The Yakuza series is a long running franchise from SEGA with at least 6 other titles under its belt at this point, all with its own continuing lore– a non-stop, hard-hitting, martial arts soap opera all about Japan’s Yakuza criminal underworld. This time though, we’ve got a prequel– where we’re going all the way back to 1980s Japan during its huge economic boom– and learning the origins of series hero, Kazuma Kiryu as well as well the reoccurring character Goro Majima. Sounds like a lot, huh? Well, luckily for you, Yakuza 0 is the perfect place for a series newcomer to drop in. The question is, is it worth it? Follow me, dear reader, across the jump to find out.
I’m going to cut to the chase here. Yes! Oh my god, yes is Yakuza 0 worth your time! I don’t want to gush here, I mean, jeez, I have to maintain some form of professionalism here at Nerd Overload, but I’m not going to try and hide it. I love this game. It combines the blistering combat of a beat-em-up with the open world of a Grand Theft Auto. It has a story that somehow effectively manages to turn from deadly serious to bizarrely goofy on a dime yet still somehow work and keep you guessing where it’s going next. It’s gameplay mostly lies in the previously mentioned beat-em-up combat, but goes all over the place as you explore its two main fictional cities, Kamurocho and Sotenbori, based on both areas in Tokyo and Osaka respectively. From shopping at a variety of stores (including real Japanese chain Don Quijote), to playing mahjong and shogi, stuff like darts, pool, and bowling, to cheese-filled and goofy mini-games about karaoke, disco dancing, and a particularly ridiculous mini-game involving picking up ladies at a telephone club. Each character also has a larger, more in-depth side game in the way of each of their respective jobs. Kiryu finds himself managing a real estate empire, and Majima manages a hostess club. Both these side games have a surprising amount of depth and mesh in interesting ways with the other mini-games and side stories.
Did I mention there are side story sub quests? There’s a whole bunch of side events both characters can take part in that usually involve helping out some poor folks who are in various predicaments around the world. The aren’t always combat-related, either! They can lead into one of the many mini-games, or just involve handling dialog choices correctly. These side stories go a long way in making the game feel like your own personal slice of a living breathing 1980s Japan, and do a lot in fleshing out your main characters as fully featured human beings instead of the dumb tough guy stereotypes they could of easily become. Kiryu and Majima are a couple of tough dudes likely to punch their way out of most situations, but they are also guys that will help a crying child get back their stolen video game, help a guy get his girlfriend to complete a crossword puzzle with a hidden wedding proposal inside and getting roped into a bizarre situation where you have to stealth your way to vending machine full of dirty magazines after accidentally promising a kid you’d buy him one. A lot of the game’s fun comes out of finding and completing these sub stories, and it really fleshes out the experience as a whole.
The main storyline though, is mostly talking, then fighting, then a cutscene, then fighting, then talking and fighting again. It sounds a might repetitive, and it can be, but the story does a good job of keeping you interested, with its share of super intense moments and underworld criminal intrigue. The main thrust of the plot is the Yakuza fighting over an extremely valuable empty lot of land in Kamurocho, but is filled with twists, surprises, car bombs, and over-the-top machismo. The combat itself is appropriately chunky– these dudes aren’t capable of the agile fighting of the Arkham series Batman, but fight and block in a classic action game style with various attack and combos, as well as pick up objects littered all over. If your fists aren’t cutting it, why not pick up a traffic cone and beating your enemies down with that? Everything from knives to tasers, to teapots full of scalding water can be picked up and used against your opponents with unique animations and special moves. Not only that, but both Kiryu and Majima have different fighting styles you can switch between, like Beast style that involves quickly picking up enviormental objects to smash your foes, to an extremely entertaining Breaker style, which is– you guessed it– break dance fighting. All of the styles can be upgraded with cold hard cash, which in a fitting metaphor for Japan’s 80s bubble economy, explodes out of your foes in an endearingly video gamey way with each hard hitting punch. There’s definitely enough going on with the fighting system that while constant fights can get repetitive without breaks to partake in the game’s truckful of side content, you can change things up and try different strategies to keep things interesting.
Aside from the minor problem of being just a tad bit repetitive, Yakuza isn’t without other problems though, mostly with some bizarrely sexist content and general poor treatment of its female characters. There’s almost no female characters in the game with any sort of agency, mostly existing only as window dressing, or to be brutally murdered by some higher up Yakuza dude only to show you just how evil and nasty he really is, and that combined with a questionable underground catfighting ring and skeevy unlockable erotic (extremely tame, mind you) videos, Yakuza 0 has plenty of stuff that falls squarely in that icky treatment of women zone. You could argue that it fits the 1980s Japan setting of the game, but I don’t it would of hurt to have more strongly written women in the game’s plot.
In the end though, Yakuza 0 is a fantastically fun game, and the first really great experience of 2017. Its cheeky fun wrapped in a hardcore tough guy story is the perfect fun combination that rises above any unfortunate quirks that pop up here and there. I definitely recommend picking it up, as this is a great place to jump into the series.
Yakuza 0 was reviewed using a promotional code provided by SEGA.