Yakuza 0 has been a very eye-opening experience, effectively defying every expectation I had of the series prior to playing it.
Somewhere along the way, the series got saddled with the secondary identity of “Grand Theft Auto: Japan,” and not being a particularly big fan of Rockstar’s open world urban crime sensation (save for the odd bit of chaotic dabbling until I get bored), that was an immediate cue for me to dismiss this particular SEGA effort. Maybe it was an effort on behalf of marketing to try to appeal to an already broad fanbase, but whatever the case, it backfired for me — and, in reading talk online leading up to this release, I’m far from alone in that regard.
So what changed my mind from viewing Yakuza as a series I could not possibly care less about to something I was so eager to play that I agreed to do this review? Three words: Project X Zone 2. (Three words? Two words, a letter, and a number? Whatever, you get the gist.)
The appearance of Goro Majima and Kazuma Kiryu in that intercompany crossover was enough to make me pay attention, and as I played and got to understand their characters, I became intrigued by them, and wanted to know more — even if it meant trying to play a GTA clone in order to do so, and even if their portrayals might have been somewhat exaggerated to fit the somewhat zanier tone of that game.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered I was wrong on both counts.
I don’t know if it’s by stroke of luck or purely devious marketing, but it was fortunate that the next game to be released in North America following Project X Zone 2 early last year would be Yakuza 0 — a prequel which, from what I’ve been told, makes a perfect jumping-on point for newcomers to the series. Makes sense, all things considered — including that a remake of the first game is coming soon.
The “Grand Theft Auto” comparison is so far off the mark as to be patently absurd. Aside from the idea that you play as a career criminal in both series, the two — at least as far as Yakuza 0 goes — could not be any more different.
Arguably the biggest difference, it must be said, is in the gameplay. While GTA prides itself on sprawling open-world environments, Yakuza 0 keeps a much tighter focus in on a few sandbox-style city areas — believe me, it was quite jarring to reach a street that I simply couldn’t cross because the other side was effectively off of the map. I can’t say that this bothered me, though, as it kept a narrower and tighter focus for the stories and missions. Those used to maps the size of New York City or half of California might feel things are a bit cramped, but for how much you can do in these areas, I was satisfied by it.
Another big difference is the lack of death in this game. Not to say that there isn’t any, but for the beatdowns you lay on thugs, men in black, punks, and all sorts of other miscreants walking the street, they by all rights should be dead, but aren’t. Plus, you don’t have carte blanche to cause whatever chaos you want; if you find yourself laying beatings down on anyone, it’s because they deserved it — likely for starting something with you, or even because they’re picking on defenseless civilians and you’ve chosen to intervene.
Along those same lines, don’t expect to do any carjacking. Traffic in the areas you explore is mainly by foot, and while there are cars parked around (handy for slamming thugs into in various ways), if you want to ride anywhere, you’re paying for a taxi.
But back to the combat. At various points throughout the game, you’ll play as Kiryu and Majima, who each have their own unique fighting styles. You start each character with one, but pick up the other two in fairly short order, and while you can build up the skills of each independently through an upgrade tree of sorts (done by investing the money you earn in various ways, including beating on thugs to see the yen come flying out), finding one that’s right for you should be a simple matter.
In Kiryu’s case, I’m most at home with his simple (but effective) Brawler style, but there are times where the strength-oriented Beast style comes in handy as anything that isn’t nailed down instantly becomes a weapon in your hands. Conversely, one would think that Majima’s default Thug style would be my cup of tea, especially with that reverse hurricanrana that he uses as a finisher, but I found the baseball bat-oriented Slugger style suited my flow better. In either scenario, it’s fun to mix things up with each style and see what you can do.
While some fights are story-oriented and must be completed to progress, there’s a lot of optional combat as well. In addition to choosing to train with mentors for the newly-acquired styles, there are a lot of side quests which often lead to fights as well, should you choose to take them on. Other times, you might hear someone calling for help as they’re surrounded by scallywags who are in desperate need of a sound thrashing for preying upon the weak. Provided it’s not one of the exceedingly rare instances (just one so far by my personal count) where those encounters seem impossible to find, you get to dish out some justice and be rewarded for your efforts.
The most common, however, are when you’re just walking around and minding your own business when a group of deadbeats picks up on your presence. You’ll be alerted that you’ve been spotted by red outlines around the onscreen text (such as “hey, I know that guy,” which doesn’t track because if they did, they wouldn’t be picking these fights, but I digress) and a cone of vision on the map as they rush towards you. There are ways to avoid this, including running away, but I usually just go for the quick beatdown and some easy cash. Incidentally, the game says that walking helps lower the chances of these encounters, but I haven’t noticed it being appreciably less, so unless you just like to strut, running is more practical.
Between story beats and this game’s equivalent to random encounters in role playing games (which, on the whole, Yakuza 0 isn’t terribly unlike, save for the beat ’em up-styled fights in place of menus), some of these guys are bound to get in some lucky hits. While you could just keep walking around with a knife in your ribs (not literally), you can just as easily stop in at one of many eateries and convenience stores scattered throughout the city and grab yourself a bite to eat so you can heal right up — or get takeout for later. From fast food to ramen to sushi, there are plentiful choices — plus a little product placement in the form of cans of 7UP and Mountain Dew, though these sadly use their modern logos, a bit of an anachronism in the game’s 1988 world.
