Yakuza 0

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Action
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: SEGA
Release Date: Jan. 24, 2017


PS4 Review - 'Yakuza 0'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Jan. 23, 2017 @ 2:00 a.m. PST

Yakuza 0 is the origins story of Kazuma Kiryu and details his ascension into the ranks of the Yakuza – the name given to members of notorious Japanese crime organisations.

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Yakuza 0 is set in Japan at the tail end of the 1980s, during an economic boom. It follows the early days of franchise regulars Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. Kiryu is an up-and-coming member of the Dojima Yakuza clan, and he is embroiled in a power play. Kiryu is extorting money from a man, but when that man turns up dead, Kiryu is blamed for it. He's forced to leave the Yakuza and prove his innocence. Majima failed a mission and was expelled from his Yakuza clan. His only way back is to earn an exorbitant amount of money to pay someone to plead for mercy on his behalf. When that Yakuza member offers him a chance to escape his debt by performing a hit, that journey takes him deep into the underworld.

Yakuza 0 is a crime drama and relies on stylish excess above all else. For a story about the politics of land ownership, it manages to make the flow and style of the game incredibly engaging. The characters are likeable and sympathetic. The game is better if the player is familiar with the series, but it necessary to have played the other Yakuza titles to play Yakuza 0. It stands well on its own, and in some ways, it might even be better since you have no idea of who survives.

The series has never shied away from being silly, and Yakuza 0 is no different. While the main story is full of moral quandaries and lopped-off fingers, the side stories are mostly lighthearted and silly. Whether you're helping a band present a punk image, trying to sneak a bullied guy across a bridge, or buying a porn magazine from a surprisingly crowded vending machine in an alley, the plot points are goofy and funny. Sometimes, it's nostalgic in ways that might not jive with western audiences, but some humor is universal.

At its heart, Yakuza 0 is a brawler-JRPG. You're thrown into small Japanese cities and can explore to your heart's content, complete side-quests, find items and equipment, and do anything you'd generally do in an RPG. (It also includes dozens of cut scenes.) Combat is entirely action-based and focuses on brawler-style combat. Both characters have the same basic control setup. You can perform quick attacks, strong attacks, guard-break, grab, and block. You can perform pretty basic combos, pick things off the ground, and beat the living daylights out of foes.

A major part of the game in Yakuza is Heat, which is effectively energy you build up by fighting without getting hit. It has three levels, and more powerful attacks become available as your Heat increases. Combat is largely about managing and spending Heat. Building up Heat makes your attacks more powerful, but if you get hit or stay out of combat too long, you lose it. You can spend Heat to perform special attacks, but spend it too often, and you're weaker than you should be. Avoid spending it, and you'll lose it when you take damage. Certain abilities only trigger if you run low on Heat.

Both characters in Yakuza 0 can swap between three different fighting styles at will. Kiryu has Beast, Brawler and Rush styles. Beast turns him into a rampaging berserker; he sacrifices defense but tanks hits at reduced damage. Brawler is a straightforward beat-'em-up style with a focus on punching and grabbing enemies. Rush sacrifices the balance for speed, so you can stun enemies with rapid attacks. Majima's three styles are more varied. Breaker style has Majima go into a flurry of breakdancing moves that speed up as you build Heat. When you master this style, he is basically a whirlwind of bone-breaking doom. With Slugger style, Majima pulls out an unbreakable baseball bat and sacrifices finesse for power.  Thug style is his default, and it's similar to Brawler but focuses on counter-grabs and avoiding damage.

All in all, the combat system in Yakuza 0 is a lot fun. It's not quite as polished as some of the brawlers on the market, but the multiple fighting styles help the game feel fresh. Eventually, you'll use comfortable combo patterns, but each one feels distinctive enough that it's pretty trivial to change if you're tired of one style. Even if you stick with one style, it's still extremely satisfying to go into a brutal fight and leave behind a trail of foes.

However, it occasionally devolves into some annoyances. Some enemies aren't fun to fight, and there is an overreliance on invincibility frames that can lead to some cheap hits. Managing the Heat gauge is a big part of combat, and getting knocked around too much can lead to losing access to some of the coolest moves in the game. The explanations for certain skills are pretty bad, and it can take a while to grasp how to use some of the esoteric moves.

An important thing to note about Yakuza 0 is that it's a game about how money is power. Beating up enemies makes them explode into Yen, which serves a double purpose. It's what you use to buy items, but it's also your XP. You have to spend money to buy upgrades for your character. They start off relatively cheap but can quickly cost more than half a billion Yen. Each style offers its own upgrade tree, though certain abilities (such as health increases) are shared between styles. It adds an interesting element, as every bit of cash you spend is less that you can use to upgrade. Money is so plentiful you'll never be broke, but it's an omnipresent concern.

Beyond brawling, there's a ton to do in Yakuza 0. You can go bowling, dance at the disco, hop into an arcade to play Space Harrier, engage in some poker or mahjong, and so on. There's so many minigames that you could probably spend dozens of hours just mastering them. Not all of them are a hit, but there are enough enjoyable ones to make up for the misses. Several of the minigames can be played online, though that's more of a curiosity rather than anything that adds to the gameplay.

There are also dozens of side stories to complete. In one, you might take over as a TV producer and need to guess the necessary steps to make the show a success. In another, you help a guy buy an expensive present for his girlfriend and end up knee-deep in illegal forgeries. Finishing these side-quests almost always get you a prize, even if it's just cash or an accessory. A lot of these are optional, but they're usually worth your time.

The two big minigames are real estate and cabaret management. Kiryu is hired by the Tachibana Real Estate Group to purchase buildings, hire managers to run them, security to protect them, and invest in improving them with special advisers. Majima runs a cabaret and focuses on getting the best hostesses and keeping everything running so the money keeps pouring in. In both cases, they're simulations. Running real estate involves picking the best options and occasionally rotating in new managers or security guards. Majima needs to recruit and train hostesses and monitor their service to make sure everything goes well. The game marks everything clearly, and the most you have to worry about is investing enough in the businesses to turn a profit.

The minigames are fun but suffer from a serious flaw: They are not optional. You're going to spend some time with the business simulator aspects because they are the most meaningful way to make money in the game, and money is power. Additionally, the business minigames can unlock bonuses, including upgrading your styles. For someone who buys an RPG that's essentially about manly punching, it might be frustrating to be forced into a different genre. Getting the money for late-game upgrades is almost impossible without investing in the two major businesses. Since other minigames tie into these, you're in for a lot of non-brawling. If you're not looking for a light business simulator in your manly beat-'em-up, you might be frustrated by how much content is gated behind these games.

Visually, Yakuza 0 is nice. The character models are detailed and do a great job of showcasing subtle emotion and body language. The game veers between a few cut scene styles, some of which look cool and others that look cheap, but it sells the important moments, and the cut scene direction is excellent. The voice acting is entirely Japanese, but the actors do a phenomenal job. Takaya Kuroda's Kiryu sells both the dramatic seriousness and absurd ridiculousness of the game. The soundtrack is excellent and elevates the game. In general, it's not the highest-budget game on the market, but it makes great use of what it has.

Yakuza 0 is easily one of the highlights of the PlayStation 4's lineup. An engaging story mixed with zany humor and over-the-top brawler gameplay, the title hits all the marks. It has its flaws, including a potential overreliance on non-brawling minigames, but they're not enough to drag down the game. Fans of the franchise should be delighted, and newcomers should find this title as a great place to dive in. The plot, characters and setting are instantly accessible, and the gameplay holds up extremely well.

Score: 9.0/10

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