Yakuza 0 Review - A Stellar Debut on PS4 For a Series that Deserves the Spotlight
The Yakuza series finally debuts on PS4 in the west nearly two years late, but it was really worth the wait.
Review copy provided by the publisher
Over the years, the Yakuza Series has become the perfect Ojisan-simulator (“ojisan” is how you’d call, not very respectfully, a middle-aged man in Japan), including so much beyond the main story that reviews would be twice as long if everything was described in detail. Yakuza 0 is different only in the fact that it turns back the clock to the Eighties, so calling the protagonists “ojisan” wouldn’t really be all that appropriate, unless you’re five years old.
The story begins in the traditional Yakuza location of Kamurocho, which is a semi-fictional recreation, with amazing precision, of the Kabuckicho district in the Shinjiku ward of Tokyo. Protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is in trouble: framed as a suspect murderer, he finds himself trapped into a massive intrigue with the apparent objective of disgracing the man who took him in when he was a young orphan.
On the other side of Japan, in the Sotenbori district of Osaka (another rather faithful representation of the real Dotonbori district), a young Goro Majima is stuck as the manager of a popular cabaret, forced to hide his violent nature as an exiled civilian after disobeying a direct order from his boss, while he tries to earn cash to pay his way back into the organization.
That’s just the beginning, as the story is complex and extremely satisfying from the very beginning to the very end. Since it’s a prequel set before the first Yakuza game, not only it’s the perfect entry point for those who have never played the series, but it gives a much welcome look at the early years of Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. Those are, for very good reasons, the most beloved characters of the series, and while they lost part of their maturity, not a drop of their charm is missing.
Ultimately, and it’s kind of weird to say it so close to the beginning of the review, this is the real reason why this game, and the Yakuza series in general, is so awesome. Sega managed to create criminal characters that retain plenty of shadows and certainly aren’t angels, but they’re still genuinely likable. They’re not 100% realistic, but they all feel extremely human.
Over the years, I have gotten sick of hearing the comparison with the Grand Theft Auto series: while there are some limited elements in common, the Yakuza franchise effortlessly runs circles around Rockstar’s masterpieces in terms of story and characters.
In Yakuza 0 even relatively minor characters are perfectly flashed out, and you’ll be able to appreciate their beautifully human motivations and behaviors. Even bad guys are extremely enjoyable to follow and shake your fist at. The cast and the story carry the player through pretty much all kinds of emotion, from laughter to tears, passing by every shade of grey in between.
You’ll go from being pleasantly puzzled at the most “Japanese” moments, that the game delivers in spades, to sitting on the edge of your seat during the more intense parts of the narration and action.
Pacing is also nearly perfect, with each chapter delivered pretty much with the perfect duration and rhythm, but allowing you to stray from the beaten path as much as you want to pursue side activities. You get the best of both worlds.
The story is crowned by an absolutely fantastic performance of the voice actors playing basically every role. Sega wisely did away with the idea of having any English voice acting, that with lower-budget productions tends to be positively nasty. Instead, they stuck with the Japanese voice track, characterized by a star-studded cast that delivers every line with the expertise and intensity that you can expect from the best Japanese talent.
The English script is delivered via subtitles, and the idea of preserving the Japanese honorifics is certainly laudable, as they work much better than pure English language in conveying the complex relationships that govern Japanese society and even more so its criminal layer. Unfortunately, the effort proves to be only half-effective, as many of the titles used between the characters are still translated, modified or omitted, with the result that some of those layers of color are lost in translation.
Just to bring an example, Kazuma Kiryu normally refers to Shintaro Kazama as “oyassan” while the English localization simply changes it into “Kazama-san.” This causes the special relationship between Kazuma and Kazama to be lost to the reader. “Kazama-san” is the way you’d call a stranger, or someone you have a a cursory relationship with. Kazuma calls Kazama “oyassan” because the ties between the two men run much deeper.
Since they decided to go with honorifics that certainly aren’t English, I wish they went all the way with this localization choice, instead of stopping halfway. That said, it’s still a very good step in the right direction.
The rest of the localization is a bit hit and miss: while it’s certainly more faithful and higher in quality than the usual fare we get with most Japanese games, there are still quite a bit of discrepancies between Japanese audio and English script. While many are inevitable considering the nature of the Japanese language, many could have been avoided, and taking a bit less liberties would have probably produced an even better localization.
Overall sound design is also great, and what stands out the most is the chatter that can be heard around on the streets of Tokyo and Osaka. When you walk around the game’s world, it feels pretty much like the real thing. Having been in Japan quite a few times for extended periods of time (mostly in Tokyo, where I visited Kabukicho multiple times since there are some pretty awesome restaurants there), I can definitely recognize the authentic atmosphere.
The downside of the lack of English voice acting is felt a bit here, because secondary street-chatter is not subtitled at all. If you don’t know Japanese, you’ll miss quite a few little atmosphere-setting details. That said, Tokyo and Osaka still “feel” different from each other because the development team went as far as having the crowd speak different dialects.
This is, incidentally, something that extends to the main and secondary cast, and those familiar with Japan will instantly be able to tell a lot about each character simply by the way they speak.
Visuals suffer a bit from the fact that this is essentially a two years old game originally released in Japan at the beginning of 2015 as cross-generation between PS4 and PS3. Even if we aren’t getting the PS3 version in the west, it still limited a bit what the developers could do, and the PS4 probably isn’t used as well as it could have.
Especially non-combat animations outside of cinematic cutscenes feel a bit stiff, but it’s certainly not enough to be a real downer or to make the game feel excessively dated.
