The Yakuza series has a history that dates back to the PlayStation 2 generation. Although available for the PlayStation 3 in Japan, Yakuza 0 marks the series jump to the current generation of hardware as a PS4 exclusive in the West. As with the rest of the series, the journey from East to Worldwide has taken over a years worth of effort. This could be due to the amount of text that has to be translated for this story-driven action RPG, but Sega have a history of dragging their heels when it comes to releasing Yakuza titles outside of their native country. Thankfully though, each iteration of the game closes the gap from Japanese to Worldwide release.
As the name suggests, Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the Yakuza series. The game takes place in December 1988 in Kamurocho, a fictionalized recreation of Tokyo’s Kabukicho, and Sotenbori, a fictionalized recreation of Osaka’s Dotonbori. The player controls series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu and recurring character Goro Majima, alternating between the two at predetermined points during the story. Kazuma has just taken his first steps into Yakuza life when a simple collection goes horribly wrong. Goro has been driven out of his family for disobeying a direct order from his superiors and is running a cabaret venue so he can buy his way back in. Whilst these two stories initially have little in common with one another – Kazuma and Goro having never met each other at this point in time – the two threads eventually show some common ground that ties them both together.
At it’s heart Yakuza 0 is an RPG. The experience system of the other titles in the series has been thrown out for this iteration; money here is the key to everything. Each character has distinct fighting styles that can be upgraded by ‘investing in themselves’. This means that money acquired through the game can be spent to unlock nodes on a grid that will give some benefit to that characters relevant fighting style. Some nodes start out unavailable and a master of the style must be found to train the character before they may invest in it. Each style is unique in that it focuses on an aspect of combat. For example, Kazuma’s rush stance allows for faster combos and dodging, whereas his beast stance is slow but automatically picks up objects around the character to use as weapons.
Money makes the world go around and the world of Yakuza 0 is no exception. Japan in the late 80’s was living in an economic bubble in which real estate and stock market prices were greatly inflated. This means the characters can literally throw money around, allowing them to escape combat that would otherwise have required running away. Money also plays a role in the side plots of both characters. Kazuma takes charge of a real estate agency whilst Goro heads up a cabaret club. This allows the player to make large sums of money quite quickly that they can use to either invest in themselves or expand their businesses, the end goal of which is to unlock the fighting styles that the characters use later in the series timeline.
Yakuza 0 is the first game in the series to add completion points (CP), a currency awarded for completing activities in the game. These usually come in tiers like ‘defeat 100 enemies in rush’. CP can be spent on minor improvements to the play experience, like adding richer enemies to the environment or giving the player an item to locate side stories around the city. CP can also be used to improve the businesses in the side plot by reducing the time between collections for Kazuma, or giving Goro extra hostesses for his club.
Battles have not changed much in Yakuza 0, other than being able to swap styles during combat. There are both regular and power attacks. Combos start with a regular attack, but change depending on how many regular attacks are used before a power attack is added. There is a block button, but it’s context changes depending on the style the player is in. Likewise, the objects around that can be used during a fight change with style also. There is a grab attack that the player can use to pummel an enemy or perform a throw. A combination of these move are needed on the more powerful enemies, whilst random encounters can often be passed with repeated combos.
To add variety to combat, the protagonists can perform heat moves. Damaging enemies fills the heat bar which is that spent to perform a heat attack that changes context depending on the situation. If the enemy is on the floor, Kazuma will stomp on their face; if they have their back to a wall Kazuma will push them against it and pummel their stomach; if they are next to a car Kazuma will shut their head in the door. Different weapons have their own heat actions as well to spice up combat a little more. A variety of actions will increase the multiplier for money awarded at the end of combat, further incentivising the players to mix things up a bit.
It would not be a Yakuza title without a plethora of mini-games to take part in, These include the Sega classics Out Run, Super Hang-On, Space Harrier, and Fantasy Zone. There are also more ‘adult’ activities like the underground fighting arena for women, or the telephone club. Those who are younger at heart can take part in slot car racing or dancing. Of course, there is always baseball, bowling, and singing that are staples of the series. There are far more distractions to experience whilst playing Yakuza0 and many of them are introduced in the form of side missions.
As with most RPGs, people will ask the protagonists to out of their way to perform tasks for them. This could be as simple as going and beating up a local game to becoming the next slot car champion. There is quite a variety of tasks to perform and some will elicit a chuckle from people who have played past titles in the series. As this is a prequel, the developers have taken the opportunity to make a few references to events that will happen later in the timeline. Trying to one hundred percent the quests will have the player experience a little of everything that is on offer in the game.
Yakuza 0 uses the same engine as it’s PS3 counterparts. This is not surprising as the game was also released on PS3 in Japan. As the screenshots show, the graphics do not suffer from being developed for both generations. Both cities are filled with details that make them look lived in, and there are always people walking the busy streets. Combat is held in whatever area NPCs catch up to the player in, and random civilians will come to cheer the fight on thus forming the boundaries of the fighting arena.
The vocal of Yakuza 0 are all in Japanese, as they have been since the second title in the series. This may be an issue for newcomers to the series, but veterans will be used to this by now. In fact, with how Japanese the game is, its likely to attract people expect the game to be in it’s original language. The soundtrack is quite large and includes some of the better songs that have been produced for the series. This is likely due to the disco and karaoke games that the player can take part in.
To sum Yakuza 0 up, it is a niche title with a strong fan base. The series often struggles to make the transition to the west, but thankfully Sega keep localising the series. Yakuza 0 is at the forefront of a renewed push for the series. With a remake of the first Yakuza out already, a remake of the second and the sixth installment of the series due out later, Yakuza 0 is the perfect entry point for new players to the series. Multiple difficulty options allow players of all skill levels to take part, and there are many games to distract players from the story when they feel like doing something different. The financial nature of the experience system means that combat can be avoided to a degree if players wish to spend time working on their businesses.
Title: Yakuza 0
Platform Reviewed: PlayStation 4
Release Date: 24 January 2017