“Pisses me off that I gotta play by your rules, but I talk faster with my fists than my mouth anyway. Fine Then… You got it!”- Goro Majima
Yakuza is becoming a giant series with 7 entries and multiple spin off games. You’d be forgiven for thinking the series had become impenetrable to everyone except the fans but the best thing about Yakuza is how you can jump into any entry in the series and you’re in for a good time. You’ll be running around an open-world city that is absolutely packed with stuff to do, beating up various people and experiencing a visual novel amount of story dialogue. With Zero returning to 1988/1989 the authentic Yakuza Japanese feeling is there but now with a retro flavour. Is this a Game Pass gem or was it best to just leave it in the past?
I’ve always found the main protagonist of Yakuza games (Kazuma Kiryu) really dull and half the reason why I struggle to get into any Yakuza game. I enjoyed Yakuza 4 largely because of Shun Akiyama and I can see why Yakuza 0 is the title that resulted in a boon for the series in the West. You spent half of Yakuza 0 as a younger Kiryu and half as Goro Majima with the story essentially telling how they became the men they’d be in future titles. Kiryu is a lot more emotional and more willing to quickly act, only becomes the stoic dragon towards the closing chapters when tensions naturally build towards the impressive ending. Majima starts off surprisingly calm and collected slowly getting back his bite before the end credits roll. The twisting of the two stories and their pacing is surprisingly fantastic throughout and it never feels like one character is getting pushed to the back over the other. The post-credits scene was great and it perfectly summed up the changes throughout to perfection.
Yakuza 0 doesn’t really shake up the existing Yakuza formula and is simply more of the same. You’ve an open-world city to explore with thugs and idiots who will fight you on sight, multiple side quests and more side activities then you can shake a stick at. Kiryu and Majima occupy two different cities but the side activities overlap. Both have darts, mahjong, shogi, casinos, pool, bowling, drinking, classic arcade games (Outrun and Space Harrier this time) and the ability to find collectible gravure cards dotted around. Kiryu has a simplistic rental and enterprise side game where you’ll largely be pouring money into locations and wandering around the city buying more to beat the 5 rivals of the area. It’s pretty tedious and the rewards are slow to materialise. Majima has a side game where he manages a cabaret club and this includes a micromanagement spin on choosing dresses and accessories for the women hired. Once the club is open the actual minigame is more about pairing customers and balancing cool downs and is more fun than it should be. Majima also has a side hustle where you send agents out to real world locations to find crafting materials to make exotic weapons but it’s largely redundant. If you want to sink hours into Yakuza 0 there’s plenty to get on with.
The combat of Yakuza 0 is the same Virtua Fighter feeling smoothness the series has refined over the years. Both Kiryu and Majima have 3 unique fighting styles each with a different focus. Pink styles are rush focused with Majima breakdancing and Kiryu swinging fists and kicking quickly. Yellow styles are brute force with Kiryu simply taking a lower stance and hitting heavier and Majima using a battered baseball bat like nunchucks. Blue styles are your typical Yakuza ‘pick up anything and smash it over their head’ discipline with punches, kicks and throws sending enemies into the pavement and anything nearby. You’ll find yourself nipping back into the inventory to use healing items from time to time especially taking on the bigger shakedown characters that wander each city but for the most part it’s simply a case of switching to whatever you’re in the mood for. You’ll earn extra cash for each special finish or attack as Yakuza 0 uses cash as your currency to level up each style. Despite having a lot of this fighting throughout there’s still quick time events in scenes and fights, specific area based special items and even a Virtua Cop style shoot out.
Visually Yakuza 0 is disappointingly inconsistent. There are some stunning moments in both cutscenes and simply walking around, you’ll be exploring the cities and pausing at times to take in the splendour. From the shop signs to the number of people it’s a looker but from time to time it can look like the PS3 version of the game. The npcs can look a little rough at times and the retelling of past moments is simply images with text. Thankfully for a game entirely in Japanese the subtitles are clear and the text is easy to read. When playing on the SeriesX the loading is simply fantastic but the graphics look exactly the same as on the Xbox1X with little change. Yakuza 0 is a great game to use with Quick Resume as it’s really nice to simply jump back in, finish a chapter and leave it to pick up again later. Yakuza 0 is a heavy game with plenty to get on with and subjects that are fairly difficult to convey and being able to take it in bite size chunks makes it a lot more palatable. The story it tells will bombard you with names, ranks and companies at the start but as it progresses the main characters are focused and you’ll be following the twists and turns with awe. Simply put Yakuza 0’s strength is in its story and the feeling that you’re working to tell it.
What lets Yakuza 0 down is two big problems and neither are the protagonists. Yakuza 0 is telling a big story, it’s not exactly an epic but there are 12 chapters and each is packed with various twists and turns with each one feeling like it has importance. The problem is each city is packed with the same thugs and the same fighting encounters. After a few hours the fighting can feel really repetitive and you’ll find yourself favouring a style that results in quick beat downs, especially against the weaker punks. It encourages you to experiment with heat attacks but you’ll be picking up chump change and it feels like bumping into Rattata’s on the way to the Elite 4. The other biggest issue Yakuza 0 has is how it portrays women. I realise the period it’s set in lends itself to the women seen as token items, highlighted throughout as hosts or simply VHS models and collectibles but minigames where you try to date women over the phone while a cgi woman in swimwear giggles is incredibly tacky. The treatment of the only 3 women in the story isn’t much better and Yakuza 0 feels like it really didn’t need the cheesecake to be so enjoyable. I realise it’s a story about masculinity at its core but the use of women to show people as assholes really feels overkill at times.
Just like recent JRPGs the amount of voiced dialogue in Yakuza 0 is staggering. You’ll have hours of scenes where you’ll have a CGI scene to an in-game scene then a text box and chatting between the characters and all of this is voiced. Finding NPCs with short stories to tell and each with multiple questions to answer to progress is always a strange delight and to find it all voiced by incredibly talented Japanese voice actors makes it a special treat. From teaching a dominatrix to be better to helping two crossword nerds express their love, the side stories are delightfully bonkers even if the system for completing them feels a little formulaic. There are some brilliant voice performances here from Hidenari Ugaki (Goro Majima), Miyuki Sawashiro (Makoto Makimura) & Arata Iura (Tetsu Tachnibana) especially. The music starts off as enjoyable but Yakuza 0 is a long game and you’ll find plenty of repeating tracks. The battle music thankfully will mix and change depending on which of the 3 fighting styles you’re in so if it gets dull you’re encouraged to mix it up and try something new. It’s not all repeating thought and there are some amazing tracks to be had when the action heats up for the big bosses and I can see why people wanted a vinyl version of the soundtrack.
There are cutscenes in Yakuza 0 that had me shaking the control in shock, there were fights where each punch felt emotionally satisfying and dialogue moments I never expected. There are dull areas where nothing but beat downs occur and sexism runs rampant. Yakuza 0 really is like looking back at an old classic film and noticing that some of those moments land differently now but the overall message and cinematic wow is still there. The story is worth playing Yakuza 0 alone, there are so many incredible beats throughout that it’s hard not to recommend. There are caveats going into it and some little features missing (there is no manga books to look at in the stores) but when you find yourself cheering for Majima when he does the right thing and siding with Kiryu when the whole world is against him it’s hard not to root for the team. It’s not perfect but it’s worth pulling off your jacket and throwing down for.
8/10 – From Zero to hero in a Yakuza beat
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