Pure visuals aren’t as impacted mostly due to how incredibly detailed the environments are, with the main exception being a pretty intense aliasing. On the other hand, the team did a fantastic job in recreating both Kabukicho and Dotonbori, and if you pull out Google Earth you’ll be able to recognize quite a few landmarks.
Both districts have been pulled back in time to 1988, so they certainly aren’t identical to how they look today (actually, Sega did an amazing job in recreating the atmosphere of the years of the bubble economy), but even if I visited Kabukicho for the first time in 2009, I still felt pretty much at home in the streets of Kamurocho. Considering that I’ll be there next week, I think you can pretty much expect me to prove it to you soon enough.
They are extremely complex environments, full of neon signs and decorations designed to attract perspective customers into the many establishments, and level designers did an absolutely fantastic job in conveying that complexity, creating some of the most dense and fascinating environments in the genre. Quite often I found myself just running around and reading the signs, taking in the thousands of interesting details.
Cinematic cutscenes are also absolutely stellar, and they don’t miss a beat in conveying the story in a way that is definitely worthy of a hard-boiled crime film. While expressions are slightly stylized, the effect is that they actually feel even more natural and recognizable. Witnessing the performances of Kazuma Kiryu, Goro majima and the many other primary characters is a real pleasure.
The world that best describes the gameplay of Yakuza 0 is “Rich.” There is so much to do that you can easily expect a hundred hours of fun, and that’s shooting low. I don’t think the cumulative play time can be easily quantified if you enjoy absolutely everything that the game provides.
Basic gameplay is, of course, focused on action brawling, with both main characters sporting distinctive fighting styles and moves that make them feel very different from each other. Alternating at the controls of Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, gameplay will pretty much always feel fresh, thanks to their different ways to beat people in the face combined with character progression.
Not only Kiryu and Majima feel different from each other, but each character has different styles that can be switched dynamically, and an enormous variety of moves and “heat actions,” which are basically Yakuza‘s finishers. This is where battle really shines, as they are absolutely brutal and definitely visceral. You’ll feel the impacts in your stomach, and when Kiryu will push a thug’s face against a car and slam the door on his head, you’ll shiver and grin in quasi-sadistic satisfaction. This is not a game for the faint of heart.
As a matter of fact, we might as well get this out of the way: Yakuza 0, like all Yakuza games, is a radically politically incorrect game. It’s deliberately over the top, and intentionally delivered as “entertainment for adults.” If you’re part of the easily offended crowd, and a metric ton of violence and a lot of sexy content proudly displayed, are things that set your teeth on edge, then you better steer clear, because this title will make your head implode. Of course, this doesn’t have the slightest impact on the superb quality of the experience for those that aren’t easily offended, but I thought I’d give you a fair warning for your own sake.
Now that we bowed in the general direction of avoiding that the game’s hardcore content hits you in the face like the punch of an ten ton gorilla, let’s go back to combat: further variety is provided by tons of weapons that you can either equip or even pick up on the fly from downed enemies or from your surrounding. This is, like unarmed combat, very satisfying. Dropping a motorbike on the head of an overly-annoying mobster is simply awesome. As you progress in the game, you’ll even be able to create your own implements of destruction via a fairly interesting minigame that will prompt you to send agents around the world to find blueprints and rare materials.
Did I say minigames? Oh yes, I said minigames, because there is a gazillion of them. The game is literally chock-full of side activities to have fun with. Actually calling them “minigames” isn’t all that appropriate: there are a few relatively simple ones like fishing or the batting center, but there are plenty that are full-fledged experiences with surprising depth and breadth within the game.
An example is Pocket Racing, which is basically a physics-enabled and very advanced Mini 4WD simulation with tons of depth and customization, that will let you create and customize your model cars with a whole garage-worth of components, and even build your own tracks and competitions however you like.
There even are fully-reproduced and very complex tabletop games like Mah-jong and Shogi, presented with a level of detail that could almost qualify them as stand-alone games. I can easily see many strategically-minded players influenced by the charm of those exotic games, spending tens of hours simply to learn, master and enjoy them.
This culminates with Kazuma Kiryu’s real estate business and Goro Majima’s cabaret club administration, that add a very relevant layer of gameplay on top of the fighting and story.
Yakuza 0 also comes with plenty of side quests, and while there are a few fetch-based ones, most are very unique and enjoyable, both because they’ll prompt you to perform a vast variety of tasks, and because they come with stories that give you a nice glimpse on the life of their characters, are simply interesting, will make you laugh out loud, or all of the above at the same time.
If you absolutely hate minigames and side content, the game can still be completed while mostly ignoring them, but I wouldn’t advise to do that. The best way to enjoy Yakuza 0 is to immerse yourself in everything it offers and in its uniquely Japanese atmosphere, and to fully embrace this its quirky and awesome nature. It’s definitely worth it.
Ultimately, Sega’s young-ojisan simulator is probably one of the most “Japanese” games you’ll ever play: it takes itself seriously exactly where it should, and it doesn’t precisely in the right places. It proudly flies in the face of politically correctness, and it shows the middle finger to western sensibilities and common sense with absolute nonchalance. It’s also fully unapologetic about it all, and this is absolutely refreshing.
If there is a game that fully embodies and actually easily overcomes the definition of “complete package,” that’s Yakuza 0. It’s a rich, colorful and engrossing experience that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who loves the genre, Japanese culture, or simply a very, very good story with some of the best and most genuinely likable characters you’ll ever encounter in gaming.