The spirit of the 80’s is raging through the neon lit streets of Tokyo. Disco’s on every corner, pagers buzzing left and right, and every scrap of land is being snatched up to take advantage of Japan’s profitable bubble economy. Therein lies the story of Yakuza 0; a small scrap of land holds the future of the criminal underworld in purgatory. Rival clans are in a cutthroat bidding war to claim that empty lot for themselves and Yakuza series protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, has just landed himself in hot water after being accused of committing murder in that very lot.
Yakuza 0 sets out to tell the origin stories of Kiryu and another series mainstay, Goro Majima, as they start to make a name for themselves in the largest Yakuza alliance in Tokyo, the Tojo Clan. While the previous 2 titles in the Yakuza series have focused on wild plots that span 4 or more characters, Yakuza 0 tells a far more straightforward and coherent plot as the main story swaps back and forth between Kiryu and Majima as their fates intertwine in dramatic twists and turns that can very often fiercely tug at your heartstrings.
Yakuza 0 may be the 6th main entry in the series that has been ported out of Japan, but it is by far the best entry point to the Yakuza story. Pairing the accessibility of Yakuza 0’s story with it being the first Yakuza title on the Playstation 4 system gives Yakuza the best possible chance to open up to a new audience. Prior knowledge of the long running franchise isn’t required, but there are plenty of nods for fans of the previous games. These include seeing characters from previous entries making a cameo, a fortune teller describing the events of the series to a skeptical young Kiryu, as well as many other instances of heavy foreshadowing throughout.
For those new to the Yakuza lifestyle, there are some things you’ll need to know before you set out to on your criminal adventure. When I say Yakuza 0 is an open world adventure, the immediate comparison people could draw would be to other open world contemporaries such as GTA V and Mafia III, but that’s actually far from the case here. Yakuza 0 differs in that instead of a vast open sandbox it offers much smaller, incredibly dense maps filled to the brim with side missions, substories, minigames, and street fights. Imagine if the entirety of GTA took place in one city with something new and interesting to do on literally every street.
Arguably, the largest portion of Yakuza’s actual gameplay is in the battle system as our main characters will bust heads up and down the streets of Japan. In Yakuza 0 you will encounter many fights on the streets or in the plot that are set in an open arena filled with environmental weapons. While previous games focused on each character having one defining style of fighting, Yakuza 0 opts to give Kiryu and Majima each 3 very different fighting styles. I had written about them previously on on ThatVideoGameBlog here, but the styles for Kiryu are standard light(Rush), balanced(Brawler), and strong(Beast) attack sets while Majima is given the more experimental styles with a baseball bat weapon based style called Slugger, breakdance fighting simply called Breaker, and a dirty fighting method called Thug.
This game does something very interesting with the way your characters progress their fighting skills that hasn’t been seen in other Yakuza games. In previous titles you earned experience similar to an action RPG to build your stats, but in Yakuza 0 you will have to invest in your characters with their own money to make their skills better. You can also use your money to make it rain in the streets and escape fights altogether. When I was playing I literally had to question if it was more beneficial to spend cash on a new fighting skill or buy a bunch of bonus items to complete more minigames and substories.
While the main story of Yakuza 0 is quite lengthy, the minigames and substories will almost double your playtime as you run into new zany stories all over the city. In one sitting I helped a dominatrix find her confidence, discovered a haunted VHS tape, played actual emulations of arcade games in the Sega Hi-Tech Land, and swapped tips on getting dates with a guy in nothing but tighty whiteys named Mr. Libido. You can invest in real estate across Tokyo or build up a cabaret club in Osaka, as well as go on dates to sing karaoke and play darts. Yakuza 0 is packed to the brim with an insane amount of side content to sink your teeth into.
As someone who has played all of the entries that have released in North America, there is no doubt in my mind that Yakuza 0 is the very best the series has ever been. The combat is more refined and varied; exploring the world is more engaging and fun due to the fantastic side content; the graphics and presentation are improved dramatically due to the hardware jump from PS3 to PS4; and most importantly, the main plot is one of the best structured and powerful dramas the series has released so far. If you have never played a Yakuza game before, you owe it to yourself to give this game a chance as it is an early runner for my game of the year and an amazing way to get into a series that has continually flown under the radar.