The long-running Yakuza series from SEGA has always been a bit of an acquired taste. It’s a series of open world action-adventure titles focused on beat ’em up gameplay, inspired by the popular Japanese cinema genre which focuses on the ongoings and members of the Yakuza organized crime syndicate. Yakuza 0 takes players back to a different era of fictionalized Tokyo circa 1988. That said, Yakuza 0 is a prequel to previous games in the series. While new innovations have been brought forward in Yakuza 0, it still very much remains a niche game that neither “open world” or “beat ’em up” fans can assuredly sink their teeth. That feeling largely comes from a story that feels like it runs on a little too long, and monotonous gameplay aspects that don’t have the depth to push you through it.
What Yakuza 0 does offer, much like its predecessors, is a variety of things to do that don’t necessarily relate to the main path of the storylines of the game. Disco dancing, classic arcade play, and mini-games litter the world. If you just want to breath in Tokyo, wandering aimlessly and doing side activities that seem to have little to do with the story of the game, Yakuza 0 has this in spades. Same goes for side-quests. The Yakuza series has always had some interesting side quests that definitely stray from convention, making exploring this open world a walkabout that’s both visually appealing and curiously entertaining.
Yakuza 0’s drawn out story is split fairly evenly between two characters which you’ll be forced to switch back and forth between, regardless of your penchant for either — Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, each line telling a prologue tale about the characters and their role in a war between rival clans. Kiryu’s story largely centers around his early days of being a Yakuza. While Majima’s story is about his desire to get back into the Yakuza life. Each separate story takes place in a different part of the era specific districts in Tokyo. While both stories take their own twists and turns, they rely largely on the theme of morality and redemption for each character, whose paths eventually intersect. Those who’ve been through the previous games will get the most out of both. Getting a glimpse at these popular characters at this point in the overarching narrative of the Yakuza series is revealing. So newcomers could be a little thrown off, or not necessarily appreciate the prologue tales as much as a fan would. The dual-narrative can be somewhat jarring at times. Especially if you get tied to a specific character, and the inability to freely switch back and forth at times can feel a little obtuse in terms of the developer’s decision to use this method. That said, both storylines have their high and low points with pacing feeling like a big issue for each. It’s not quite as convoluted as some of the previous Yakuza titles, but it’s clear that SEGA doesn’t have the confidence to let one of these single stories stand on their own.
Outside of the aforementioned side activities, most of Yakuza 0 is a dated 3D beat ’em up game. A limited selection of moves for each character combined with a story that drags at times can wear on you. Both Kiryu and Majima have distinct fighting styles with three different sub tiers within. You can switch between these at will, and level them individually to aquire new skills as you complete challenges within the game. Like other titles in the series, Yakuza 0 focuses heavily on combat and their are quite a few options here. They include hand to hand combat with weak and strong attacks, grappling, combos, counters, and even weapons. Once you’ve progressed to a certain point in the game, you’ll have plenty of different combat options available to you with both characters, though none of it really feels all that necessary on the default difficulty settings. Taking it up a notch in difficulty will be both a more frustrating experience and one that requires a little more thought on the front of which combat style will best suit a specific fight.
Progressing the combat proficiency of each character largely depends on earning currency in Yakuza 0. There is an NPC that will train specific skills, but you’ll really need to do a lot of side work if you want to beef up both Kiryu and Majima. A lot of this progression will come from side missions or battles, and upgrades will continually get more expensive for you to purchase. The good thing is that there is certainly plenty of things to do in Yakuza 0 to earn rewards like cash and consumables, as unfocused as it may seem. Cash is king in Tokyo though, and you’ll need it to purchase items that can help in battle or upgrade your character. Towards the latter stages of the game, both Kiryu and Majima will get the opportunity to earn greater amounts of cash by running a side business. Majima runs a club, while Kiryu gobbles up real estate in his region to keep the coffers full. It’s another thing to keep you busy, and keep you on the grind for those all-important upgrades.
If this is your first trip into the world of Yakuza, you’ll also have to be somewhat content with relinquising control for a little while. Lengthy cutscenes push the narrative, and if there’s a bright spot for this game its in the writing and performances of the characters. It’s also very easy to see that Yakuza 0 is a game that bridges the PlayStation 3 to PlayStation 4 gap. Despite the new-gen consoles having been out for years now, things like character animations aren’t quite up to the contemporary standards that you’ll find in games developed exclusively for PlayStation 4 or PS4 Pro. It’s also not quite as massive as other, more recent open world titles, though it makes up the difference in density.
The Verdict on Yakuza 0
Yakuza veterans will certainly appreciate Yakuza 0 more than newcomers, despite SEGA ditching all the convoluted baggage of the previous games. Unfocused to a fault, Yakuza 0 has plenty of activities packed into this dense open world title, though few leave you feeling satisfied. Beyond the era and location-specific authenticity strived for and achieved in this title, both the dated combat and graphics leave something to be desired.