly confronted by characters who are just as strong, if not stronger, than he is. Watching him learn about himself and discover what he wants out of life (in other words, to become the Kiryu we all know and love) is a joy.
The same can be said about Majima. While the pieces are all there, Majima hasn't yet blossomed into the Mad Dog sociopath that warms the hearts of snakeskin fetishists everywhere. He is much more restrained in his actions, collected and less impulsive when it comes to the events unfolding around him. There are still signs of unbalanced silliness and brutality, but those characteristics haven't yet had the opportunity to fully bubble up to the surface.
It's no use mincing words about the graphics; Yakuza 0 looks like a four-year-old game developed for older hardware. It's a perfect port of the PS4 version, which was essentially an HD version of the Japanese-only PS3 release. This doesn't mean the game looks bad; you just need to temper your expectations if you're more familiar with Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami 2. Everything just looks a bit old. The poor and blurry textures on clothing and objects really stand out when compared to the otherwise high-definition graphics. Most facial animation looks fantastic, but the character animation is usually rather stiff when you aren't in combat. There are also some quality of life issues that get addressed in later games. For example, the inability to save anywhere leads to annoying dashes across town to find a telephone booth where you can record your progress. There are very few places where the game auto-saves, so if you experience a sudden crash, you can say goodbye to whatever progress you've made since your last save.
As usual, the fictional district of Kamurocho, Tokyo looks fantastic (as does the district of Sōtenbori, Osaka where you play as Majima). If you've been playing the series for years and know the layout of the district like the back of your hand, you'll be in for a surprise here. This is the Kamurocho of 1988 before urban renewal gave the old town a facelift. Neon is everywhere, and the land that eventually becomes the Millenium Tower is occupied by Kamurocho's shopping district, a densely packed neighborhood of shops and restaurants. The whole area looks and feels grittier, dirtier, and more dangerous. It's fascinating to see the origins of the Kamurocho we know, along with the origins of Kiryu and Majima. Unfortunately, much like in previous games in the series, you can't enter the vast majority of buildings in Kamurocho, leaving you feeling at times like you're wandering around a Hollywood backlot.
There is rarely anything to complain about when it comes to the sound design of the Yakuza series, and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio goes the extra mile here! As always, the Japanese voice acting paired with English subtitles is a treat, lending a sense of authenticity to the story. The voice actors give excellent performances, even if a bit of melodrama occasionally shines through. (Kiryu's best friend Nishiki, for example, can be a bit over the top at times. Wow, that boy can cry...) The music here is a cut above the rest of the series, with a much harder '80s edge than other Yakuza games. Every one of the battle themes gets your blood pumping, especially alongside the usual bone-crushing sound effects.
In terms of gameplay...well, it's Yakuza with a tried-and-tested beat 'em up combat system. As you walk the streets, you get into random battles with a variety of enemies. Since the game is set during the Japanese economic bubble of the '80s, money is used as both currency and experience points. You literally invest in yourself to learn new skills! This is a very clever twist on the classic experience points-based progression system, but it does break the combat system somewhat when you start making billions of yen that you can use to upgrade your abilities only midway through the game. This results in the combat feeling a bit tedious by the endgame as you can plow through dozens upon dozens of enemies with little effort required.
One of the more interesting additions to the combat (and definitely the fastest way to make money) is fights with Mr. Shakedown. There are four of these hulking characters, two for each city. When you lose a battle with one, rather than getting a game over, they take every cent of your money. The only way you can get it back is to find them wandering the city and beat them. Doing so provides a great return on investment, as you will also get whatever money they've "shaken down" from other people since your previous fight. With the right perks, you can almost double your money every time you face off. The trick, of course, is that each Mr. Shakedown becomes stronger after you beat him, eventually reaching insane levels of health. Trying to beat a fully upgraded Mr. Shakedown can be a remarkable challenge (especially given that they can kill you with no more than two hits).
There are three main fighting styles for each character: a fast but weak one, a strong but slow one, and a balanced one. There is also an ultimate fighting style for each character that you get after beating their respective main side quest. Annoyingly, not all of the abilities in these powerful styles can be unlocked through EXP (or rather yen) alone; you need to get them through completion points. You normally collect a ton of these throughout normal gameplay for achieving little things, like beating up a certain number of enemies or completing story events. The problem is that in order to unlock the full skill tree for the ultimate combat styles, you may end up grinding minigames, which can become a bit tedious when you just want to play through the game.
Speaking of minigames, there is the usual crazy variety of them, ranging from hitting balls at the batting cages to playing Mahjong, pool, darts, and even ports of actual '80s Sega arcade games. There is an increased emphasis on rhythm-based minigames in this installment of the series. If you're terrible at games like Guitar Hero, you're going to be in for a rough time trying to get through disco dancing or belting out '80s standards in the karaoke bar. There is also the usual collection of hundreds of substories that range from you becoming the disco king of two cities to helping a dominatrix learn to be more assertive in sessions. Some of them are incredibly entertaining, while others are little more than fetch quests.
Yakuza 0 also marks the debut of minigames/substories that became staples of the series going forward, such as the pocket racing game (which was lifted almost 100% wholesale and dumped into Yakuza Kiwami) and the Cabaret Club that shows up again in Kiwami 2. The latter in particular is a blast to play through, requiring Majima to recruit new cabaret girls and partner with local businesses to become the most popular cabaret in Sōtenbori. Kiryu's main substory where he becomes a real estate agent isn't quite as entertaining as Majima's quest to become the king of cabaret managers, but it's at least a useful way to make a ton of money!
Yakuza 0 has one (technically two) of the most satisfying stories in the entire series, along with some of the best gameplay. The personal stakes are unbelievably high, the characters are well developed, and given your grunt status in the organization, it feels much more like you are part of the yakuza. Unlike many prequels which can feel like unnecessary add-ons, Yakuza 0 is a natural starting point in the series. Old players will get a kick out of seeing earlier versions of characters, and new players will get a perfect overview of what the Yakuza series is all about. Yakuza 0 works as a roleplaying brawler, a great story, and a fantastic period piece. Welcome back to Kamurocho for the very first time!