written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
A good prequel story can be hit or miss… for some franchises it can reinvigorate a series with a narrative that further adds to the legends… in others it can create pages of retcons and inconsistencies that do the originals zero favors. With that we have Yakuza 0 from SEGA, meant to tell the story of the franchise’s two biggest personalities before they became legends.
Set in 1988 Japan, Yakuza 0 follows two former Yakuza as they face an ever growing tale of intrigue that is meant to set the tone for the series to come. Split between two protagonists in two different locations, Yakuza 0 tells the tale of the rise of franchise hero Kazuma Kiryu and fan favorite Goro Majima. Before either of these men were the “Dragon of Dojima” or “the Mad Dog of the Shimano family,” they were young and brash former yakuza expelled from their respective families.
For Kiryu, a simple collection for a loan shark turns bloody when the man Kiryu shook down for cash turns up dead in an empty lot. Kiryu adamantly denies killing this man, realizing that there is someone out there setting him up. To make matters worse, the empty lot where the body was found is a crucial piece of land for the Dojima family’s revitalization project. Expelled from the family and now hunting for clues in Kamurocho, finding the real killer and the one who framed him means more than just clearing his name… but also clearing the name of his mentor and father figure, Dojima captain Shintaro Kazama. This leads the young yakuza down the path of truly becoming the legendary yakuza we first see in his debut back in 2005.
Meanwhile to the west, our second protagonist is Goro Majima. Before he was ever the “Mad Dog” he was a prisoner of sorts to the Shimano family. After disobeying the family, Majima is tortured for a year… losing his left eye in the process. Still adamant about being let back into the family, he bides his time as the manager of a cabaret club, The Grand, while steadily raising capital for the family. Seems like the family is ready to take him back… but at a cost. Majima is tasked to assassinate Makoto Makimura, but when his mark turns out to be the furthest thing from his expectations, the future “Mad Dog” switches gears from assassin to protector… all the while trying to stay under the radar from the Shimano family.
Story wise, the game is split into chapters with the narrative shifting from one protagonist to the other at certain points. Though predictable at times and maybe I’m just more observant but I saw “the big reveal” coming a mile away. Despite lacking in surprise, it more that makes up for it in its boldness. This is very much a yakuza story, a fitting representation of a crime drama. At its most serious, it rivals some of the most famous mafioso films here in the US. Littered throughout both Kamurocho and Sotenbori are the substories that make up a serious bulk of the game’s presentation. Substories are like side-quests, while not required to fully enjoy the story… they do manage to add quite a bit of value to the overall package. The Yakuza series is an interesting action game, I wouldn’t compare it to other open world type games because the comparison honestly couldn’t hold water. Rather, Yakuza has more in common with traditional JRPGs than it does third-person action games from the West.
Gameplay is very similar to another SEGA franchise, Shenmue. You navigate Kiryu or Majima through their respective locales, fighting random enemy encounters and discovering substories. Story missions that advance the game’s narrative are highlighted on the map, but you do have the option at most points to just wander the town. My biggest complaint of the map is the inability to set custom waypoints, when I needed to find a certain shop or substory location I had to constantly jump into the map screen to find my bearings. The inclusion of a custome paypoint or at least a mission select screen could have greatly alleviated this issue. Combat occurs when an enemy either spots you, if you bump into one while walking around, or when you intervene when a civilian is being attacked by a group. Enemy encounters also occur as part of of substories and story missions. Unlike other open world games that feature combat seamlessly woven into the map, Yakuza games have always drawn the JRPG comparison since encounters shift from the main map to an enclosed space… complete with cheering fans getting an eyeful of free entertainment.
Each of the two main protagonists have three separate fighting styles, switching between the two and finding the right form for the particular threat you face is part of the battle. Kiryu’s Brawler and Majima’s Thug styles are your basic general all around fighting styles. Neither fast nor slow, they output a steady stream of punishment… think of this as the “jack of all/master of none” combat style. To speed things up a bit, Kiryu has Rush while Majima employs Breaker… a fast and furious combat style that relies on quick evasion and lighting fast combos to take down you opponents. For the player that wants to deal out massive damage, Kiryu has Beast style while Majima breaks out a baseball bat in his Slugger style. Each combat style varies greatly from each other and at times you’ll find yourself jumping from one style to another to tackle the enemies you face. Investing into yourself is paramount when combat begins to increase in difficulty. Each combat style comes complete with its own skill tree, pouring your hard earned yen into unlocking various nodes that grant additional abilities, increased health, or increased damage.
