If you think that Yakuza is just Japanese GTA, I hate to disappoint you but you are wrong Sunshine. Yes, both are open world games about the criminal underbelly of fictionalised recreations of real-life cities, GTA does America (And hopefully one day they’ll do the UK again) and Yakuza Japan, (Tokyo and Osaka to be precise).
But that really is where the comparisons end. I suppose both have plenty to do, and both are heavily influenced by gangster movies from their respective corners of the globe. But and it’s a big but (and I cannot lie) that’s where the comparison ends. If, until recently, you were pining for more Shenmue, you really should have been playing Yakuza, because the adventures of Kiryu Kazama, at least as far as gameplay is concerned, picks up right where Ryo Hazuki left off.
Players can even go into an arcade and play Space Harrier and Outrun if they want to. Sadly, there are no capsule machines, but there are claw machines (If you want to relive your awkward teenage years trying to impress girls with your superior, plushy catching skills)
Now here’s the good news, you don’t need any prior knowledge of the Yakuza series to dive right into Yakuza 0. It’s a prequel set before the original Yakuza, and though there are a lot of in jokes and knowing winks for long-time fans of the series, watching them sail right past your head won’t diminish your enjoyment of the wonderfully campy gangland epic at all.
Set in 1988, Yakuza 0 sends players back to the beginning of series protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima careers in the Yakuza. Telling a pair of distinct narratives, that explore the shadier sides of the Tokyo property boom.
First up, players are introduced to a young Kiryu, attempting to clear his name, after being framed for murdering a civilian, uncovering a conspiracy within the Yakuza, which sees him plunged into the cutthroat world of property development, as the Dojima Clan fight shady property developer Tachibana Real Estate for control of Kamurocho’s notorious Empty Lot – a patch of land owned by an unknown entity and the key to controlling the prefecture.
Meanwhile, In Sotenbori, Majima is attempting to earn his way back into the Yakuza by working as the manager of The Grand Cabaret Hostess club. Showing the lengths he’ll go to be let back in, after he was booted out for refusing to follow orders.
Both narrative threads are engrossing and surprisingly grounded, considering the series flair for the melodramatic and ridiculous. While the younger versions of Kiryu and Majima are certainly more naive than their more grizzled older selves from earlier entries, they’re still just as likeable as they ever were. Kiryu remaining the straight man often finding himself in almost daft situations. While Majima remains an oddball with a flair for the dramatic, that just happens to be a complete badass.
Meanwhile, Yakuza 0’s antagonists are a shower of dastardly bastards with tons of personality; from mysterious property magnates to conspiring Yakuza lieutenants, vying for control of the clan, happy to stab their fellow mobsters in the back, in a bid to become the new leader of the organisation.
Though the main campaign is suitably epic, It’s Yakuzoa 0’s numerous, and often down right ludicrous, side quests, however, that steal the show. These include teaching a dominatrix to effectively scold her clients, protect a man from being beaten up for wearing an offensive jacket as he walks across a bridge and break up a teenage panty selling ring, you’ll also bump into a bloke that pops up around town in his underpants known only as Masochistic Man, and plenty more daft situations.
The series penchant for the ridiculous is reminiscent of Deadly Premonition and its relentless eccentricity – like Swerty 65’s madcap murder mystery, Yakuza 0 is completely unapologetic about its oddball nature and love of melodrama, though sometimes it can just feel nonsensical, and our heroes motives, and moral compass somewhat confused – the mission where you give porn to a kid, rather than break a promise is odd, and doesn’t seem in keeping with the code that either protagonist lives by. Likewise, the weird voyeuristic rewards for getting to know certain female characters are just a juvenile exercise in fan service.
Despite these minor missteps, Yakuza 0’s bat shit side quests do hit more than they miss providing players with hours of often hilarious optional missions, for would-be yakuza to bumble their way through.
Yakuza 0‘s combat system is absolutely brutal, Every punch and kick lands with winch inducing, bone crunching impact. This is particularly true of Heat Actions – special environmental moves that can be used by maintaining a steady offense, these bring the camera in close to show the action in vicious curb stomping detail, as Majima and Kiryu break bats over goons’ heads and wrap bike frames around their rib cages.
New to the series is the ability to switch styles, with Kiryu and Majima able to use three unique ways of fighting. Both characters start with a single style (Brawler for Kiryu and Thug for Majima) these consist of straight forward combos and easily performed Heat actions, while their alternate styles, unlocked throughout the course of the story, are a bit more specialised and present some wonderful new ways to crack skulls.
