Review: Yakuza 0
Let’s get this out of the way, Yakuza 0 is the perfect starting point for anyone who has yet to touch the series. I’m sure series veterans will get a lot out of specific story details throughout the game, but as a Yakuza rookie myself, I’ve approached this review from the mindset of someone who has zero experience with the series. Plus, starting here is super exciting when you consider that Yakuza Kiwami (remake of the first game) is set to release this Summer! Now, there’s a lot to get into here, so grab a drink and buckle up, because we’re taking a trip to the mean streets of Kamurocho.
Kazuma Kiryu (Dojima Family, Age: 20)
Our story starts with what appears to be a pretty simple debt collection job given to Kiryu on behalf of a loan shark dealing with the Dojima Family. The job goes well, the debt is paid, and Kiryu goes on his way completely unaware of the conspiracy he’s about the be pulled into. The next morning Kazuma’s mark turns up dead, he’s now the prime suspect of a murder he didn’t commit. It’s now up to Kiryu to clear his name and that’s not going to be easy, especially with how deep this rabbit hole goes.
Goro Majima (Ex-Yakuza, Age: 24)
If we then hop on over to Sotenbori and grab a drink at the “Grand”, it’s here where we’ll meet Goro Majima, “Lord of the Night”. Majima has single-handedly turned a cabaret on the brink of closure into the number one place to be in Sotenbori, he’s got everything in the palm of his hands (money, fame, etc.) with one small exception. Majima’s serving a sentence in Sotenbori and his one true desire is to rejoin the Yakuza. His story soon takes a turn as he’s presented with a golden opportunity to do just that, however, actions have consequences and the road Majima’s about to go down is one that’ll change the rest of his life.
One of Yakuza 0’s strengths, of which there are many, are the characters you’ll play as and interact with. Kiryu was orphaned at a young age and grew up at the Sunflower Orphanage set up by Dojima Family Captain, Shintaro Kazama. The entire reason he’s caught up with Yakuza is his desire to follow in Kazama’s footsteps. Meanwhile, Majima is an ex-Yakuza looking for a way to crawl back to the Tojo Clan. What struck me, as a newcomer to the series, was the characterization of Kiryu and Majima which felt in contrast to what I expected from someone tied in with the Yakuza. Kiryu is young, he’s slightly naive, and still seems to be holding on to a bit of a moral compass within himself. Majima has a bit of a dark past, but he’s willing to do the right thing, even if that very directly puts him in danger. (He also has one of my favorite character introductions in recent memory, Majima has some serious stage presence and kind of steals the show in this game.) The game places a heavy emphasis on the act of murder, how killing someone is a line that, when crossed, completely changes a man. There’s no going back at that point. Granted, you do spend much of the game beating groups of bad guys to a pulp, but I admire the game’s emphasis on that one point. This is because in the context of the entire series, you start to get a basis for the kinds of things that will lead both Kiryu and Majima down very different roads.
I have a basic idea of what these two characters are like after the events of Yakuza 0, seeing younger versions of these characters is exciting because it gives a lot of context for who they’ll eventually become. The same applies to many of the other major characters throughout the game. These are characters that I’ve really grown attached to and I’m pumped to see where the series takes them.
Combat and Leveling
Combat in Yakuza 0 revolves around three different fighting styles. Kiryu has Brawler, Beast, and Rush, while Majima has Thug, Slugger, and Breaker. Brawler and Thug are the starting techniques for each character, with them you can punch, grab, throw, and block. Beast allows Kiryu to absorb blows, deal massive damage, and automatically pick up anything nearby that can be used as a weapon. Rush allows Kiryu to be quick on his feet, dash around enemies, and get multiple hits in before the enemy even knows what happened. Slugger gives Majima a baseball bat that he can use to smash some faces and swing in wide arcs for decent crowd control. Finally, Breaker is the fighting style that emerges when Majima witnesses people in the midst of a breakdancing competition.
It needs to be stated, Yakuza 0 is a crime drama. The game takes itself plenty seriously, but it’s absolutely not afraid to be completely absurd and Yakuza balances the serious and wacky moments expertly. I can’t tell you enough, just how much I loved it when Majima witnessed a kid breakdancing, proceeded to shout “HOLY SHIT!”, and then imagined in his head just how cool a fighting style like that would be. The Breaker style is cool, Majima. It’s hilarious, great for crowd control, and it just makes you feel awesome. This revelatory moment happens with each new fighting style and the game always presents it in the most over-the-top way. I love it. For as serious as the story gets, Yakuza knows when to have fun – and you’ll soon see how that’s a growing trend throughout the rest of the game.
