Origin stories and prequels can often be a mixed bag in popular media. You might get responses to a lot of questions and theories percolating in your head, but sometimes those insights aren’t quite as impactful or interesting as one would hope. Prequels can also be an interesting starting point for those looking to dip their toe into a long running franchise without having to face an overwhelming amount of baggage. In the case of Yakuza 0, we get the best of both worlds. We get to learn the establishing stories of many of the key players who will go on to do great (and terrible) things in the subsequent games, but it also serves as a wonderful introduction for those looking to enter this brutal and bizarre world for the first time.
Yakuza 0 takes place in 1988 Japan. It’s the height of the bubble economy, with money being thrown around and spent in lavish fashion. The music is blaring, the suits are garish and loud, the skirts are short, and you can literally beat money out of your enemies when you find yourself in a random street fight. The setting does a lot to give the game more character than just about any title in recent memory. It’s especially fun to run into a nerdy tech fan who’s incredibly proud of his new “mobile” phone, and helping a kid snag a copy of this world’s version of Dragon Quest is both hilarious and timely. Yakuza 0 delicately balances its indulgences and setting without going overboard into farcical parody. Levity and drama play out in equal fashion, helping to create a believable world that’s also completely ridiculous and endearing.
Our story follows two protagonists who will be instantly familiar to series fans. The first is series stalwart Kazuma Kiryu, now a new and green member of the Tojo Clan who quickly finds himself in way over his head and framed for murder. Kiryu has been the heart and soul of the Yakuza series since its inception, and here we get to see him grow into the confident and fatherly figure from later games. Our other hero is the wild child of the franchise, Goro Majima, but this is an entirely different character than fans are probably used to. Majima is basically being held hostage for previous transgressions, forcing him to play and act like a puppet for more powerful forces. Over the course of the story he begins to adopt his more flamboyant and unpredictable persona, but watching how and why he develops these mannerisms is insightful and also strangely poignant. I felt genuine concern and sympathy for Majima, and I can’t often say that about player characters in video games.
Yakuza 0 has many different ways of telling its story, leading to some jarring moments that don’t feel as well connected as they could. The full cutscenes are amazingly well directed and feature a great deal of style. These moments often rival some of the best crime dramas out there, and it’s easy to get pumped up when the music starts to build and you know it’s time to wreck some fools. Unfortunately, gears can shift quickly into less than stellar dialogue boxes and a few especially odd moments where things play out like a visual novel. Yakuza 0 isn’t always consistent, though it’s almost always entertaining.
When you aren’t watching long cutscenes and reading lots of text boxes as big serious men talk about big serious things, you’re walking the streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori looking for trouble. Trouble usually comes looking for you, as fisticuffs are your standard meat and potatoes gameplay. Each character gets three fighting styles for various situations. Kiryu’s standard style is great for keeping enemies on the ground and gasping for air, while Majima’s breaker style absolutely demolishes large groups. Knowing when to use each specific style is hugely important to finding success, as is getting used to some of the idiosyncrasies present in an engine that’s been used since the PS3 era. You’ll sometimes find it difficult to land a punch on a specific target, and our heroes occasionally take a bit too long to recover from a hit. Things feel particularly stiff at the start when your moveset is fairly limited, but it gets better as new moves and combos are unlocked. What seems like a button-mashing affair does feature a lot of depth, though I’ve only come to appreciate that after well over a hundred hours with three games over the past year.
But Yakuza is about more than just slamming a goon’s face into a guard rail. Oftentimes, a random stranger runs up and asks for help, leading to numerous side stories that are often quite hilarious. You might have to help rescue a young convert from a dastardly cult (which comes up again years later in Yakuza 6) or teach a dominatrix how to properly apply her trade. These stories are often seen as the highlight of the series, and for good reason. The localization in Yakuza 0 is quite impressive, with genuine pathos and lots of great jokes that made me smile at all the right times. Unfortunately, the rewards for completing these side quests are often fairly unremarkable. You might get a useful item or tool (like a charm that heals you while standing still in combat), but most of the time you get a Completion Point that can be exchanged for certain unlockable benefits. The series eventually does a better job of tying these rewards directly to the hero’s combat and social upgrades, so Yakuza 0 feels a little antiquated in his regard. It’s not a terrible problem, but it can make some of the side stories feel a little meaningless after you finish them.
