The world was first introduced to the Yakuza franchise back in 2006, when Sega released it worldwide on PlayStation 2. The game focused on the trials and tribulations young up-and-comer Kazuma Kiru, and how he interacted with the other Yakuza families. Unfortunately, Kazuma is essentially the two dimensional “hero figure”, and the big star was the kinda-villain Goro Majima, the one-eyed “Mad Dog” lieutenant of the Shimano clan. I know this, because I watched all the videos I could before starting the review of Yakuza 0.
Though Yakuza 0 is technically the sixth entry into the Yakuza universe (if you count all of its Japanese iterations), it takes place before the first title, back when Kazuma Kiru was just a young pup. And, given his past (or, technically, future), it should come as no surprise that things don’t go swimmingly for young Kazuma. On a mission to shake down an outstanding loan, his target is murdered…and Kazuma is framed for it. Unfortunately for him, the abandoned lot that the murder occurred in is hotly sought after by both the Yakuza and private real estate companies; whoever controls the lot, controls the future of Kamurocho.
Now, before I get into the story and gameplay mechanics, I should mention a couple major things about Yakuza 0:
For starters, the entire thing is in Japanese with English subtitles, so if you’re one of those “I haaaaaaate reading” types, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Add to that, the game takes place in 1980s Japan, so there are many cultural references that might fly under your radar.
Mind you, I have zero command of Japanese culture, nor the hierarchy of the Yakuza. Because of this, entire segments made literally no sense to me. Sure, I could read them without issue, but without a firm grasp of Japanese comedy (or sociological norms), story elements just seemed strange.4
In fact, there’s a lot of strange throughout Yakuza 0…but I’m assuming that’s part of its charm. Even though Kazuma and Goro are in hot water throughout the storyline, they’re roped into several “fetch”quests ranging from them buying sneakers for a tired student, to pretending to be a submissive slave for a shy dominatrix to practice on. The rub is, none of these people really matter to the overall narrative of the game, yet upon completing their short “mission”, you’ll be treated to a wistful, “after school special” piano twinkle, signalling that they learned an important life lesson. But even as I was completing these quests, I couldn’t help but wonder why Kazuma is bothering to help these civilians. Sure, you have the option not to help, but it ultimately breaks up the monotony of repetitive combat segments…and can sometimes lead to upgraded weapons and/or fighting styles.
Combat is both the highlight and the lowlight of Yakuza 0. Just like the original game, combat literally allows you to beat money out of people, which can then be used to either upgrade your skillset or buy food/weapons/games/etc. It’s definitely an interesting system, and compared to most other fighting games/RPGs, it’s imperative to manage your inventory as well as your health levels.
The majority of combat takes place on the streets via random skirmishes, but if you’re low on health (or just want to finish your fetch-quest) you can usually outrun them, since they’ll often announce their presence via neon pink word-bubble. In each “city” you’ll also encounter “Mr. Shakedown” (or someone named similar) who’s essentially a walking boss battle. You will be rewarded handsomely if you survive, but will take all your money (and health) if you fail. And like most bosses, he’s full of cheap, exploitave moves…so you’ll earn every last dollar you take from him.
The other interesting part of Yakuza’s combat is that each character has skillsets you can unlock, which allow you not only to equip weapons, but also to switch between styles. You can also save your money to train with combat style masters, which further unlock moves…but only after you’ve unlocked enough “beads” on your own.
In lieu of a traditional ability tree, there’s a circular bead-based “tree” which allows you to buy additional health extensions and new moves. “Investing in yourself” is a constant reminder, and you’ll need to beef up your basic skillsets if you want to train with specific martial arts.
As in previous titles, there are also a bunch of location-specific (and character-specific) things that you can do if you flat-out don’t want to continue the story. There’s a fishing spot, several arcades with classic games (and a claw-game that I may have gotten mildly obsessed with), real-estate ventures to complete (and collect on), karaoke joints to sing at (via an extremely difficult rhythm minigame), bowling, batting cages, mah-jongg, casinos and even “phone cards” to investigate.
Yeah, definitely the most odd is the “erotic video” area, which you unlock by finding phone cards scattered throughout the city. Once you get em, you can watch a short video of an actual bikini-clad human gyrating around. Or if you’re in the mood for character model boobs, you eventually unlock an underground catfighting circuit, which will have you betting on outcomes as well as actively participating in an oil-slathered girl-on-girl wrestling match…oddly decided by rock-paper-scissors.
Now, this may be a minor spoiler, but just when you’re beginning to get tired of playing as Kazuma, there’s an abrupt narrative shift, and you begin mid-story as a younger, more subservient Goro Majima, with a completely different combat style, attitude and character arc. Obviously, if you know the franchise, Kazuma and Goro cross paths multiple times in future titles, but Yakuza 0 manages to show them as two distinct entities, both essentially punished by being downgraded to civilians, and yet, still shit on by the Yakuza. And yet, we know that they will both rise to be major players, thanks to the first Yakuza title, so watching their stories unfold can be interesting.
Even though I’m culturally inept when it comes to understanding Yakuza family politics, the ability to see both the hero (Kazuma) and the anti-hero (Goro) as individuals on the same “side”, prior to their initial meeting, goes a long way towards humanizing them…especially Goro. And yet, both are hampered by a bevy of side-quests that have them relegated to errand boys for the people of Kamurocho. And speaking of the city, this feels like a tiny slice of Tokyo…and I want to explore more! Unfortunately, if you approach the ends of the map area, you’ll run into an invisible wall…doubly odd, since the street continues ahead of you. It feels especially constrained, given that other “action RPG titles” which have taken place in sprawling cities, have been larger on older hardware. Much like Japan, Yakuza seems to be concerned with building upward instead of outward, and even though there’s a wealth of things to do in Kamurocho, the general area leaves something to be desired.
My biggest criticism about Yakuza 0 is that, for all of it’s fun quirks, the gameplay and story feel incredibly dated. It’s supposedly an open-world RPG, but the map is remarkably small, and the “side missions” are almost always “go here, buy/play/win/fight this and get a minor prize”. Like Yakuza before it, Yakuza 0 has a definite Shenmue feeling to it…but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The visuals switch between stunning CGI and slightly-better-than-360 character models, and everyone tends to move rather woodenly. If you were to tell me that this was a remastered PS3 title, I’d totally believe you…but I don’t know that I’d pay more than a $30 price point. Then again, Yakuza 0 is definitely a long game–I logged more than 65 hours and didn’t even come close to hitting the 100% mark. However, without giving anything away, it would behoove you to complete both Kazuma and Goro’s “business ventures” before finishing the story…especially if you played the original Yakuza.
Again, I’ll say that my cultural ineptitude and minimal frame of reference for the franchise probably add to my disinterest in the story and side-quests. However. The minigames are legitimately some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing in a “big” game, and that’s honestly what kept me coming back. Add to that, you’re able to play 2 player on several “sport” type games, as well as compete on global leader boards.
If you played and loved the original Yakuza, Yakuza 0 will be a nice shot of nostalgia…but if you’re using 0 as a jumping off point for the franchise, you might feel left in the dust…just like I was.