How it all began…
The Yakuza series has always struggled to catch the eye of a mainstream audience. Ever since it’s debut on the PS2, it’s only managed to survive in the west thanks to a diehard fan base who are passionate about the series. Thankfully, Sega have taken note of this fan base and have finally given Yakuza 0 a physical release here in the west. And now that it’s here, how does this first PS4 outing fit alongside the other entries in the franchise?
The Yakuza series (or “Like a Dragon” series) has been running for more than 10 years now, with each mainline entry following a long and twisting storyline full of deep character relationships and complex overarching themes. This could easily alienate many from stepping into the series, feeling they missed their chance to hop on the bandwagon. Thankfully, Yakuza 0 attempts to reintroduce those people to the series by being a prequel to the first game and introducing the characters from a much younger starting point.
Taking place in the 1980’s, Yakuza 0 follows Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, two of the most recognizable faces of the series. Kiryu is a newbie in the Dojo family and is eager to climb the ranks, but when a simple cash collection goes horribly wrong, Kiryu has to find a way to prove himself innocent and protect his family name.
Meanwhile Majima is a calm and collected club owner who is forced to work against his wishes by the Yakuza as punishment for his past deeds. But things get more complicated when he gets the chance to redeem himself and he finds himself caught between duty and honour.
The story in the Yakuza games has always been the high point, being a wonderfully portrayed gangster melodrama with complicated relationships and betrayals throughout, and constantly having you wonder who is going to try and double-cross who.
But the real selling point for Yakuza fans is that the game gives them a chance to see their favourite characters before they ended up the way they did in the original. Kiryu is far more brash and aggressive due to his youth, and only has his one friend, Akira Nishiki, to keep him in his place. Majima on the other hand is uncharacteristically polite and well behaved, and doesn’t even wield his trademark bat.
It’s refreshing getting to watch these characters in a new light, and even more rewarding watching them evolve into the men who would eventually become bitter rivals.
On the gameplay side of things, Yakuza 0 is a JRPG disguised as an open world game. From a glance, many might mistake it for a GTA clone, but looking a little deeper and you’ll find that Yakuza is similar to the Tales Of series more than anything.
As Kiryu, your quest takes place in Kamurocho (a fictionalised version of the Kabukicho district in Shinjuku) and as Majima you run around Sotenbori (a fictionalised version of the Dotonbori district in Osaka).
The game allows you to explore a detailed recreation of these areas, and as you explore you can take on side quests and visit shops to buy equipment and armour. Sometimes you’ll run into random encounters where the game enters a small arena for you to battle it out with some thugs or other Yakuza.
It’s surprisingly how safe it plays to JRPG tropes, and yet it all feels completely new and revived from a stale genre. A large factor in this is due to the games superb fighting mechanics.
The Yakuza series has always had brilliant fighting systems, blending fighting game and open world game mechanics seamlessly. Yakuza 0 reinvigorates the franchise again by introducing new battle stances for both characters that greatly change how each approaches combat.
Kiryu has his standard fighting stance, but also includes a fast-paced boxing style and a unstoppable tank mode simply called “beast mode”. It clear to see that all his attacks are all unrefined variations of what would become his trademark moves in the future titles.
Majima on the other hand as an unfocused brute who uses wild and unpredictable moves to confuse his enemies, and over time finds a style that works better for him. This, of course, involves using a baseball bat to clobber people’s heads in.
The details that have been put into the characters and the foundations for their development over the series is highly commendable, and goes to show just how much love and care goes into making these games as magical as they can be.
And the rest of the game gleams with an equal amount of love in all aspects. The game is full of little touches that would make anyone smile. From how the game subtly changes music depending on what battle stance you’re in, to how characters use more simplistic language around children and colder sentences when talking to strangers.
Yakuza 0 is by far the finest and most well-crafted Yakuza game in the franchise. It excels in everything it sets out to achieve and more. It leaves you feeling rewarded that you’ve been able to experience something of such greatness. For those who love the series, or those who have yet to play any of the games, Yakuza 0 is the perfect place to dive in and see why these games are just so incredible.
Thanks to Sega for supplying a review code