Kiryu gains the Rush and Beast styles. Rush is a all about speed_ ducking and weaving past opponents and using flurries of blows to stun opponents, while Beast is much heavier, and brutal approach which give Kiryu the ability to grab potential weapons and use the environment to utterly overwhelm opponents. Both offer very different ways to fight, while Rush is great for outfoxing larger, slower opponents. Beast is an incredibly satisfying way of dealing taking apart groups of weaker opponents.
Meanwhile, Majima just seems to be a better fighter. His standard Thug style, feels more balanced than Kiryu’s, while his variants can decimate anyone that comes near him. Slugger gives Majima an unbreakable baseball bat (other weapons rapidly deteriorate) that see Majima using it like a flail, giving him an almost impenetrable defence and a range of swift, devastating attacks. Meanwhile, Breaker sees Majima doing his best Eddy Gordo impression as he uses the power of breakdancing to pummel multiple opponents with flurries of punches and kicks while flailing around like a mad man.
Every time enemies take significant damage vast sums of cash will gush from their pockets, while performing Heat actions and extended combos earn more moolah. Your hard-fleeced filthy lucre can be spent on all sorts of healing tonics and foods, minigames, and weapons, as well as to obtain new passive and active abilities for each protagonist’s battle styles.
While fights are an incredibly common occurrence in Kamakuratown, with our heroes unable to pop to the shops for a pack of smokes without some group of greasers, thugs or shady businessmen trying to pick a fight, combat never feels repetitive or dull. The sheer brutality of each brawl, and the switching battle styles keeps things fresh, while Heat actions and environmental attacks remain bot satisfying and winch inducing throughout.
The areas you explore in Yakuza 0 are not particularly big, you’re not exploring two cities so much as two neighbourhoods. However, what they lack in size, They more than make up for by the sheer volume of things to do and interact with. There’s vending machines selling random loot, all manner of shops, bars and restaurants offering food, drink and entertainment, as well as arcades and the constant challenge of being attacked by wandering man mountain – Mr. Shakedown who beats up unwary players and steals all their cash.
in fact, you can’t walk more than a few meters without stumbling across another minigame or diversion to take part in; there’s Karaoke, dancing, darts, gambling, a dating sim, a catfight betting game, and much more besides. They don’t all hit the mark with the catfight wagering in particular being frustrating and time-consuming, but nether-the-less every side activity offers even more things to do in an already sizeable game, most, however are incredibly fun, especially the aforementioned full arcade versions of OutRun and Space Harrier in Sega-themed arcades, along with a strangely addictive UFO catcher game.
If there wasn’t already enough distractions from the main story line, Yakuza 0 throws a business management minigame for both Kiryu and Majima into the mix as well, with both getting to run side businesses with their own detailed systems and the potential to earn the player Scrooge McDuck sized vaults of Yen. Though the business side of the game s set up to work in the background while players are getting on with other jobs, running a successful business can easily draw a player’s attention away from more pressing matters.
Kiryu can buy various properties around town and collect rents from them at regular intervals. He can also invest in the businesses, assign staff to help increase profits and protect the business from attack. Meanwhile, Majima takes charge of a beleaguered cabaret club, hiring hostesses and directing them to the correct clients, juggling the needs of both to keep the punters entertained and the staff happy.
Though it’s certainly not one of the best-looking games on PS4, (hardly surprising since it’s basically a PS3 port), Yakuza 0‘s brilliant animations and great camera work during cut scenes and fights, and an interminable sense of style, make for visually striking experience regardless. Everything runs at a consistent silky smooth 60fps to boot.
A fantastic soundtrack underscores all the action while the voice acting is superb. Though i usually prefer a good English dub with my games, Yakuza is (like Metro) one of the rare exceptions, the Japanese only dub adds to the atmosphere and authenticity of the setting.
Yakuza 0 is another superb entry in a brilliant series that deserves far more love in the west. It may be more of the same in many ways, but the revamped combat mechanics elevate it above its predecessors. Long-time fans will love it, while it’s prequel status make it the perfect place to start for newcomers.
Brutal combat, irreverent humour, and a smorgasbord of content make Yakuza 0 one of the best games out thus far this year (in the west at least).. If you haven’t visited the weird and wonderful world of Yakuza before, with Yakuza 0 you simply have no excuse.