New to Yakuza? This is your game. Really. This is the one you dive into. This is the Yakuza that finally pulls you into the series for good.
Yakuza 0 is a prequel. It takes place in 1988, and it tells the back story of series regulars Kazama Kiryu and Majima Goro. It's great for veterans because it's another entry in a strong series, it tells a brilliant story for beloved characters and it's a good game.
For newbies, though? It's perfect.
I didn't get into Yakuza until Yakuza 3. I never played the one with the zombies, and Yakuza 2 eludes me to this day.
Yakuza 4 was my favorite entry. That's been dethroned. By going back with Yakuza 0, Sega cleared the clutter and pushed the series forward.
Yakuza 0 is fantastic.
These games are largely known for two or three things: they tell great stories, their side quests are often hilarious and they boast too many minigames and activities to count.
All of that is present and accounted for here.
I'll start with the story, and that covers character work. A lot of prequel efforts fall into the trap of working too hard to service the original material they precede. They often create relationships and characters only so fans of whatever came before the prequels appreciate the canonical addition. It's fan service, really, and it rarely amounts to quality when taken alone.
That's not the case with Yakuza 0. Yes, you'll see characters you remember. Yes, context will build for later events. However, it never comes at the expense of telling a thoughtful story. What's at the core of this game is delightfully simple. It's an empty lot.
Really. I won't go too far in order to keep this thing spoiler free, but Yakuza 0 is written so that everything devilishly moves around a tiny empty lot in the district of Kamurocho. That city is standard for this game, only it joins Sotenbori, a fictional take on Osaka's Dotonbori.
The storyline is fantastic
The 1989 look and feel rings true, mostly. The aesthetic trickles down to character design, outfits, cars, businesses and UI. It informs so much of the game that the one part it doesn't sticks out like a sore thumb. Through localization, the team added modern slang to the chatter. It feels so out of place to read a character in 1988 Japan say, "the struggle, as they say, is real."
I hammer that point because the writing is otherwise wonderful. The jokes are funny, the dialogue is tight and the actual arc of the plot is addictive. The side stories are downright hilarious, too, which makes them addictive as well.
Almost as addictive as the side activities.
In Yakuza 0, you'll flip between Kiryu and Goro as the story unfolds. Each has three different fighting styles, their own home city and, eventually, their own side business to make extra money. They also have unique side quests and, obviously, storylines.
Their fighting abilities unlock through money earned and by working with trainers met in the campaign. Some abilities get really, really expensive, so you'll want to work at your side business if you want to beef up your combat. Fighting, as is standard with this series, feels rewarding. It can be annoying as conflicts interrupt your progress and exploration, but fights are easy enough to avoid if that's what you're after.
When the fighting is central to the plot's action in the moment, its brutality is perfect. You'll feel under-powered initially, especially if you try to tangle with one of the Mr. Shakedowns (huge dudes out to beat you and steal your cash), but you'll eventually become a mad fighting machine.
Which is great, because the battles get harder over time as the story progresses.
The side activities and world push this game onto another level of quality
There are two types of side activities in Yakuza 0: you'll find minigames like the arcade (with legit old Sega arcade games like Super Hang-On) or batting cages, and then you'll have the two business that Goro and Kiryu run.
The minigames are aplenty here in Yakuza. You'll have the opportunity to stop and distract yourself with a bit of batting, fishing, disco or karaoke constantly, and the game offers up points to buy skills and perks by completing a lot of this side stuff.
Even better, though, are the business. Kiryu eventually gets into the real estate game in Kamurocho. You'll buy properties, manage staff and security and sling lots of money around as you try to take on the 5 Billionaires in Kamurocho and conquer the district.
For Goro, you'll eventually become the manager of a cabaret club. That means you'll recruit hostesses, change their outfits and jump into a club management game when you open for business. Get good enough and you'll slowly take down the 5 Stars to become, you guessed it, the best club in the Sotenbori district.
Both of these businesses are crucial for making money, though. You'll really start to hit your stride hard with them around 30 or so hours played, and that's when the money they bring in is most useful for upgrading your abilities.
My only bit of frustration here is that Kiryu's real estate business is introduced at the tail end of a chapter that's exceptionally dramatic. You spend, maybe, 10 minutes with it and this blast of information and tutorial only to be swept along by the current of story and have to switch over to Goro. By the time you get back to Kiryu, you have to learn your business all over again. I can't help but feel like the real estate mode's introduction was placed far too awkwardly.
As for the world of Yakuza? I picked up Yakuza 3 because I missed Japan. Cheesy, I know, but I'd heard from friends that this series does a great job portraying an accurate feel of Japan's urban centers and streets. That remains true with Yakuza 0 and its densely populated locales. It feels and looks like Japan.
This is a PS3 port, so it shows odd signs of age that don't feel all that "next gen," whatever that really means. This feels like a slightly older game with a great paint job, but that never detracts from its quality.
It's only January, but Yakuza 0 has been marked as a contender for one of my favorites for the year. The story is outstanding, the side activities are great, the game is beautiful and it's genuinely funny. Great writing and design make this a must play.
Plus, newbies should feel welcome. More than welcome, really. If you're looking to pick up a PS4 game in January, consider Yakuza 0. You'll get your money's worth, and you'll have a blast.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of Yakuza 0 for review from Sega.