There are tons and tons of things to do around the cities. You might take a break from clearing your name to play some darts at a local dive bar…or maybe a round of bowling is more your style. The minigames in Yakuza are always delightful and feature just the right amount of depth and complexity to keep them breezy and satisfying at the same time. While you can mostly ignore all of these distractions, it still stands out that SEGA would put so much time and energy into making them so damn entertaining. Try not to smile when Kiryu cuts loose during a karaoke rendition of Judgement or laugh yourself silly when Majima uses his bat for less than nefarious purposes.
There are, however, two main side activities that you can’t really avoid, and this is both a blessing and a curse. Kiyru becomes a consummate real estate broker, as you’ll buy up businesses and collect protection money while trying to take down five rival gangsters in town. This process is fairly passive since you have to wait for a timer to finish before you can pick up your money, but it does keep something in the background while you’re chasing down side stories or completing main objectives. Majima, on the other hand, gets a far more engaging management simulation where you have to keep your clientele and hostesses happy at the same time. It’s a fairly fun exercise that plays in thematically with Majima’s story. Whether or not you like these two large side activities is irrelevant, unfortunately, as you’ll have to engage with them if you want to unlock all of your skills and secret fighting styles. Combat upgrades become exponentially more expensive as you work down the skill trees, meaning you’ll have to make money through each character’s vocation. I largely avoided this process until fairly late in the story, which made things particularly difficult during some of the more aggravating boss encounters. It’s a less than elegant way of tying upgrade systems together, but thankfully it directs you to some serious fun that could be accidentally avoided.
Yakuza 0 originally released on the PlayStation 3 and 4 in March of 2015, and this sometimes makes the game feel quite old even when compared to more recent titles in the franchise. The save system feels like a holdover from 2005 since you can only save at telephone booths around the city. This lack of modern convenience is especially annoying when you consider Yakuza Kiwami (which uses the same engine as 0) and 6 both feature a save anywhere feature, so it would have been nice if SEGA had added this to the Western release. While you can pause cutscenes at any time and easily resume them, you can’t skip every scene, which often forces you to scroll through text at an agonizingly slow pace. Issues like these are pebbles in your shoe on a long hike; they don’t destroy the experience, but they’ll have you scratching your head at times.
We’re well over a decade into the franchise, and lots of problems in Yakuza 0 were present in the original game on the PS2. The game has an extended intro (two this time because of the two characters) which goes on a bit too long and makes repeat playthroughs a serious chore. Sure, they establish the characters and world, but there are times when 0 could really use an editor to pare down some of the dialogue. Buying five different drinks for five different bums to advance the story seems like an odd speedbump on a relatively smooth ride, but thankfully these breaks in the momentum slowly fall away as the story careens towards a satisfying conclusion. While the boss fights aren’t as aggravating as Kiwami’s disastrous encounters, they’re still a serious nuisance and had me screaming at the TV at times. I’ve definitely noticed my skills and tactics have improved the more I’ve played, but it’s zero fun to fight a boss who ignores everything you throw at them. Things get better as you unlock more skills (and especially when you get the essential ability to dodge away when you take damage), but this also makes the opening bosses feel incredibly unfair. You can brute force your way through these roadblocks with lots of health drinks, but it’s hard to feel like a badass when Kiryu and Majima flop on the ground like a Brazilian soccer player trying to draw a red card.
Yakuza 0 is a lot of Yakuza, showing a great deal of excess, brilliance and occasional frustration in equal fashion. There’s lots and lots to do, a great story to breathe in, and wonderful characters who play well off each other. At the same time, 0 lacks some of the innovations and gameplay conceits that came with later titles, and it’s also just as frustrating in places as some of the franchise’s more egregious offenders. You have to give the Yakuza games some time in order to really appreciate everything they have going on, and I’m sure lots of people only play for a few hours and wonder what the big deal is. It can be an acquired taste at times, but Kiryu and Majima are two wonderfully kooky guys that you’d do well to spend some time with.