Yakuza 0 - Review


The Yakuza series has had a pretty interesting history. Original released as "Ryu ga Gotoku" (meaning "Like a Dragon") in Japan, the first game quickly became known as a classic, and it set the stages for what would eventually become one of SEGA's most popular series. Needless to say, Yakuza 2 wasn't too far behind, Yakuza 3 brought the series to the brand new PlayStation 3, Yakuza 4 continued bringing improvements to the series, and then Yakuza 5 was released as the original "climax" of the series. However, none of these games are what I will be reviewing today. Instead, I am going to be taking a look at the "6th" entry (technically 7th if you count the zombie spin off, and 8th if you count the ancient Japan spin off) in the series -- Yakuza 0. The game where the story truly begins.

Although Yakuza 0 came out after the rest of the series, it was released as a new beginning. While Yakuza was popular in Japan, it had a rocky start elsewhere in the world. Back when it first came out, times were different, and video games weren't quite as popular as they are today -- especially Japanese story based ones. Yakuza 1 and 2 released with not fully faithful translations, Yakuza 3 was censored and had anything "too Japanese" or "offensive" removed from it, and due to the sales of 4 and the zombie spin off (Dead Souls), Yakuza 5 didn't come out until much later, and didn't even have a physical release in the west. The series just wasn't that popular here. But then SEGA decided to give it another chance with it's "new beginning."

As the name implies, Yakuza 0 is the beginning of the series' timeline, and serves as sort of a "reboot" going forward. It was released on the PlayStation 4 during a time where video games have become much more "mainstream," and when more gamers were willing to give Japanese story based games a chance. Being the first in the timeline, 0 served as a perfect entry point into the series, and is the game that would bring both new and old fans alike, back through the Yakuza franchise. Following it's success, in both Japan and the west, 0 would be used as the basis of Yakuza Kiwami (which was a remake of 1), and Yakuza 6's new engine would be used for the recreation of Yakuza 2. The series new found popularity would eventually lead the way to remasters of Yakuza 3-5 to be released, and multiple new spin offs and side series. It's because of how well these games have done that series like "Judgment" now exist, as well as the re-titled "Yakuza: Like a Dragon" follow up series. (It's called Like a Dragon 7 in Japan, but due to it's major changes, it is seen as more of a new series compared to the original.)

But anyway, that's all besides the point. The bottom line is, this series has exploded in recent years, and a lot of it is due to SEGA going back to 0. Literally. 

Putting that aside though, just what is Yakuza 0, and why is it worth your time? Well, hopefully I can answer that for you today. Let's be frank now -- the game isn't going to be for everyone, but those of you who give it a chance, shouldn't be disappointed.

Welcome to the 1980s, and to the stories of Kiryu and Majima:

The story begins at the end of the 1980s in the fictional (though based on real life) red light district of Kamurocho. Here we see our young main character "Kiryu Kazama" going about his Yakuza duties, and collecting a loan for a loan shark. The man refuses to pay (of course), so Kiryu beats the heck out of him, leaves him conciseness in a random alley, and then takes the money back to his client. Thinking nothing of the job, Kiryu turns down the client's offers to work for him full time, and then goes to meet up with his best friend Nishki instead. The two hit the town for a night out, and introduce the player to the karaoke mini game, and spend the rest of the day drinking in one of their favorite bars. It's just a normal day in the life of a Yakuza... Except, it's not.

It isn't until Kiryu sees the news that he realizes what has happened. The man he beat and left in the back alley has now been found dead, and it becomes painfully obvious that Kiryu has killed him -- a line even Yakuza members never want to cross. Kiryu had a long life ahead of him as a Yakuza, and now everything will be taken from him because of his stupid mistake. Deciding to do what is right, Kiryu goes to turn himself in, and take responsibility for his actions. However, it turns out this murder is far from what it seems.

The man found in the alley was not beaten to death -- he was shot, and Kiryu has been set up to take the fall. After finding this out, Kiryu quits the Yakuza clan he belongs to (the Tojo clan), and sets out to clear his name. He finds himself being abandoned by everyone, with no leads to go off of, but he's determined to do whatever it takes to set things right. This is when a mysterious man with one arm approaches him, and offers him a deal. 

Meanwhile in the city of Osaka, another young Ex-Yakuza member is in the middle of a struggle of his own. Goro Majima is the manager of a club known as the "Grand," and he's become quite famous for it. His club is the best in town, and his "the customer is always right" style of management has become very popular. Rather than dealing with issues with force, he refuses to even take a swing at problem customers, and instead uses his quick wit to deescalate situations. He's a unique individual, and his signature eye patch makes him easily recognizable. However, things aren't quite as they seem.

