Yakuza 0 on PS4
For fans of the Yakuza series, Kiryu’s origins were always a point of wonder. How a man as honorable as he could be part of one of the most vicious crime syndicates in all of Japan? That’s something that fans are finally able to explore in Yakuza 0. Set 17 years before the events of the first game, Yakuza 0 sees Kiryu once again thrust into the center of a huge, mysterious plot surrounding the Yakuza (showing some things never change). Yet he isn’t alone this time around, as players are given two worlds to explore as seemingly unrelated events begin to form a tangled web of murder and betrayal.
Yakuza 0 puts players in control of series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, a fan favorite sometimes enemy/sometimes friend who was previously playable in one of the spin-offs, Yakuza: Dead Souls. A murder in Kamurocho sends Kiryu on a quest for answers and revenge, while a hit put out in Osaka erupts into a war between different crime families all hunting down the same person, and Majima is somehow in the middle of it all. While fans of the series will quickly recognize both protagonists, seeing them before they became the legends that they are now is interesting and quite enjoyable. They are much younger, and really just finding their place within the Yakuza as things get turned upside down.
Kiryu is as honor bound as you’d expect, but he’s also a bit brasher and has an undeniable air of cockiness about him. He’s easily recognizable, yet there’s something fresh about this still wet-behind-the-ears gangster. I must say, though, that Majima steals the show from Kiryu at every turn. From the moment you’re introduced to him, and with every fighting style he uses, he is definitely the best part of the game. Fans will most certainly find his younger self intriguing as they watch him develop. However, having the two unique characters playable proves to be both one of the game’s strengths and major weaknesses.
The game is split into chapters, with every other two chapters putting you in control of a different character. What this creates is a system where you’re constantly going backwards in order to go forward. Starting out as Kiryu feels like your standard tutorial as you’re taught how to punch, grapple, collect money, and everything else required to fight through a gang-riddled adventure. You’d think, then, that switching over to Majima would just thrust you right into the action, but you’d be wrong. He too has tutorials for you to grapple with as you progress through his own chapters, giving you this odd sensation of starting the game over.
This wouldn’t seem like such a big deal if it only happened the first time you switched. Yet, almost every initial chapter after you switch heroes contains a new lesson that you must stop for. This is because not only are Yakuza 0’s playable characters unique in how they look and fight, but the areas and activities they have access to also have differences that you must learn. For example, Majima is the “Lord of the Night,” so he has access to club management activities, hostess recruiting and training, and the ability to seek out partnerships.
Kiryu, on the other hand, has access to real estate and some activities that are a bit more lewd. I’ve been a fan of the Yakuza series for some time, so a bit of sex appeal was expected, it’s become part of the franchise’s DNA. But I never realized how much of a pervert the honorable Kiryu was until I played Yakuza 0. A couple of his sections, which you have to complete to get through the story, have to do with women in very weird situations. For example, there is a mini-game you play to get dates. Its premise is simple enough as you blast your love gun at appropriate questions all while a half-naked digital woman dances in the background revealing more and more as you progress. It’s a bit awkward, and not as intuitive as Majima’s training sessions with his hostesses (which require you to not make anyone uncomfortable). Kiryu can also bet on catfights, which feature scantily clad women beating the ever-loving snot out of one another. While Majima’s club interactions give more insight into his character and those of the girls he speaks with, Kiryu’s interactions are just… there. They don’t add anything to the game, and I can’t help but wonder why it’s even included if not just for the cheap fan-service that it appears to be. Thankfully, after first being introduced to each of these, you never have to deal with them again if you don’t want to.
Looking past the constant tutorials, though, shows just how much Sega has crammed into Yakuza 0. There is a lot to take in for each character, particularly the large amount of mini-games, many of which you can gamble on. There’s pool, darts, batting practice, blackjack, roulette tables, mahjong, karaoke, dancing, fishing, the list goes on. You can even go to some arcades and play classic games such as Out Run and Space Harrier. And while many will have their lists of which mini-games they like and don’t like, they’re all well done and I easily lost hours playing a few (I can now say that I actually kinda, sorta understand mahjong).
Aside from the long list of mini-games, there are random encounters called Substories. These put you in direct contact with the inhabitants of Japan as you help them with day-to-day life or fulfill wacky requests such as protecting a certain king of pop from the living dead during a video shoot. It’s a mixed bag of experiences, but some of them will legitimately have you laughing out loud at how weird things can get and what Kiryu and Majima are willing to do for strangers.
The ’80s Japan backdrop really lends itself to the experience as well. It makes the world somehow pop a bit more than something set in the modern world would. The music you hear blaring from buildings, the sharp suits signifying new money as everyone flocks to major cities that have become the business centers of the nation, and the gaudy nature of those who don’t know how to spend their riches. There’s a fight waiting around every corner, but there’s also the possibility to meet someone funny or find a game to play. It’s also pretty to look at. Granted, it’s not the best-looking game on the PS4, but it all feels perfect for the story being told. While it has the look, though, calling it an open world is a bit of a stretch.
There are two main areas you’ll get to explore, and each is filled with plenty to do. But after a few hours, I felt the walls closing in. While the story and the side activities found within the bustling streets were certainly a joy, there wasn’t enough variety to the world. It’s open in the sense that you can fool around instead of heading to your next objective, but many activities aren’t unlocked until you progress the story to a certain point. With recent releases such as Watch Dogs 2, GTA V, and The Witcher 3 really upping the ante on what it means to be an open world game, this sticks out like a sore thumb, even if it is in line with the Yakuza series as a whole. Next to those more modern open worlds, Yakuza 0 brings a more linear touch to the experience which may bother players depending on what they’re wanting to get out of it.
Still, Yakuza 0 managed to keep me locked in. This is in no small way due to the gripping narrative that starts off slow and seemingly unimportant, before ramping up and leaving players on the edge of their seats. Yakuza 0’s dual protagonists keep things interesting thanks to the varied approach they bring to gameplay as a whole. Admittedly, if you aren’t already a Yakuza fan, getting through the opening acts may feel like a bit of a challenge, even though the payoff later on is a solid, fun experience. Honestly, if I wasn’t somewhat used to the series in any way, I may have stopped long before I learned the ins and outs of Yakuza 0’s world, but I’m happy that I did.
While it’s far from perfect, Yakuza 0 is a game that fans of the franchise should definitely play. It has the challenging combat and wacky humor that you’d expect, and the story is top-notch. Also, who can pass up on a chance to see Majima while he’s still relatively sane? If you’ve never tried one, it may be a bit weird to you at first, but if you’re willing to wade through it all, there’s an enjoyable experience to be had.
Score: 3/5 – Fair