Yakuza is a game series that remains a bit difficult to truly describe without missing any details, but Yakuza 0 might be the first that could buck this trend. Slated for release on the PS4 in North America on Tuesday, the game revolving around mob bosses, gang fights and punching your way out of conflicts in the 1980’s has proven to be a great prequel to the series and a good introduction for new fans.
For those unfamiliar, Yakuza is a series of games from SEGA largely revolving around protagonist Kiryu Kazuma. Kiryu is a former member of the Tojo Clan yakuza organization, and often finds himself wrapped up in trouble regarding his old profession. Yakuza 0 however, changes things up by introducing players to the character before he became such a legend.
In this latest title, the game focuses on the early careers of not only Kiryu, but pivotal character Goro Majima. Both have shared a strong case of the “frenemies” throughout the series, but the full extent of their relationship and past history has yet to be delved into until now. Both characters fight in their respective towns of Kamurocho and Sotenburi in efforts to unravel their parts in a clan-wide real estate scheme. Kiryu is framed for murdering a man in an unassuming Empty Lot. Unbeknownst to him, the piece of land is the last for the Tojo to secure and cement their hold on the city of Kamurocho. Majima meanwhile, finds himself figuratively caged within Sotenburi as an exile, before he finally gets his opportunity to earn his way back into the yakuza.
Whereas previous games have suffered a lot of bumpy transitions when it came to interconnecting story lines between characters, Yakuza 0 gets the formula right. Majima and Kiryu’s separate plots are interesting on their own, making the moment when they finally intertwine being all the more exciting. The story also hedges back on introducing too many different Tojo characters, an improvement over previous entries that inundated players with so many different titles and faces it became hard to keep track. Instead the roster is thankfully lean, with only about three major supporting characters remaining consistent for Kiryu and Majima’s plots respectively.
If anything, Majima’s story steals the show, as his character perspective is fresher in comparison to Kiryu (who’s had five games already). Majima runs a cabaret called The Grand in Sotenburi, collecting funds to essentially buy his way back into the Tojo clan. This fits nicely within the realm of the series, as this game shows the fallout of the early events in Yakuza 5. Majima finds himself tasked with performing a hit as his final gasp to get back into the yakuza but, of course, things don’t go so smoothly. He becomes at odds with his goal of rejoining the Tojo and his desire to do what’s right. This is a fantastic dive into this character that takes a dramatic detour that strays from the usual Yakuza diatribe of punching a person until they understand their point of view (although that still happens too).
When he’s not busting skulls or uncovering new allies, Majima (or Kiryu) is stumbling upon numerous substories involving a surprising amount of humor, heart and even returning character cameos. The side stories this time around don’t feel like an utter waste and can actually help you in the eventual bigger activities of real-estate buying and running a cabaret club. That being said, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into the time-sink side pursuits the game has. From fine-tuning your RC car to win a championship, to giving your finest hostess employee a makeover to improve your club’s standing, Yakuza 0 will devour your time in between plot missions if you let it.
Mechanics wise, there’s not much to be said of improvements. The game’s fighting controls are certainly faster and allow for characters to utilize multiple styles, but it can still be clunky at times. The upgrade system has been converted to utilizing money to buy new skills, making combat feel like it literally pays off. The game also allows for online play of various minigames or two-player modes, as well as online rankings for the Climax Battles challenge arena. Graphically the game has made a nice jump to the PS4 console, with improved frame rate and visuals in comparison to its last gen run. Despite this, Yakuza 0 still unfortunately suffers from occasional texture pop and odd load times when exiting or entering areas.
Yakuza 0 genuinely feels like the first game in the Kiryu-centric series that could easily be used as a gateway for newer fans. There’s no need for knowledge of the incredibly long-winded stories of the previous games, but it still manages to appeal to long-time fans without leaving anyone new behind. The game still takes itself very seriously with its surprisingly exciting intertwining plot, but it’s still crazy, silly, and unafraid to break from the grimness of its own narrative at times. It’s a bit mind-boggling that it’s taken this long to dive into Majima’s character proper, but it is a refresher when compared to the lackluster newer characters like Shinada in the last game.
For fans of the series, this game is a no-brainer to pick up. For folks that want to experience an entirely unique RPG-esque brawler, Yakuza 0 may excite you, confuse you, or even make you laugh, but it will not disappoint.