Each fighting style in the game is useful in their own ways, Breaker is great for crowd control while Beast is great for absorbing hits. They also all come with their own upgrade tree that actually looks kind of similar to Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. Here you can spend the money that flies out of enemies you beat up to upgrade your health, unlock new fighting moves, and gain new Heat abilities. Heat acts as special moves that can be performed when the Heat gauge fills up and features plenty of context sensitive animations dependent upon a number of variables. The heat moves are brutal, deal massive damage, and more than anything are worth doing just to see how crazy some of the animations can get. That said, on Normal it’s pretty easy to get through fights without switching styles much at all. Some late-game fights require switching, and are much better for it, but I do wish the need to make use of each fighting style was present throughout the early game as well.
In the game Kiryu is free to explore Kamurocho while Sotenbori is open to Majima. Both cities are moderately sized and densely packed with a crazy amount of things to do. As someone that’s burned out pretty hard on open world design, I fell in love with Yakuza’s city design pretty quick. The dense nature of each city means that getting around takes very little time at all, you’re always a short jog away from something, and many of the game’s Substories will be triggered organically as you explore both cities.
In Yakuza you can go bowling, blow off some steam at the batting cages, dance the night away at the disco, sing your heart out in karaoke, or chill at one of the many SEGA arcades. (That’s not even half of the mini-games available.) Completing the story in Yakuza 0 took me close to 40 hours and I feel confident in saying that you could spend about that much time with all of the mini-games available to you. They’re nearly all well made, fun, and deep enough to be more than just a tiny distraction from the main story. Some days I’d start up Yakuza 0 and just spend a few hours bowling before heading over to the arcade to play some Outrun. Or maybe building remote controlled cars and competing in races is more your speed, I’ve only put a couple hours in Pocket Circuit, but it’s already clear that there’s a ton of strategy involved there.
I can’t possibly get into every mini-game on offer, but do yourself a favor and spend some time at the karaoke bar, hit up the disco sometime, and just be willing to let loose and have some fun outside of the story.
As you explore each city you’ll often stop and observe an event that triggers a new substory. In one instance, I got to take part in the filming of a pretty well known music video with a very well known musician. The whole thing was surreal, hilarious, and played with a straight face in a way that only Yakuza could pull off. I’ve only scratched the surface with the substories available, but thus far everyone has felt meaningful. Every substory that I’ve come across has been interesting and completely worth taking the time to do. Once again, as someone who has burned out a bit on open world design, it’s so great to see a game that’s scaled back in land mass in favor of meaningful things to do.
Yakuza 0 is something that I’ll probably never complete 100%, doing so would probably be well over a hundred hours. That said, what’s impressive is that very little of that would ever feel like padding. The sub-stories are interesting, never amounting to just a simple fetch quest, the mini-games are fun and deep enough to keep you coming back, and there’s still pretty big optional stuff that we haven’t even covered.
Real Estate Royale and Cabaret Club
At a certain point in the game Kiryu and Majima are able to take on jobs building up real estate and growing a cabaret club. In Real Estate Royale you can purchase businesses, collect profits, gain ownership of different areas within Kamurocho, and work to take down the Five Billionaires. Meanwhile, Majima can take over management of a Cabaret club and attempt to turn business around by recruiting new girls, and ultimately taking down the Five Stars.
Both of these are completely optional, but they are great ways to bring in lots of money for upgrades. They’re also just really interesting management sims that simply add to the already large number of things that you can do at any given moment.
I expected to enjoy Yakuza 0, I didn’t expect to love it as much as I do. My only complaint comes in the way the game presents the story. There are a few different types of cutscenes (fully animated, characters standing still with text boxes, and scenes where there’s next to no animation and short blurbs of text are thrown on the screen) that the game sometimes switches between on the fly. It can be a little distracting, luckily it never takes away from the otherwise excellent story. And I do mean excellent, Yakuza 0’s story is full of twists and turns that’ll keep you guessing and make it exceedingly hard to put the controller down. The final few hours of this game are absolutely phenomenal. I’m not sure words can properly do it justice, there’s plenty of major events that cause you to shout out to no one in particular in the middle of the night just from pure excitement. Spending so much time with these characters, learning about them in both serious and silly moments, and investing yourself in this world; the ultimate payoff makes all of it so worth it. It is just so good.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. For more info on our review policy click here.
What I Like:
- Excellent story and characters
- Lots of mini-games to check out. Bowling and Batting Cages being some of my favorites.
- Substories are interesting and totally worth doing
- Each combat style is good for different situations.
- Both cities are densely packed with a ton of different things to do. It's easy to get around and you're always a short distance away from a point of interest.
- I love how silly the game is willing to get. It balances a serious story and wacky side objectives really well.
- Every scene Majima is in.
What I Dislike:
- Switching cutscene styles can be pretty jarring at times.
- Would like to see more reason to switch fighting styles throughout the game. I often gravitated towards one or two styles and didn't switch often.