In reality, Osaka is Majima's prison. After an incident that went down years ago, Majima found himself tortured, without an eye, and being forced into a deal he couldn't refuse. Unable to leave town, he is put in charge of the Grand so that he can make enough money to buy himself back into the Tojo clan. Always under the watch of his clan's patriarch's sworn brother (who works for the rival Omi Alliance), Majima works night after night, as he slowly makes his way towards his dream of returning to the Yakuza; however, it's not quite as simple as it seems. Majima is a good worker, and he's great at bringing in money, so it works to the Omi's advantage to keep him running their club. Rather than letting him buy back his freedom, they continue to throw wrenches into Majima's plan, and do whatever it takes to keep him as their dog. It's unfortunate, but Majima has accepted this, and continues to do as they say. It's a sad life, but it is what it is. But then one day, things changed.

Out of the blue Majima is given a new offer. He is told a story of a horrible man who works as a pimp in town, and is then asked to kill him. If Majima does so, he will be free of debt, and allowed back into the Tojo Clan. However, being someone who never kills, Majima is reluctant to take the job. He only considers it because it means he would be free, and because the man is a complete piece of trash; however, he still isn't happy about it. Even so, against his nature, he begins doing his research on his target, and eventually tracks him down. It's only then, as he stands face to face with the man, that he realizes his mistake... The truth is... Nothing is as it seems.

Moving forward, Yakuza 0 continues to switch back and forth between these two lead characters. Both characters find themselves wrapped up in their own personal mysteries, but also find themselves getting mixed up in events that effect the entire Yakuza series moving forward. As a newcomer, this story helps lay the ground work for what's to come, and for returning fans, it's a story that fills in a lot of gaps, and helps further develop the events that happened in earlier (technically "later") games. However, it can also be a lot to take in at first, and the dual stories can sometimes make it a little confusing for newbies. At least at first.

Yakuza 0 actually has a lot going on with it's story. While it mainly focuses on the two protagonists, it also has a large focus on the world itself. The Tojo Clan is a big part of the story in general, it being the main Yakuza clan of the series, and it's structure and higher ups become very important parts of the story as well. Thankfully the game takes it's time to explain who each person is, and exactly how the clan works (so it's not too confusing), but some references to future events can easily go over new player's heads. For example, Majima's sworn brother (and the event which lead to his arrest) is something that was originally explained in Yakuza 4 and 5. A new player starting with 0 will learn about him right off the bat, and will just accept that Majima cares about him. Returning fans however, they didn't even find out he existed until Yakuza 4, and 0 will show them exactly how his arrest affected Majima. Of course this isn't the only time 0 expands on something we kinda knew about from previous entries in the series, but going into those events would be considered spoilers. In short, it's because of how 0 handles development of previous known background information, that it makes it both a perfect starting place for newcomers, and a must play for long time fans.

The Side Stories:

One staple of the Yakuza series is it's use of side stories and events. While the main plot is typically pretty dramatic (with some humor mixed in from time to time), the side stories are a thing of their own. They don't follow the typical pattern you might expect from these games, and most of the time take the games into a very shocking and weird direction. In Yakuza 0's case, since it takes place in the 80s, the game takes every chance it gets to throw Kiryu and Majima into 80s culture. For example, one early side story you can come across is where you meet the Yakuza version of Michael Jackson -- who then asks you to help him film his new zombie music video. The whole thing is funny and stupid from start to finish, and eventually you can even go dance at a disco with him after you've helped him out. Other stories include things like a group of guys trying to pretend their band is die hard punk, despite the members themselves being the farthest thing from their audience, an old lady who gets a crush on Majima and makes his life a living nightmare, a man who wants to change the world by making portable phones common place (not going to happen), and a lady who works for a particular place that specializes in... Abusing men.... Let's just say she fails at it, and Kiryu has to help her get used to her role... And that's when the poor innocent kid approaches them and asks what is going on. Yeah...

The side stories in 0 are never predictable, and often will pull you in a completely different direction than you initially thought going in. Being as 0 is a prequel to later entries, some of these side stories also have to deal with future events as well. For example, at one point a punk kid is walking around pantsing people throughout the town. New players wouldn't realize it at the time, but this kid is actually someone who will go on to become a main character in a later game. It's funny to see him how he is in the 80s (compared to what he will become), and he's not the only character this happens with. Little eastereggs like this are hidden all throughout Yakuza 0's side stories, and it's great for both new and old fans alike. Sure, some of it will go over the new fan's heads at first, but if they keep going with the series, they too will understand exactly what they saw all the way back in the 80s. Plus, the fact that we are now in the 2020s helps as well -- as the game loves to play with just how different the 80s were compared to now. For example, one side story has a kid trying to buy adult magazines from a vending machine in a back alley in the 80s, but later on in the 2000s (Yakuza 1) we get to see the same vending machine being replaced with hentai instead. Then you have all of the "crazy ideas" that are brought up in the 80s long before their time, and then you have our real world present day where these ideas have already become a reality. 

