Yakuza 0 - Review  

Kazuma Kiryu's Finest Hour
by Sam Wachter

20-40 Hours
+ Excellent storytelling & localization
+ Versatile combat system for both protagonists
+ The best substories to date
- Minigames are hit or miss
- 80's tunes aren't as memoriable as they could be
- Escort missions are a pain
Click here for scoring definitions 

   The Yakuza series has had a long, hard road in the West. Part of it is that the series is so distinctively Japanese, the other being that the series has struggled to capture the hearts of Western gamers. For the first time in a while, however, the Yakuza series' fate feels more positive than ever before. The latest installment, Yakuza 0, gives us the origins of Kazuma Kiryu, the Dragon of Dojima, when he was still a punk kid in the 1980s. This backdrop serves as the focal point for perhaps the best Yakuza game to date.

   In 1988 a small, ugly patch of land known as the "Empty Lot" is the centre of a dispute amongst numerous organizations across Kamurocho. The Dojima Clan wishes to begin the Kamurocho Revitalization Project and attempts to buy out every piece of land in order to make this a reality. However, the owner of the Empty Lot is missing, and it becomes a murder scene in which Kazuma Kiryu, a young buck in the Kazama Family, ends up as the prime suspect. Meanwhile in Sotenbori, Goro Majima, who has been exiled by the Dojima Clan, now runs a cabaret club. Wanting to rejoin the clan, Majima is forced to become a hitman, and his first target is the owner of the Empty Lot.

   One of Yakuza's strong points has always been its storytelling, and 0's story is exceptionally woven together. There's murder, intrigue, politics, and shirtless men screaming their feelings. Players will find themselves wanting to uncover the story behind the Empty Lot, and each chapter does an amazing job building the narrative to its climax. Kamurocho in 1988 has such a different and distinctive personality, with new life being breathed into the world, characters, and story as a whole. The writing is sharp, and the localization does an amazing job of selling this dark and gritty story to its players. Moreover, this is a great starting point for new players to the series as it provides a fantastic introduction to the world and its characters. For veterans of the series, there are so many instances where threads from previous games come to light, making for some excellent "ah ha" moments. The world of Yakuza 0 can be a lonely one, but in the darkness there are dashes of humour and delight as well.

Graceful as ever, Majima. Graceful as ever, Majima.

   In fact, humour plays a large role in many of Yakuza 0's substories. In all honesty, these were easily some of the best bits in 0, as these smaller plotlines require Kiryu or Majima to lend a helping hand, from stealthily acquiring shrink-wrapped magazines from the mystical vending machine for a small child to helping a dominatrix get "into character." Many of the substories remove some of the darker layers of Yakuza 0 and add more zaniness that the series is known for. Substories now also come much more naturally throughout the game, and in many of the beginning chapters are quite frequent. They are also more diverse than in previous Yakuza games, as they are often less about punching bad dudes (although some of those still exist) and are focused on exploration or mini-games. It's definitely a nice change, although the mini-games are still a point of contention.

   Much like previous games in the series, Yakuza 0 has a plethora of minor side games, some mandatory and some that are for pure leisure. Unfortunately, quite a few of the mini-games don't control very well. For example, in the Telephone Club mini-game the player must shoot beams at the response they want to convey to the female caller, but it's surprisingly difficult to aim these phone call beams at the correct responses. There is also a mandatory minigame wherein Kiryu must shoot enemies through a car window — another situation where the controls are very awkward. However, there are mini-games that control decently such as the pocket circuit races and the disco dancing. There are also mandatory escort missions, which are just painful at times given that when players are fighting swarms of enemies they have to babysit the hit points of an additional character. Again, it's not the worst thing to deal with, but it's not the definition of fun either. While some of these mini-games are mandatory, they don't destroy the full experience and at worst are simply minor inconveniences.

   One aspect that the Yakuza series constantly working on tweaking is the combat system, which has seen many variations over the years. However, Yakuza 0's is easily the best and most refined to date, as Kiryu and Majima can now switch between three types of combat simultaneously. There is Brawler/Thug, which is a balanced style that is standard to any beat 'em up, Beast/Slugger, which is a slower, more furious combat type that focuses on using weapons, and finally Rush/Breaker, which is a fast and furious combat largely focusing on mobility. These modes of combat add a new layer of versatility and being able to switch on the fly is a godsend, especially when fighting tougher foes. Enemies also now will glow a specific colour to indicate to players what type of combat they are using, so it's important to pay attention and use a style that will best counter the enemy.


   Players can now also invest in the combat styles by putting money towards moves that they wish to rank up. Each combat type has its own skill tree, and money collected throughout the game allows players to choose which techniques they wish to rank up. While it's good to invest in all three, some players may gravitate to one style over another, and there's no hard and fast rules on how to invest in one's self. Since money is liberally awarded throughout, it's seldom that players will feel the pinch in their wallets. This change over the old experience system is more simplistic, but offers more choice to the player as well.

   The Yakuza series has never been a graphical powerhouse and even now on PlayStation 4 that statement is still quite true to an extent. The cutscenes continue to be absolutely gorgeous looking offering an extensive amount of detail in facial expressions to the textures on a character's article of clothing. These moments are always engaging, wonderfully timed, and continue to show that this series can masterfully tell an attractive story. The in-game engine graphics are better than its PlayStation 3 counterparts, though there are still instances of pop in textures. Yakuza 0 still looks good in these instances, and characters still are well defined and locations are beautifully detailed, but they still never look as on par compared to the cutscenes. In terms of sound, the Japanese voice cast continues to be impressive, though for a game set in the 1980's, the soundtrack could have used more 80s tunes to infuse the setting. Praise should be given though to the battle themes for each combat type, as the music changes based on the style and which character is being played, which is a very nice touch.

   While I completed Yakuza 0 in roughly thirty hours, I didn't feel like I had done everything the game had to offer. This is a game that is completely bursting with content just begging to be uncovered and explored. With each successive Yakuza game, it's clear that this series is growing in a variety of ways, and it makes my heart so happy. Yakuza 0 has risen to the top of my favourite games of all time, easily pushing past Yakuza 2, which had held the spot as my favourite Yakuza for many years. Whether you are a newcomer to the series or a veteran of it, Yakuza 0 offers so much to gamers with its spellbinding storytelling and plethora of content. Enchanting until the last chapter, Yakuza 0 is the pinnacle of the series and it looks to be difficult to unseat.

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