Once you’re done chowing down, you can get right back to work or relax a little by taking in a little dancing, karaoke, darts, pool, batting cages, and more (some of which are available outside of the main game for local and online multiplayer). You can also visit the SEGA Hi-Tech Land arcades, where you can play a bit of the actual arcade games of the day, such as Space Harrier or Out Run. You can also partake in the UFO catchers (crane machines) to pluck some elusive prizes, such as Opa-Opa or a plush Mega Drive with arms and legs. Just don’t look for Sonic the Hedgehog — he won’t be unveiled to the public for another three years.
With this game taking place during the big economic boom, money is everything. You’ll make a pretty penny by beating up goons, sure, but there are other ways to become quite wealthy as well. Running gentlemen’s clubs and real estate are the more legitimate means to rake it in (though these can be a little complicated, at least at first glance), though if it suits your tastes, you can also try betting on scantily-clad ladies catfighting for the pleasure and potential profit of onlookers. With your profits, you can invest further in your business or — in lieu of an experience-based system — in yourself to level up your fighting skills.
While the freedom to go around and dispense bloody justice near and far between Smile Burgers and games of Out Run is all well and good, the main driving force in this game is the story. I’ve found it absolutely intriguing and enthralling, at first almost glorifying the yakuza lifestyle before showing you just how ugly the whole thing can get. Along the way, you’re never quite sure of who you can trust. It carries a very mature tone, which befits a mature rated game. That said, even if you were to cut out all the other elements which earn Yakuza 0 its well-deserved M rating, I’m not sure how much younger gamers would get out of it. Personally speaking, a lot of it would probably have bored me to tears at 16 and thereabouts, but as an adult, it just clicks.
That said, the story is helped along by a great cast of characters. The villains are perfectly villainous, leaving you with little (if anything) to make you like them except for the fact they’re so easy to thoroughly hate. On the other side of the coin, the protagonists were the ones who drew me to the series in the first place, and they do not disappoint.
Goro Majima, interestingly, is not at all like the character I was introduced to in Project X Zone 2. Without going into too much detail, he’s a lot more subdued here, carrying out a punishment handed down to him by his Tojo Clan superiors and looking for a way to get back into their good graces so he can live the life once again. The disparity between his appearances lends a nice bit of engagement as you look towards what makes him break loose and become the wild “Mad Dog of the Shimano Family,” to say nothing of what lengths he will — and won’t — go to for his superiors.
Kazuma Kiryu, on the other hand, seems very much like the character I met before. Strong, stoic, and serious… except when he’s not. Despite working for the yakuza, he has a strong sense of justice (though how strong depends on how you play him) and a sense of loyalty that’s second to none. As a member of organized crime, he actually reminds me a bit of Optimus Prime, strange as it is to say. But Prime’s voice actor, Peter Cullen, has said of his portrayal of the character that his brother told him “don’t do all the bravado stuff and pretend to be tough. Be strong enough to be gentle. Be understanding — and calm.”
To me, that sounds like Kiryu to a “T,” and is probably part of why I feel like he clicks with me on some level. He’s often calm and understanding in some extremely bizarre situations, willing to lend a helping hand to those who need it, but will do whatever it takes to keep those who abuse their strength and numbers from preying on the weak and innocent. Does that sound like a GTA character to you? (No, seriously, I haven’t played enough of those to know — you’d have to tell me.)
However, just as serious as the story and characters can be, just as in real life, there’s a lot of craziness which goes on that you have to see to believe. So many moments of dialogue and visuals have had me exercising the Share button on my DualShock 4 like no game before it. Most of these exist in sidequests, from helping someone out with their shoulder bag-phone to delivering a pizza to breaking up a high school girls’ panty-selling ring to the chicken — it all sounds so mundane here, but to try spelling them out would be a disservice to anyone interested in finding out for themselves. Just the same, a little light searching if you’re curious might be the best way (the chicken scenario seems especially popular).
Outside of the main story beats, the game does get very over-the-top, including the fight scenes and other bits. Making a purchase of some property, for instance, carries a very Ace Attorney-ish moment with it as Kiryu announces that he’ll be paying for it “…in CASH!” as he thrusts the open suitcase full of yen forward dramatically. In that way, it makes a lot of sense that it should be with Phoenix Wright and Maya Fey that Majima and Kiryu share their debut scene in Project X Zone 2 — there’s a sense that either pair would fit in quite well in the other’s world.
At this point, I’m not even sure what else there is to say, as I’m already well over my word count for this piece, even though I could write about it all night. So I’ll just close by saying that playing Yakuza 0 has been a very eye-opening experience, effectively defying every expectation I had of the series prior to playing it. In a way, I feel robbed by not having played anything in the franchise sooner, but I’m glad that SEGA has presented this new opportunity for people like me to jump in and see what we’ve been missing.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an open car door for whoever coined that initial “Grand Theft Auto” comparison, and it really needs to be shut. Hard. With my foot, if you catch my drift.
Unless you’ve played Yakuza before and have beheld its glory: You were wrong. I was wrong. So many people had this game wrong, and it’s time things were set right. While not a perfect game, its flaws are minor enough to feel like nitpicking in the overall scheme of things.
- Intense, high-energy action
- Enthralling story
- Engaging characters
- Great music
- Tons of content to keep you occupied for quite a while
- A PS3 game on PS4 systems means the graphics aren’t quite as state of the art as one might expect, but please don’t let that stop you from trying it
- Saving is a little bit of a hassle, especially if you do it frequently
- Mr. Shakedown can bite me
- If you need a quick game, this ain’t it