The origins of a legend.
Before I begin this review, let’s address the elephant in the room. I have never played a proper Yakuza game. Before this entry my experience with the franchise was limited to the spin off Dead Souls. I have had plenty of people tell me how great it was, but its comparisons to Shenmue had always kept me at arm’s length. So when I was talked into reviewing Yakuza 0 I went in with tempered expectations. I knew it was goofy, I knew it was lengthy, but nothing prepared me for how much I would actually enjoy the quirks of this franchise.
For those like myself that have never touched a proper Yakuza game, these are open-world crime simulations with more of a lax approach to the activities. This game is extremely Japanese in that it delivers side missions that are outlandish at times. Just as examples I taught a dominatrix how to treat her customers, I could watch erotic videos in a seedy shop, and I took on the role of a movie producer. These are just examples found in the early stages of the game.
Price I’d Pay: $59.99
There is a lot to see and do, and I get where the reference to Shenmue come into play. I could visit a local Sega arcade and play classics such as Space Harrier. I could partake in UFO Catcher games and collect ridiculous trinkets. I could even befriend a police officer that would perform random searches on me. The game embraces its quirkiness, and I kind of love that about it.
Those coming in without previous knowledge of the series shouldn’t fear. This game is actually the prequel to it all, and follows the beginnings of staple characters from the franchise. It is a perfect jumping in point for anyone who hasn’t yet experienced this unique series before. I found myself really drawn to the characters, and that is a credit to the fantastic writing. It is worth noting that the entire game is in Japanese, so no dub is available here.
The story is the glue that holds this whole thing together. The characters are memorable, the performances are outstanding, and the ups and downs of the narrative are simply engaging. I cared about almost every figure in the story. The best part is it doesn’t always take itself seriously, and that shows both sides of every character. I loved it, even though the cutscenes were sometimes Metal Gear Solid-style in length.
It seems everything in Yakuza 0 comes down to beating people up. Even side missions that have nothing to do with brawling, end up in fisticuffs. It is kind of hilarious. The fighting in the game feels good, but likely different from what most people are used to. It is not the free-flow feel of something like Batman, but more akin to a 3D beat ‘em up title.
There are various fighting styles in the game, all with upgrade trees and plenty of moves and abilities to unlock. There is also a Heat meter for performing special moves, which are both hilarious and brutal. Fighting is the main way to earn cash in the game, so expect to do it a lot. I find it humorous when punching someone as money just spills everywhere. Also the headlines of who you are fighting are simply fantastic.
Players can also acquire items and equipment in the game. These give attributes such as hiding money from Mr. Shakedown, who wanders around the world looking to (what else) fight and steal your money. There are also plenty of collectibles in the game, such as the aforementioned erotic videos. This game embraces the weird and I love it.
These things are what make Yakuza games great, -the sheer attention to detail and wackiness. Where else can players do an escort mission for a Michael Jackson look-a-like, or win a chicken that becomes part of my real estate team? This game is chock full of moments like this, all wrapped around an amazing tale of mob life in Japan. Seriously, there is nothing like Yakuza, and the team behind it has crafted one of the most interesting worlds in all of video games.
Not everything in Yakuza 0 is perfect though. There are a few things that still irk me about its design. For starters the game feels old at times. I had to do some research to make sure it wasn’t a port of an older game. Just little things that feel archaic when compared to current releases. Awkward animations, mouths not moving when characters are talking, and disappearing NPCs when walking around the city.
Combat can also feel stiff at times. I found myself swinging at air, and that is both due to the way it is designed, and of course my being accustomed to games with the newer style of brawling. None of these things are deal breakers, and some even add to the overall charm of the game.
Visually I love the look of the game. It has plenty of color in specific areas, and the variety of locales and indoor areas is great. The frame rate can dive a little when running around the city at times, but it never affects game play. The character designs are great, and the presentation, like everything else, is fantastic. The intro to the game sums up everything that makes it great, oh did I also mention it takes place in the 80s, so giant cell phones are rampant. The music also nails both the look and feel of the world. The team knocked it out of the park.
Yakuza 0 is a fantastic start to the new year of gaming. Fans of the series will likely love it, but for newcomers this is the best time to jump in. I am happy to have finally taken the plunge, and over time I can see myself returning to the series, especially with two more games already scheduled to hit PS4 soon. There is plenty here to enjoy, and I guarantee there is nothing else quite like Yakuza.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.