Yakuza 0 – Review in Progress
SEGA’s Yakuza series has been building a devoted fanbase since the 2005 release of the first title on the PlayStation 2. While the games always interested me, a few hours with Yakuza 3 and a half-finished play-through of Yakuza 4 later I’m left disappointed with my inability to maintain focus on the adventures of Kiryu Kazuma, perhaps due to the fact that the dense storyline and returning characters reward those who have been on board from the beginning. This is an especially large problem for series that have moved across multiple console generations and make it difficult to find a jumping-in point that doesn’t feel like a step back in time. Whilst I sit comfortably at the half-way point of Yakuza 0 at the time of writing, I am convinced that it is this entry that will blow the series wide open for westerners.
Releasing in early 2015 in its native Japan, Yakuza 0 winds the clock back to 1988, the heyday of the Japanese bubble economy and the starting point for the twin tales of Kiryu Kazuma and Goro Majima. Split across the fictional areas of Kamurocho and Sotenbori (recreations of real-life Japan locations Kabukicho and Dotonbori respectively) Kiryu finds himself framed for murder after becoming caught up in a power struggle for control of the Dojima Family while Goro seeks readmission into Tojo Family following his involvement in a botched assassination. While these events will sound familiar to series veterans, Yakuza 0 also does a fantastic job of catering to newcomers and no prior knowledge is needed to enjoy the melodramatic twists and turns the story takes. High quality work by the Japanese voice cast plays a crucial role in drawing the player in, with particular praise going to the actors portraying the many ruthless villains Kiryu and Goro come across throughout.
The general gameplay loops of the series are intact in Yakuza 0, combining combat and exploration to progress the story. Many of the side activities such as hostess bars, the SEGA Arcade, mah-jongg, and Karaoke make a return and are readily available during missions or can be entirely ignored at the discretion of the player. Visually, the increase in fidelity and presence of 60fps made possible by the move to PlayStation 4 make Yakuza 0 much more palatable than the sometimes murky visuals of earlier entries. Whilst Kamurocho and Sotenbori are relatively small areas, the attention to detail by the designers is incredible, resulting in extremely authentic feeling locations. Some sacrifices seem to have been made to maintain a high frame rate, however, including a mixture of high and low-resolution textures as well as extensive use of Depth of Field effects which also happen to lend Yakuza 0 a cinematic feel. The period setting of the ‘Greed is Good’ 1980’s further serves to bolster immersion with neon signs, bright lights and horrendous fashion.
This focus on greed ties both storyline and mechanics together thanks to a few new additions to the Yakuza formula. Unlike previous entries which relied on a traditional experience and currency system to allow players to increase character skills and purchase items, Yakuza 0 has abolished the former completely. Instead, both items and ability upgrades are purchased with Yen which can literally be beaten out of opponents as well as earned through side-missions and businesses available to Kiryu and Goro. I have to applaud this choice by the designers as it means that players who would prefer to invest their time inside activities like businesses rather than engaging in fights with goons and hooligans are still able to purchase new abilities and character upgrades to get through mandatory combat scenarios.
Whilst I’m still only around half-way with my playthrough of Yakuza 0, I can’t help but feel optimistic about where it will end, both in terms of story and an increase in mainstream love for the franchise. Rarely does a lengthy series often newcomers the chance to join in without potentially alienating the existing fanbase. In this regard, Yakuza 0 is an absolute triumph and comes fully recommended to those who have been waiting to get on board.
Make sure to return to Player2 over the next week to read the updated final review which will answer the question – can the latter half of Yakuza 0 can live up to the promise of the first?