In short, the side stories in Yakuza 0 are well worth the time. You don't want to miss them.

The Gameplay:

I know, I know... Enough with the story, right? What about the gameplay? Well, there's a lot to cover here as well. While the Yakuza series is heavily story based, the actual gameplay is very important as well.

The basics of all Yakuza is the city of Kamurocho itself, and, in 0's case, Osaka as well. Both of these cities are small open world maps, where you can freely walk the streets and engage in multiple activities. Each city has multiple businesses you can go into, and the streets are jammed packed with people who will want to fight you. As Yakuza is a "beat em up" at it's core, you will spend a lot of the time outside of stores getting into these fights.

Fights get triggered when enemy characters spot you, and run up to you. You do have the option to run away before they reach you, but fighting them will reward you with money and items to help you through the game. In 0 money is actually everything, and it's a resource that gets used in multiple ways because of that. Like in most games, money can obviously be used to buy items at stores (such as health items), but in 0 your cash is used to upgrade your characters as well. Both Kiryu and Majima have their own upgrade wheels to go through, and each skill and ability will require a different amount of money to be spent to unlock it. Some of these upgrades are new attacks for their different fighting styles (more on this soon), while others will be passive abilities that will increase stats like your health. The game does do a pretty good job of giving you enough cash so that you never feel under leveled against the enemies you are fighting, but you can always help yourself by fighting more extra battles than what the story requires.

As for the fights themselves, each one is a full on action brawl, where you can use anything around you to help you win. While the characters each have their own unique fighting styles, which can be switched to on the fly, you can also use weapons and other objects laying around the battle field to your advantage. Items like traffic cones become deadly weapons, and even the random bikes parked on the side of the road can be picked up and thrown at people. These are great ways to deal some quick extra damage, and as your heat bar fills up, you can even use them to unleash crazy strong "heat action" attacks. These are situational based special attacks, that are all different based on when, and how you activate them. For example, grabbing an enemy and activating the attack near a wall will typically slam the enemy into said wall, but being closer to a guard rail might cause Kiryu/Majima to slam them off of it instead. Each item/weapon you pick up has their own heat actions as well, and sometimes heat actions can result in a one hit kill if the game allows it. (Example: throwing people off of bridges.) 

When it comes to the fighting styles of the two main characters, each one has three starting ones, followed by a final "ultimate" one. Kiryu's styles rely mostly on his fists, and come in three different forms. The default style is a more balanced series of punches and kicks, while his other two styles either prioritize speed or power. The faster rush style is great for keeping enemies stun locked as you deliver a series of weaker hits, while his power style is all about enduring hits and over powering everyone around him. Of course it's slower, but it's the highest damage dealer, and something that gets used a bit more because of that. 

As for Majima, his styles are a bit more unique. His default focuses more on playing dirty (such as stabbing people in the eyes), and dodging attacks, while his other two are insanely different. Slugger allows him to use his signature bat at all times, and is overall the main fighting style most players will want to stick with. As for his third, it's a lot more unique due to the fact that it's actually break dancing. Here Majima releases a series of kicks, and spins around on the ground as he shows off his flashy moves. This style is allover the place, and makes it so Majima is much harder to hit in general. It's a lot of fun to use, but again, it's not going to be most player's style of choice outside of specific situations.

Although most fights will take place in the streets of the city, the game does have a series of "action" stages as well. These are full "levels" (as one might call them) where you make your way through a series of non stop fights. Each action stage takes place in a unique area that you only visit once, and are filled with health items to pick up, and mini bosses that eventually lead you to one big final stage boss. While there aren't really that many action stage moments in the game, they are each pretty unique, with pretty exciting conclusions overall. These stages also offer unique heat actions to finish enemies off with, so it's worth taking the time to play around with your surroundings.

Outside of fighting, the world of Yakuza was created in a way that it simulates life in Japan. The main way of healing is to eat food, so restaurants and cafes become a must for both characters. Convenient stores and drug stores become your go to for all your healing item, and smaller food item, needs, and there are many other extra items that can be bought as well. While these items, such as clothing, don't always have a use in the main story (except some clothing can be used as armor), they often are used in the game's side stories, and help simulate what you would really come across in a Japanese store. You can even look at the covers of magazines off the magazine rack if you want to, but again this is more for the illusion of living in Japan, rather than being a feature that you need to care about.

Of course, there's more to living in the city than just eating and shopping...

