When SEGA was in dire straits, the Yakuza series came to their rescue. With eight games in the main series so far – with Yakuza: Like a Dragon recently releasing – the series has grown more than anyone could have expected. Already a hit in Japan, Yakuza eventually made its way to the west and has slowly gained a following.
So, it’s only fair to review the game that re-exposed Western audiences to the series: Yakuza 0.
1 - Visuals
Visually, the rendered cutscenes look great, even for a game that was released in 2015. That said, the game features three types of cutscenes: rendered cutscenes, in-game cutscenes that typically have characters standing around with a text bubble – with or without sound – and cutscenes that are a mixture of both.
That last category doesn’t quite look as good as the rendered cutscenes. In these cutscenes, characters are “speaking” to each other – even though their mouths don’t move – with subtitles appearing on screen. It would’ve been nice to see just in-game and rendered cutscenes but it’s not a deal-breaker.
Because the game is set in the ‘80s, the city streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori are lined with fluorescent lights and neon signs that glisten in the night. During the day, the sun shines on the streets of the cities and it really helps immerse you in the late-80s life.
The in-game special effects are great as well. Although some effects may seem out of place – characters emanating certain “auras” from their bodies to show they are fully charged up – they are helpful in knowing how powerful an enemy is and how much damage they can inflict. The auras complement the character models well and after a few hours of game-time, it becomes a non-issue.
Furthermore, while main characters Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima look great and fit the time period – what with their extremely flashy clothes and such – the one knock I did have visually was with the NPCs roaming the streets. Oftentimes they don’t look defined and there isn’t a lot of variation among the enemies fought.
There have been moments when I’ve beaten a few “Bikers” in their brightly-colored jumpsuits only to face another group of them wearing the same clothing. It’s a minor complaint but if you’ve played the game like I have – over 140 hours – the street fights get repetitive.
In all, Yakuza 0’s visuals get four stars.
2 - Audio
The voice acting (VA) in Yakuza 0 is fantastic. Takaya Kuroda and Hidenari Ugaki bring incredible depth to Kiryu and Majima, respectively, and show how complex these two characters are. The rest of the VA is well done too, with many of the actors displaying an amazing amount of emotion at any given moment.
Apart from Kuroda and Ugaki, Hitoshi Ozawa’s portrayal of Daisaku Kuze – Kiryu’s main rival – deserves mention as well. Ozawa’s gravelly delivery and the gravitas that his voice carries makes him the perfect casting as Kuze, especially since he’s a long-time Yakuza member that sees Kiryu as an arrogant upstart.
Regarding other audio factors, the punches feel like there’s weight behind every swing and the hits themselves are oftentimes chilling as players connect with extreme force.
Overall, the audio mood set by Yakuza 0 is just right, especially since the game is set in 1988. There’s a bevy of headbangers during boss fights, poppy tracks during minigames and songs that sound suspiciously similar to real life songs. The music truly makes you feel like you are in the ‘80s.
Additionally, a quick listen to the games’ official soundtrack unveils a few gems. Of note are “24 Hour Cinderella,” “Judgement,” and series classic, “Baka Mitai.” All three songs are available to sing in-game at the karaoke bars and their accompanying videos are fantastic.
Overall, Yakuza 0’s audio mixing gets five stars.
(Note: the entire game is in Japanese with only a handful of phrases and words in English.)
3 - Story/Progression
Yakuza 0’s story is the strongest aspect of the game. Playing as Kiryu and Majima shows the differences in each character and the depth each has is unparalleled. What initially starts out as a seemingly straightforward story becomes more and more engaging as different motives and situations arise from a botched job.
A prequel to the series, the game begins with Kiryu beating a man near-death to collect money owed to the Dojima Family. After meeting up with his best friend, Akira Nishikiyama – Nishiki – to eat ramen and sing karaoke, it’s revealed that the man was murdered by a gunshot. This sets off a chain of events filled with mystery, backstabbing and intrigue. Overall, the story is thrilling as Kiryu tries to clear his name all while trying to stay alive.
Additionally, Majima’s story is just as – if not more – engaging than Kiryu’s. A former Yakuza member, Majima now runs the Grand Cabaret, the most successful cabaret in Sotenbori. As punishment for breaking family rules, Majima was tortured and forced to manage the Grand. He’s also only allowed to stay in Sotenbori; if he leaves the city, he will be punished.
