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The Yakuza franchise is a cult hit that keeps on going. While it's never quite gained the popularity of some of Sega's other franchises, it has a die-hard fan base, no matter how long it takes to get a translation. Not much else on the market is like Yakuza. It's basically the spiritual successor to Shenmue, a mix of brawler gameplay and mundane life elements you just can't get anywhere else. Yakuza 0, the latest entry in the franchise, doesn't look to deviate much from the series' roots, but when you're as distinct as Yakuza, that may not be a bad thing.
Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the Yakuza games, so it doesn't require any familiarity with the backstory. It's set in the late 1980s, when Japan is in the middle of a prosperous boom — and nobody is thriving more than the Japanese Yakuza. Kazuma Kiryu is a newcomer who's working as a debt collector for loan sharks. One of his targets has turned up dead, and Kiryu is blamed. To prove his innocence, Kiryu must leave the Yakuza and team up with a shady real estate firm to discover the mystery behind the "Empty Lot," an incredibly valuable piece of property in the Kamurocho district.
Meanwhile, series long-timer Goro Majima has been ousted from the Yakuza after a disaster involving his sworn brother and an attempted assassination. Goro's only hope to get back into the Yakuza's good graces involves taking a run-down cabaret club and turning it into a success. Together, the two are thrown into the seedy underworld of Japanese politics, and they must prove themselves worthy of the name Yakuza.
Yakuza titles are essentially action-RPGs. You're tossed into a small section of a Japanese city and are allowed to explore, complete side-quests, level up, and engage in minigames. There's a ton to do in any given Yakuza game, and Yakuza 0 is no different. You can go into arcades and play old Sega video games, spend your time playing poker or mahjong, go disco dancing, sing karaoke, and countless other diversions, and each has its own rewards and benefits. There are also plenty of side-quests you can engage in to unlock new equipment, items and weapons for your characters.
The fighting style is best described as a brawler-RPG. When combat starts, you'll be able to attack, grab an enemy, or perform a guard-breaking move, depending on the character and fighting style. Items in the environment can be picked up and used to attack but will break after a few uses. The focus is on managing your Heat, which goes up to three levels and determines the abilities you can access. High Heat lets you unleash powerful Heat Explosion special moves that cause brutal amounts of damage. Low Heat is weaker but can make it easier to build up Heat. You build up your Heat again by attacking enemies, but if you get hit or spend too long without attacking, your Heat subsides.
Perhaps the biggest addition to thecombat system is the addition of three fighting styles for each character. Both characters have three different fighting styles. Very loosely, they can be summed up as "fast," "strong" and "balanced," but there's more to them. You can swap between fighting styles with the d-pad at any time, though the styles have to be unlocked first. In addition, both characters can also use weapons in combat, though weapons are breakable, so you'll need to save them for special use.
Kiryu has the Beast, Brawler and Rush styles. Beast mode is a brutish high-power move where Kiryu attacks like a wild beast, instantly grabbing items in the environment and using them to smash foes. Rather than blocking or dodging, he tanks attacks and takes reduced damage from enemies. Brawler is a traditional beat-'em-up style that focuses on blocks and grabs. It's useful in any situation but doesn't have any unique traits. Rush is a fast style built around rapid attacks against a single foe. Rather than blocking, you can easily dodge attacks.
In comparison, Goro has some more eccentric fighting styles. His basic style, Thug, is a brawling style that's all about slipping behind the enemy and getting them in brutal neck-grabs. Slugger style is actually another weapon-based style. Goro pulls out an unbreakable baseball bat that he uses as a mix of a katana and nunchuks. This style is high power and can be upgraded to allow other weapons to be more durable. The baseball bat also allows him to guard against attacks. The last fighting style is fast-paced breakdancing, which focuses on tricky moves and poses.
The addition of the fighting styles introduces more combat options to the Yakuza gameplay. You can focus on a single style and master its strengths and weaknesses or swap between styles as necessary. Rush is very effective against a single opponent but can be less effective against multiple foes. Using Beast style to smash puny humans before slipping back into Rush to pound on a powerful mid-boss is just as viable as sticking with Brawler and introducing every enemy's face to the ground.
A major theme in Yakuza 0 is that money is power. This is true in terms of how you power up your characters. Rather than experience points, you gain power by spending money to upgrade yourself. Every fighting style has a grid of upgrades, and you need to spend cash to unlock them. As such, everything in the game is based on money. Beating up enemies makes them explode like money-stuffed piñatas. Items cost money, money can be used to distract opponents, and money can be invested to make more money. There are even wandering super-baddies called "Mr. Shakedowns" who attempt to rob you of precious cash but can be beaten to recover all the money they've stolen.
This also plays into the new business mechanics. As part of the plot, Kiryu runs a real estate business while Goro manages a cabaret. Both are light strategy/business simulation minigames where you have to invest in and manage the businesses. Kiryu has to focus on acquiring land, managing protection and growth of businesses, and encouraging the development of properties. Goro has to keep his cabaret up and running, making sure that the hostesses are trained, protected and experts in bilking drunk men out of money. Of course, sometimes both of the ex-Yakuza will have to use their fists to keep their businesses safe.
Yakuza 0 is shaping up to be one of the strongest entries in the franchise yet. The prequel plot means it's easy for players to hop in without any background, and the late-'80s setting gives it a distinctive feel. The combat and gameplay mechanics are as polished as they've ever been, and fans of the franchise should be delighted at how well some of the changes work. If the full game lives up to what we've played so far, Yakuza 0 will be a must-buy for fans of the franchise. Yakuza 0 comes out exclusively for the PlayStation 4 on Jan. 24, so the wait is almost over.
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