Mini Games and Side Activities:

Yakuza 0 is filled with side activities to partake in. As you walk around the cities, you'll find multiple buildings that feature "just for fun" things to do. For example, Club SEGA has UFO Catchers you can play to win stuffed animals, but all of it's locations are also filled with real SEGA arcade games to play as well. These games include: Outrun, Super Hang-On, Fantasy Zone, and Space Harrier. Of course, these aren't the only games you can play.

Outside of Club SEGA you have places like the bowling alley, bars where you can sing karaoke, places where you can play poker (and other gambling related games), and you can even go to the batting cages. Of course there's also fishing available, and a full on slot-car racing mini game where you get to upgrade your cars and take on other opponents. Each of these games are fully developed, and can easily give players hundreds of hours worth of extra gameplay -- if they choose to partake in them. Even so, such mini games as these are considered "small" compared to the two main side extras in Yakuza 0; the real eastate business, and the cabaret club.

As Kiryu, you get to become a real estate agent, and are put in charge of helping a small agency rise up in the ranks. This mini game focuses on Kiryu going around the city, buying out properties, and having battles with rival agencies. As you progress through this full on side story, other side stories unlock, and you gain more ways to help build your empire. By helping other people (from other side stories) throughout the game, you can eventually hire them to work for you, and assign them different tasks to help manage and protect your business. Once things reach a set point, you can then take on other agencies and battle for control, or you can have your businesses taken away if you're not careful. It's a full on business simulator, and a great way for Kiryu to earn some extra cash.

Majima on the other hand gets put in charge of a cabaret club. Here he can scout/hire girls to work for him, customize their appearance and styles, and open up the club for business. Once the club is open, it is up to the player to assign girls to the customers who come in, and handle whatever situation that may arise. Each girl has their own pros and cons, and customers have their own likes and dislikes. It all comes down to matching the right girl with the right customer, and then how you interact with the customer when a girl calls for your help. These "open nights" are timed, and you get paid based on how well both you and your club preformed by the end. Like with Kiryu, the goal here is to build the club up to be the best in town, and to eventually take down the other clubs as well. It too is a full on business management simulator, and something you can easily invest a lot of time and effort into. It's a great distraction from the rest of the game, but it can also be ignored if you wish.

Overall these are just a handful of the activities Yakuza 0 has to offer, with more becoming unlocked as you progress through the game.

The Good and the Bad:

Yakuza 0 is an outstanding game. There's no denying that. While the Japanese crime drama story might not appeal to everyone -- it's something worth giving a chance. If you're willing to do so, then you'll find a game with a rich story, great character development, multiple mysteries to uncover, fun beat em up style gameplay, and loads of extras and mini games to keep you busy. It's a huge game, with a little bit of everything, that will appeal to a wide verity of people. But that doesn't mean that it is perfect.

The main issue with 0, especially to new fans, is the fact that it has a slow start. As the game has two characters, both are handled in a way where the game acts as if the other does not exist. You will spend hours going through the basics of the game with Kiryu, only to turn around and do the same thing with Majima once the story switches over to him. Granted the two do have different play styles, but it isn't that hard to adjust from one to the next. Both also have a slow start to their own personal stories, and it's not really until the half way mark that the two begin to become a bit more connected. With Kiryu we start with walking around the town and being told where to go, and it takes awhile for it to actually open up for him. Then once it does, we are instantly forced to go to Majima's story where it's the exact same thing.

It's this back and forth that can also be a bit annoying at times, because the story likes to jump just as something major is happening. One character's story will end on a cliff hanger, and you will then be forced to spend a few hours playing as the other where nothing is really happening yet. It makes you want to keep going so you can get back to the other character, but at the same time it can be a little off putting at first. Thankfully it does get better as the game goes on, but it's still a slow start you have to push through at times. The pay off is worth it, but the first time through it can be a little hard to be motivated to continue. (Being someone who has beaten the game more than once, I can safely say that future playthroughs are better, especially when you know when the next exciting part is going to happen.)

Even so, this is just one small draw back to what eventually opens up to be an amazing story. The game is loaded with things to do outside of the story as well, and the side stories are always there to completely throw you off guard. There are some truly amazing moments hidden in this one, and it's well worth the time to walk around and look for them. And of course you have the mini games as well. There's just tons to do, and not enough time in the day to do it all... But that's a good thing. With Yakuza 0 you definitely get your money's worth, and it's a game you can always come back to later on to finish whatever you've missed. It's also a great game to replay after you've experienced the other games in the series, so it just might be something many players will return to down the line.

In the end, Yakuza 0 is a classic that everyone should give a try. It's a story even non gamers will enjoy, and it's a game jammed packed with content to keep you busy. It is a must buy.

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