Still, Majima wants to get back into the Yakuza, but in order to do so, he will have to murder a civilian: the blind Makoto Makimura. From there, Majima must decide: murder Makimura to get the life he wants or spare her and face consequences?
Yakuza 0’s tone is uncomfortable, as it should be. Playing as a Yakuza member shouldn’t be fun and Yakuza 0 does a great job portraying how dangerous and hazardous to anyone’s health that life really is. The narrative flows very well and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios’s (RGG Studios) ability to balance Kiryu and Majima’s story is a masterclass on how to properly portray deuteragonists.
RGG Studios does a wonderful job of giving life to the tertiary characters around Kiryu and Majima like Makimura, Nishiki and Kuze, making for a more fascinating story. Each of the aforementioned characters have their own experiences and lives, which makes the overall story that much more hard hitting.
The world that’s built in Yakuza 0 is phenomenal, thanks to the various sub-stories and minigames that Kiryu and Majima can partake in, alone or with friends. Players can go to the karaoke bar or race RC cars – among others – and it’s very easy to lose track of time doing tertiary missions instead of the main story.
Yakuza 0’s story gets five stars.
4 - Gameplay
Yakuza 0’s gameplay is fairly straightforward: go here, watch this, fight these people, rinse and repeat. Although there are many different facets to the game, Yakuza 0 is a fighting game at its core. Kiryu and Majima have three fighting styles – with a secret fourth available after completing each character’s main substory – and each have various “heat” moves that can be used once the meter is filled up.
These are essentially finishing moves that each character has and they are all extremely effective. The controls are pretty simple too with button combinations players can utilize to defeat enemies. As expected, the mechanics are tight and responsive.
Players can also roam around Kamurocho and Sotenbori. Though the cities aren’t as large as something you would find in Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row, what it lacks in size, it has in substance. The cities are filled with things to do and people to talk to.
Speaking of which, each character has their own main substory: Kiryu can manage real estate and Majima can run a cabaret club. In Kiryu’s substory, he has to get all of the competitions’ business to keep Kamurocho safe while Majima attempts to turn a fledgling cabaret club into the best in Sotenbori.
With so much to do, Yakuza 0’s game design is top-notch; it gives the player ways to enjoy themselves outside of the extremely heavy story. Want to go dance with an expy of Michael Jackson? Go ahead. Feel the need for speed? You can race RC cars against children. A small toy caught your eye? You can go to the SEGA Arcade and try your hand at the claw machine.
RGG Studios did a terrific job giving the players variety on how they want to spend their time. They balanced a gripping and serious story with outlandish and fun minigames in a way that not many other developers can do. That alone is an accomplishment, in and of itself.
Lastly, the game isn’t necessarily difficult and there are multiple levels of difficulty to choose from if the game is too hard or easy.
Yakuza 0’s gameplay gets four-and-a-half stars.
5 - Context
Spanning almost two decades, the Yakuza series has been a Japanese staple since the first game released in 2005. While the first few games didn’t cause too many waves with Western audiences, Yakuza 0 changed all that. With the release of Yakuza 0 and the remakes of Yakuza 1 and Yakuza 2 – called Yakuza: Kiwami and Yakuza: Kiwami 2, respectively – the series has seen newfound popularity.
As such, the game won numerous awards from various outlets and was nominated for many more. Among the eight main games, Yakuza 0 is tied with Kiwami 2 as the highest-rated Yakuza game on Metacritic and is the highest-rated Yakuza game on GameRankings.
With so few Yakuza-themed games out, RGG Studios has a foothold on the market. To their credit, they continue to release games that fans want and enjoy, as evidenced by the fact that Yakuza: Like a Dragon achieved the highest digital sales in the series.
There aren’t a lot of accessibility options available, however, so players with certain disabilities may have trouble fully enjoying the game.
Yakuza 0’s context gets four-and-a-half stars
In all, Yakuza 0 is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Yakuza 0 looks and sounds great, is fun to play and has an extremely engaging storyline. Though the game being almost-exclusively in Japanese might turn some players off, if they can get past the language barrier, I can almost assure that they will enjoy the experience.
Sure, there are minor graphical issues and a lack of accessibility features but for the amount of time that players will be spending playing the game, these are minor, all things considered.
Yakuza 0 is a great entry point and with the rest of the series coming to Xbox Game Pass and Steam, this is one gem of a game that has to be experienced, especially since the game is relatively cheap – free on Game Pass – on most storefronts.
Yakuza 0 gets 4.5 stars and my undying affection.