Large battles can get out of hand fairly quickly if you aren’t careful, while you can focus on one enemy at the push of a button… switching between targets is clunky at best. I can’t tell you how many times I got sucker punched by a guy because I couldn’t change who I was focusing on. More so, there is no indicator when you lock onto an enemy… while this isn’t that much of a problem in smaller engagements, it poses a huge annoyance when facing down enemies in the double digits. While each style has a dedicated “guard” ability, it does lack a dedicated counter attack button. Games like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and Batman Arkham Knight have mastered weaving counter attacks into their already great combat. I feel what Yakuza’s combat lacks is the fluid nature of its contemporaries, making it feel like a relic from days gone by. Where combat gets its saving grace is in the Heat system, as you land successful blows your “Heat” meter fills up. Maxing out at three bars, you can activate Heat Actions that can quickly decimate your foes. Some of these attacks are brutal and rightly so, while circumstances that allow you to activate a Heat Action vary… the payoff is a highly stylized move that can extremely take down a foe or take said foe out of the battle entirely.
While the core story is indeed intriguing, what both Kamurocho and Sotenburi offer go beyond the game’s core narrative. Aside from the substories, a staple of the series, the world also holds various optional activities from racing Micro Cars, bowling, playing UFO catcher games, dancing the night away and karaoke (via a rhythm mini-game) to name a few. With the almighty yen playing a major role in the game, and of course unlocking new combat abilities, a steady stream of cash needs to be made. You could just stroll around the city, taking down various random encounters for chump change, but where the big money comes is from two separate businesses you unlock later on in the game.
Kiryu manages an independent real estate company while Majima breaks out from the Cabaret to start his own Cabaret Club. Both endeavors come with a little mini game that requires carving out your own little place in the city, both of which also draw the attention from aggressive opposition. In Kamurocho, the Five Billionaires run the city… when Kiryu starts inching in on their territory he has to buy out businesses while pushing back against the increasingly antagonistic nature of these men of industry. For Majima, five shrewd Cabaret Club managers run the entire operation… forcing the prideful Majima to do what he does best, crack skulls and trick wealthy men into pouring their hard earned cash into the club. While purely optional, this steady income stream can make unlocking ability nodes that much faster but more so it adds to the already full experience you get in this game.
There’s much more to be had here as well, from fighting Mr. Shakedown for cash to betting on an underground cat-fight ring, your earning potential is as diverse as the options given. If you come in expecting a paint by numbers action game, you may end up feeling a bit overwhelmed. This plays heavily into the JRPG like approach, giving you almost too much game for one package.
Visually, the game looks pretty albeit dated. The game’s engine runs on what feels like “last-gen” plus a “current-gen” coat of paint. Textures go from being highly detailed to low res, even the overall gameplay at times feels very PS3. When Yakuza 0 was originally released in Japan, it marked the 10 year anniversary for the series (back in 2015). Since much of the Yakuza fanbase was built on the PS3, the game originally released on both PS3 and PS4 in Japan. Aside from prettier textures, both games play completely identical, while this does work for the Japanese market I feel that players in the West expecting something decidedly “current-gen” may feel let down by the visuals. Though we do need to wait until Yakuza 6 to get our true first taste of a “current-gen” Yakuza title, this plucky prequel does a great job despite the limitations of being released on both last and current gen systems.
Despite paired down visuals that do not feel “current-gen” by any stretch of the imagination, at its core this game is a huge experience packed into one package. You can lose yourself in hours of gameplay before even scratching the surface on the main overarching story. Both Kiryu and Majima are far from the legends they were in previous installments, but as they say… you gotta know where you came from before you know where you’re going. This is a story about the births of two legends, and for a series that is yet to truly make a huge mark in the West… here’s hoping they continue to give us these games in the years to come.
+ Intriguing story with interesting side missions
+ satisfying combat
+ lots of stuff to do
+ cool characters
- visually... nothing to write home about
- lack of a counter button
- feels very "last-gen"