(Full disclosure: Purchase for PS4)
Sega's Yakuza series paints a romanticized look of Japan's underground rife with political intrigue, revenge, and unexpected heroism. Kicking off in 2005 as Ryu ga Gotoku ("Like a Dragon") in Japan, the games have slowly made their way over to the West introducing players to the ongoing chronicles of Kazuma Kiryu and the yakuza entangled in his complicated, third-person beat 'em up lifestyle.
Despite the series' long history, Yakuza 0's accessibility does not require a deep dive into the previous titles though new players that don't like reading subtitles (everything is spoken in Japanese) should be forewarned here. For veterans, it's more of what they've come to expect plus a lot, lot more whether it's growing a real-estate empire or managing cabaret clubs to become the true Lord of the Night in Sotenbori with a little karaoke and disco on the side.
This time around, Kazuma Kiryu, the series' central protagonist, is a young, twenty-year old yakuza working his way up the ladder with his fists until he's framed for a murder that he didn't commit in Kamurocho, a fictional district in Tokyo heralded as the entertainment capital of the East. In Sotenbori, Goro Majima is a yakuza-in-exile living in a golden cage under the thumb of an older yakuza boss, Sagawa. He's eventually pulled into an assassination plot that will inevitably tie both Kiryu and him together in an explosive, underworld war.
Both characters easily slip between the dramatic seriousness of the main story arc and the random respites of silliness found on the streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori. Each city is also filled with colorful NPCs, many of whom offer occasionally bizarre opportunities to befriend them or participate in unusual side quests whether it's sharing phone cards with a guy nicknamed Mr. Libido or trying to beat the high score of a Sega employee in Space Harrier.
The game's Mature rating also partly stems from the adult nature of its material that it doesn't shy away from. Previous games had been censored to varying degrees due to cultural differences, though Yakuza 5 arrived unscathed after listening to fans. Yakuza 0 is the same -- gravure videos, risque daydreams, and plenty of sexual innuendo frame the seedy underbelly of both cities as both Kiryu and even the notorious Goro Majima are cast as gentleman thugs bringing their own code down on whatever injustice they see ahead of them.
Capturing a piece of Japan from the late 80s during the peak of its economic rise as a financial demigod and channeling Sega's beat 'em up expertise curated by titles ranging from Streets of Rage and Shenmue, Yakuza 0 also brings a subtle commentary on the Age of Excess to the table. Experience points for beating down punks are replaced with cash that explodes with every knuckle sandwich and dress shoe'd kick, cash that then can be used to "invest" in either Goro or Kiryu's skills and abilities that can eventually run into the billions of yen. It's a neatly subversive, and addicting, take to leveling especially with so many ways with which to generate yen. Buying stuff, like food to replenish your HP, becomes comically cheap until you realize that the real money pits lie in improving both Kiryu and Goro's stats along with other activities such as buying up buildings to grow their respective businesses.
Story-wise, it resolves itself is a solid and fitting end to this prequel. If I wasn't already impressed to see how far the main characters had grown throughout the series up to Yakuza 5, seeing what made them what they are here and the secret sacrifices that got them there are everything that series veterans like me can appreciate. But if this is your first taste of the series, the story is still packed with plenty of establishing moments for both of the major players helping to make strong impressions of just who these guys are and what they're doing. There's even an in-game menu option with descriptions of each of the major characters in case you need a refresher, or at the main menu, the ability to re-watch any of the cinematics to keep up with the story's twists.
In true beat' em up style calling back to the classics of yesteryear just like the other installments to the series have, punching and kicking your way through the game is as easy as button mashing or in skillfully pulling off combos for maximum damage. You'll look good doing it either way, especially if there are props ranging from signs to motorcycles within reach that can be used to pummel foes in a wild explosion of nearly comic violence. New to the series are mammoth thugs, "Mr. Shakedowns", that randomly roam the urban street-dungeons of both Kamurocho and Sotembori looking for easy marks to make cash off of. They're kind of like mini-bosses -- brutal, wrecking balls on two legs but if you can dance around them and get in a few punches, they also double as convenient piggy banks flush with cash from their victims that can end up in your pockets instead.
Each city (which are, admittedly, more like a collection of blocks and side streets that are traveled exclusively on foot) is also filled with activities outside of the side quests. Karaoke rhythm games, disco dancing, phone club dating sims, bowling, batting cages, pocket racing, and even classic arcade games like Outrun, Space Harrier, and Fantasy Zone provide plenty to do outside of the main quest. Some of these even have their own accompanying storylines to add even more incentive in trying everything out. The attention to the details are also just as impressive. Retro fans will find a lot to smile at while visiting one of Sega's arcades with SDI and Space Harrier posters on the walls.
There's even an in-game achievement system also generates special points that you can then spend on a number of upgrades whether it's to make even more money rain from the fools that try to use you as a punching bag or change up the look of your cabaret club. Yakuza 0's design explicitly feels geared towards rewarding you for simply playing the game in little ways and it can be tens of hours before the chain starts to slow down as you tick off items on its limited list.
It's almost too much to take in all at once and it's all the better for the risks that it takes on bringing on all of that extra content. Yakuza 0 keeps plugging away at you with all cylinders whether it's taking a break to take in some Karaoke rhythm games or beating down Mr. Shakedown for a bit more pocket change. Not every player will get through everything, but the fact that there is so much potential to dive into is a rare, and wholly welcome, facet of the series, making Yakuza 0's even larger smorgasbord of bloody, storyboarded action with a heart an unforgettable experience. Pros:
- Presentation values are fantastic, easily the best looking and sounding Yakuza to date
- Massive, central story arc stitched together with plenty of side stories and characters that are just as involving...Goro Majima and Kazuma Kiryu's stories both shine
- Beat 'em up system and upgrade mechanics just get better
Final Disco Dance Score: A
- After so many games, does the game still have to do a System file save when I just want to save the game
- Some of the mini-games, like the real-estate one, could use a bit more polish
- Some of the humor and intentional cheese might not be to everyone's taste