Yakuza 0 PS4 Review

Back in 2006, Sega of America attempted to sell the newly created Yakuza IP as the Grand Theft Auto of Japan. At the time, this marketing was the best way to convince Western PS2 owners to give the game a shot, but it was also the most misleading: in truth, the Yakuza games are more like cinematic re-imaginings of River City Ransom, a brawler set around the criminal underbelly of Japanese culture with RPG-like elements, including experience points, purchasing items and visiting restaurants to restore health. Coupled with a cinematic story that intricately details the violent day-to-day activities of real-life yakuza, the series has earned a cult following in the West and has spawned several sequels across the PS2, PS3 and PS4.

Unfortunately, cult followings don’t always bring in the big bucks, and for a time Sega had ceased localizing the Yakuza series after its third entry. It wasn’t until a recent intervention by Sony that fans got the chance to experience Yakuza 4 and 5 as digital only releases, though several spin-offs and remakes still remain exclusive to Japan. Regardless, this move was a breath of fresh air for Western fans suffering the drought of localized entries, and with the confirmation that the next three games released on the PS4 are heading stateside as well, there is no greater time for Yakuza fans to celebrate…and no greater time for newcomers to join in.

Whether by coincidence or intentional timing, Yakuza 0 is being billed as a perfect entry point for PS4 owners to get acquainted with the series, thanks to its placement in the long-running timeline that began with the original game. Taking place in 1988, over ten years before the first game, Yakuza 0 focuses on series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, younger and more idealistic than previously depicted but no less indomitable in his strength and demeanor. After being framed for a murder he did not commit, Kiryu must cast his ties with his criminal family in order to unravel an organized plot by several of his superiors in order to legally acquire a vacant lot that stands in the way of their dominance over a sizeable district. In typical crime noir fashion, there are lots of betrayals and backstabbing (both metaphorically and quite literally), and Kiryu must rely on his small group of allies and his Fist of the North Star-like fighting prowess in order to get the answers he seeks while keeping his head intact.

On the other side of the spectrum, Yakuza 0 also focuses on Goro Majima, who takes on a significantly more restrained role compared to his wilder and violent appearances in previous games. After disobeying a direct order, Majima has been expelled from his Yakuza family and must earn back their favor by managing their biggest night club. Despite the consistent fame and fortune he amasses night after night, Majima is a caged dog who yearns to break free and run wild, and when the opportunity comes to take out a target that will supposedly earn him back on his family’s good graces, he too ends up embroiled in a much deeper plot that threatens his life.

The game bounces between these two protagonists every couple of chapters, but during that time players are free to roam around the city and engage in various activities (and street fights). Both characters roam different regions, but both cities are filled with neon lights, hordes of people and dozens of vendors. The visuals are some of the sharpest in the franchise, with some particularly impressive facial detail and an almost consistent 60 frames a second, though a minor amount of screen tearing hampers what would have otherwise been a flawless production. The game also tends to arbitrarily switch between presentations during cutscenes, including an odd comic book-style presentation where characters remain stationary but still cast small facial gestures (it gets even odder when background elements remain unaffected, including NPC passersby).

As mentioned before, the Yakuza games have less in common with Grand Theft Auto and err closer to classic RPGs: players spend most of the time wandering outside, with random enemy encounters littered throughout as well as numerous sidequests tied to NPCs. Players can also visit many shops, restaurants and other venues, which are color coded on the map for convenience. Shops sell a variety of items including health drinks and equipment, as well as crafting parts and consumables for the other activities. Restaurants serve various foods that restore HP, with the more expensive dishes being the most effective.

As for the other indoor activities, they range wildly from gambling parlors to pool tables, disco dance floors to adult video stores, even bowling and model car racing. There are simply too many mini-games to list, and each one is full-fledged with layers of rules and rewards to follow. And of course, there is the Sega arcade, a series tradition filled with fully playable arcade classics as well as a virtual UFO catcher with prizes. Being the late ’80s, fans will have to forego the likes of Virtua Fighter with older cult classics like Outrun and Space Harrier. There are also outdoor activities to take part in, including fishing and, for the first time in the West, Japanese board games like Shogi and Mahjong (good luck understanding the rules, though).

Then there are the NPC sidequests, which make up more than half the game itself; though the main storyline is a hard-edged mixture of dirty politics and white knuckle action (with a dash of stoic manliness for seasoning), the sidequests are often humorous and filled with oddball characters who seem destined to put Kiryu and Majima through the most humiliating ordeals imaginable. From posing as a TV producer to appease an eccentric director, to helping a kid recover his stolen videogame (which ends up stolen by several assailants), to schooling a rival on the disco dance floor, Yakuza 0’s sidequests turn the Japanese crime drama into a late night J-pop comedy, and somehow manages to have side stories about shy dominatrixes, drunken boxers and chicken managers (as in, a literal chicken) blend in.

For players that manage to steel their curiosity and stick to the main storyline, there’s still the main combat portion to delve into. Largely unchanged from previous Yakuza games, encounters take place in fixed areas, where players must pummel a path forward by taking out all the enemies using their fists, feet, and any nearby objects that look sharp or heavy. On its own, combat consists of punches, kicks, dodging and blocking, the standard tools for a brawler. Where things heat up is the Heat gauge, which fills up after consistent attacks, and can result in several contextual attacks that are as effective as they are brutal. Such examples include dragging an enemy to a nearby urinal and slamming their head into the porcelain, dropping a bicycle on their bodies when down on the floor, or just mercilessly stomping them into submission, to name just a few.

As a first for the series, Yakuza 0 also features different fighting styles for both characters, which can be switched on the fly during battle. These styles have their own dedicated move sets and speeds, as well as their own strengths and weaknesses: examples include the Rush style, which lets players be more evasive and throw faster punches at the cost of stopping power; Beast is the polar opposite, where Kiryu becomes a slow, lumbering force that can decimate foes in just a few swings. Majima’s styles are even more unorthodox, including the Slugger style, where he uses a baseball bat in a variety of ways, and the Breaker style, which employs Eddy Gordo-like breakdancing to throw foes off guard. Each style can also be upgraded with money, which acts as both the in-game currency as well as experience points to put into unlocking a specific node in each style (including new moves, increased health, etc.).

Despite the addition of styles, combat is still the most repetitive aspect of the Yakuza series; while fully functional and often satisfying, the fighting at its core is still basic, and the random encounters feel like a repetitive nuisance with little variety or challenge to them, oftentimes feeling like a one-and-done scrap to reach the nearest karaoke bar. The real fun happens during the action-packed story sequences, typically involving extended gauntlet runs through buildings and adding in some Quick Time Events and chase sequences to spice things up. These action moments are the ultimate examples of how badass Yakuza can be when it hits its stride, but they are also few and far between, requiring hours of lengthy (but still compelling) exposition. There are also a few technical holdovers from the previous console generations, such as the lack of custom waypoints when navigating the city or the slow-moving text during non-voiced sequences.

But a little bit of jank makes little difference in the grand scheme of things, and Yakuza 0 is a strong testament to the level of detail and the amount of content the series is known for. The writing is equal parts a compelling crime thriller and a hilarious spoof of Japanese culture, the combat is simplistic but unobtrusive with some satisfying hard hits, and the numerous amounts of side activities, unlockables, mini-games and extra modes will keep players satisfied and busy before the next game rolls around. This is the perfect introduction to the life of a smooth criminal, especially when the remake of the original Yakuza will be hitting the West soon after.

8 out of 10

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