The Yakuza games always favored an over-the-top style and flair that was on the borderline of absurdly ridiculous, yet humorous portrayal of the Japanese underworld. Yakuza 0 takes this same approach in retro fashion by going back to the 1980s for a prequel story of series protagonist Kiriyu Kazama. Those that have played the Yakuza games in the past will appreciate the series staple mini-games and open-world roaming in a 1980s version of Kamurocho, Japan. Unfortunately, a few minor issues that have been present for most of the Yakuza games still linger in this otherwise visually polished prequel to the series.
The Yakuza series has a very keen eye for detail, especially in the environment you explore and places you visit throughout the story. The lighting on the streets of Kamurocho or inside any yakuza building adds a dramatic undertone to everything on screen, even the most mundane things around you. The game looks pretty and makes Kamurocho feel like an ever bustling Japanese city in 1988, with many of the mini-games and advertisements pulled right out of that time period. SEGA throws a few nods to some of their retro arcade games that you can play while visiting any of the SEGA arcades around the city, including OutRun and Space Harrier. It’s those little touches that make walking around Kamurocho fun to explore, if only to see what easter eggs you can find along the way.
The polish in Yakuza 0 isn’t just limited to what you see around you. The characters and the cutscenes that play in-between gameplay sections look great on the PlayStation 4. As the story progresses, you come across many different characters that ooze lots of personality through the clothes they wear and their facial expressions, even though it can be a bit cheesy at times. Things get a little ridiculous with everyone looking like they have the most amazing shiny hair gel in the world, but it strangely goes well alongside the over-the-top scenarios you come across while playing.
Yet despite the fresh look, the gameplay of Yakuza 0 isn’t all that different for the series as a whole, with a few small exceptions. You’ll still be roaming around the city and getting into fights with random hooligans and yakuza crossing your path, as well as taking on objectives to advance the plot. The fighting is just as ridiculous as one would come to expect from a Yakuza game. This time you have different styles of fighting that you can switch between during combat that open up a variety of attacks and special moves. There are Heat Actions that are devastating attacks that you can use against enemies, but only after you’ve built up enough heat from damaging enemies.
Unfortunately however, you can’t chain moves or Heat Actions freely between styles. This makes combat still feel a bit stiff and somewhat limiting when taking on groups of enemies. I could power through baddies with a Brawler style as Kiriyu for a time, but I still had to stop a moment to switch to Beast style if I wanted to really utilize objects around me as weapons in combat. This doesn’t mean you can’t do most things in all styles of fighting, but don’t expect to freely go back and forth between styles when you are in a fight.
The story is Yakuza 0 goes back to the origins of Kiriyu Kazama and his relevance to the yakuza underworld. Along the way, you come across other characters that become more important in later games. Small things are given somewhat humorous origins and explanations to how Kiriyu comes across them, making them a bit of fan service to those that have stuck with the series for a long time. The sense of humor for these and other things that happen in Yakuza 0 never lets up and is a bit self-aware. The important events to the plot however, follow in the same vein as past games. Crazy situations get bigger and even more ridiculous as you progress through the story, almost to the point of being overly humorous and being a bit too “tongue-in-cheek” for some.
Yet despite the silly nature of some situations, Yakuza 0 still has its moments of dark storytelling and serious undertones that touch on a variety of topics that are both in and out of the time period. One moment you might be jokingly exploring the rise of cellular phones, while at another will have you learn about the harsh politics between Japan and China in years past. In some weird way, this all ties strangely into the larger narrative about Kiriyu and the yakuza clans in Kamurocho, even if it doesn’t seem like it does at first glance. There are some pacing problems with events in the story, including moments where you switch control to another character, but things do come full circle and tie up everything by the end.
In typical Yakuza series fashion, there’s a bunch of ways to take a break and get sidetracked from the main story in Kamurocho. You have the arcade games you can play at SEGA branded arcades you can visit in the city, which can also be played online with two players through the main menu. In addition to this however, there’s an assortment of other mini-games that range from underground street fighters, small business management, and even karaoke contests. You also have the many different side stories about residents in Kamurocho that you can complete, each with their own character arcs and scenarios.
These side stories never have the same level of importance as the main plot, which is a good thing, but they still have varying degrees of payoff and conclusions. They have a lot more of the humor you see throughout the game, but in a more subtle way than any of the main missions you undertake. I never felt like I needed to complete them all, but you are encouraged to try them out when you have a moment.
Yakuza 0 definitely isn’t for everybody, especially if the humor doesn’t work for you or if you’ve never played a Yakuza game before. The over exaggerated moments and crazy situations do have a charm, but the pacing of the story could be a turn-off for some. The game looks very polished and has a lot of things to get caught up in, but you will definitely need to accept some of the ridiculousness in order to enjoy what you are playing. If you’re looking for a fun time with nothing too complex and a little goofiness, then you’ll enjoy what Yakuza 0 has to offer you.
This review was based on a digital review code of Yakuza 0 for the PlayStation 4, provided by SEGA.