Yakuza 0 Review
Written by Beckett Van Stralen
With the release of games like Final Fantasy XV and Persona 5, there seems to be a resurgence of Japanese video games rising to mainstream popularity in North America. When Yakuza Zero was recommended to me, I held some slight skepticism - I’d seen screenshots and video clips of previous games in the Yakuza series, now over a decade old, and I’d seen nothing that captivated my interest or hooked me. I saw a restricting open-world brawler with a plethora of mini-games, ranging from downright whacky to seemingly mundane. If I’ve learned anything from having that mindset, it’s to not judge a book by its cover - Yakuza Zero is a surprisingly deep prequel to a juggernaut of a series that tells the incredibly personal origin stories of the series’ main protagonists, ripe with unexpected twists and dark turns, and moments that can be laugh-out-loud hilarious to emotionally heart-wrenching. Yakuza Zero is a must-play for fans of the series and is an excellent point for newcomers to begin their saga.
Yakuza Zero’s story is told from the viewpoints of two protagonists - Kazuma Kiryu, a young up-and-coming Yakuza, and Goro Majima, an exiled Yakuza Lieutenant who has been reduced to running a gentleman’s club as punishment for past indiscretions. Both characters are very deep and complex, and constantly surprise throughout the thirty-odd hours that will be spent playing through their stories. Since the narrative is Yakuza Zero’s main strong point, I won’t say much, but it begins when Kiryu is framed for a murder he did not commit, and Majima is presented with an opportunity to make his way back into the Yakuza family he was exiled from - but not without getting blood on his hands. Their stories are fleshed out and filled with extremely memorable side characters that are almost as profound as the main protagonists themselves, to the point where you can’t help but become invested in the emotional ups and downs of their respective stories. Brotherhood, family, and loyalty are very prominent themes in Yakuza Zero, and you can see through every hardship faced that the protagonists are torn between the Yakuza life and the real world, where their responsibilities require them to cast aside their personal grievances to carry out their duty, even at the cost of someone they hold dear to their hearts.
Throughout the duration of Yakuza Zero, the player will spend their time either progressing the story, exploring various sub-stories which act as side quests, or playing the vast variety of mini-games the series is known for. Once the game progresses beyond a certain point, further activities are unlocked to increase your income in the form of managing a gentleman’s club and running a real estate tycoon. These activities are surprisingly intricate with a steep learning curve and cater to gamers who enjoy a business management-style kind of activity. During my playthrough, I spent most of my time progressing through the main campaign but also played quite a few sub-stories. From joining a cult in order to save an estranged daughter, to hearing the sad tale of an ex-Yakuza whose face was surgically altered to protect his family, these are very touching stories that add to the high-quality narrative Yakuza Zero offers. There are even some comedic sub-stories that involve using one of the world’s first cellphones, and conversing with a dancing man in his underwear who’s aptly named “Mr. Libido”. The mini-games offered in Yakuza Zero don’t disappoint either - you can go to the local arcade and play licensed SEGA games, operate claw machines in pursuit of their prizes, buy an RC car to race and upgrade with new parts, take part in an underground fighting ring, and much more. These distractions change the dynamic of the game significantly and offer a perfect change of pace from the narrative-heavy campaign.
Yakuza Zero’s combat is over-the-top arcade-style brawling, which has a surprising amount of depth, should the player wish to spend time unlocking moves in the three different fighting styles of each character. Money earned can be used to “invest” in the characters, which allows for additional moves to be learned and to increase their health and heat gauges (the heat gauge is the resource for executing more devastating moves). Personally, I have never been a huge fan of fighting games that require precise move combinations to pull off powerful attacks, but I appreciate how the game allows for that level of complexity to be utilized by its players. On the flip side, Yakuza Zero is extremely accessible for people, like me, who enjoy primitive button mashing.
As mentioned before, each character possesses three unique fighting styles - Kiryu utilizes the Brawler, Beast, and Rush styles, while Majima uses the Thug, Breaker, and Slugger styles. As mentioned previously, each style has a skill tree that allows additional abilities and status buffs to be unlocked by “investing in yourself” with money. Each style plays differently from the others, and the ability to switch between styles on the fly allows you to apply the style best utilized to the situation currently at hand, making the combat feel fresh with each encounter.
The graphics of Yakuza Zero appear dated compared to recent releases like Destiny 2 or The Witcher 3, with drab scenery and a lot of grey environments, but the main character models are incredibly detailed with excellent facial animations that succeed in conveying the character’s emotions. More than once I was emotionally moved by scenes that were unfolding in front of me, watching characters so well-created it seemed like they’d taken on a life of their own. Unfortunately, the other characters outside the main cast are visibly poorer in their design, but this isn’t a bad thing as not much time is spent with them.
Yakuza Zero is a perfect point of entry for newcomers to the Yakuza series, and it tells a deeply emotional story heavy with themes of brotherhood, family, and loyalty, with two Yakuza torn between the duties to their families and following their moral sense of right and wrong. Filled with memorable side characters that are almost as fleshed out as the main characters themselves, players will undoubtedly become completely invested in the fates of Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima over the thirty hours spent seeing the story to its epic conclusion. When not investing time into the main story, there are plenty of mini-games to play, as well as side stories to become immersed in that often carry the same level of narrative brilliance. While the graphics are lacking compared to other games recently released, it is a minor blemish on a game where the narrative and the characters that realize their individual stories are its strongest asset. For fans of the Yakuza series or gamers interested in beginning their saga in the world of Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, Yakuza Zero is an excellent choice to do so.