After a brief excursion in nineteenth century Kyoto with Yakuza Isshin, the Ryu Ga Gotoku series returns to the familiar modern settintg, but loses a few years top stop in the eighties with the prequel Yakuza Zero, scheduled for release in Japan on March 12th, 2015.
Recently I had a chance to play a quite extensive demo of the game in Akihabara, Tokyo, and here’s what I found out.
The demo included two different sections. The first was set in the district of Kamurocho in Tokyo (the fictionalized version of Kabukicho, the red light district that is unfortunately being renewed quite heavily nowadays, and is nearly unrecognizable from the old Yakuza games, let alone this new one, which is set 26 years ago). The protagonist is of course a younger Kazuma Kiryu.
The same place in the real Kabukicho as it appeared a week ago, victim of urban redevelopment. The iconic Koma Theater, which also was featured prominently in Yakuza games, is now being replaced by a giant architectural horror.
The second part is set in the Soutenbori district in Osaka, coming back from Yakuza 2 and inspired by the real Dotonbori district. In this area we control Goro Majima in an unlikely elegant version, as he hides from his enemies playing the part of the refined manager of a cabaret club.
The structure of the game is very similar to what we’ve seen for the whole series. You can walk around freely in each district, within a small but extremely dense and detailed open world, quite often you’ll be attacked by thugs and rival yakuza gangsters, and you’ll have to reason with them with your fists. Scattered around each area there are story-driven quests and a ton of minigames. Unfortunately the demo didn’t include much of the main storyline, but that’s quite normal at this stage.
The game’s graphics are pretty much on par with Yakuza Ishin, which was also cross-generation between PS4 and PS3. Cutscenes are amazing, showing an incredible level of detail. in-game dialogue shows a bit more weaknesses, with characters that often look under detailed. The representation of both Kamurocho and Soutembori is definitely pleasing, with large crowds and great attention to detail.
The game definitely looks good, especially during the narrative segments, but it’s hard not to notice that it’s a cross-gen title in some areas. It’ll be interesting to see the results when Sega will finally drop the PS3 and fully unleash the PS4’s power, but for now Yakuza Zero seems to be held back at least a little by the older console.
That said, the alluring lights of Japan’s red light districts look as beautiful as ever.
Fighting is similar to the previous games of the series, but it carries on the innovation came with Ishin. There’s no more loading between exploration and combat, even if the area in which battles happen is still limited by the crowd.
The combat system itself received a visual overhaul and it’s definitely spectacular, with finishers that have become even more gruesome and violent. It’s also extremely fun. I could have honestly spent the whole day just walking around Tokyo and beating thugs into bloody pulps while exploring the different execution moves.
The secondary characters we’ll encounter are as colorful (and often weird) as ever. For instance in the demo we’ll meet a distressed mistress of a BDSM club and a statue mime. The quests they trigger are a little slice of the Japanese night life, and while they’re quite exaggerated and topped by a great deal of humor, they’re very enjoyable and interesting.
What normally turns Yakuza games in the ultimate (but extremely amusing) timesinks are their minigames, which range from old and glorious Sega games to Karaoke. The demo included an addictive disco dance-off game that was quite challenging to play, and it’s not hard to imagine spending quite a bit of time perfecting its moves.
What always amazes in the games of the series (and Zero isn’t an exception) is the amount of detail put in reproducing the peculiar commercial face of Japan, from restaurants to convenience stores, they sell a myriad of often redundant items that affect gameplay in various ways and also make anyone familiar with the country feel right at home.
Ultimately Yakuza Zero is very promising. Not only it will unveil parts of the story that fans really wanted to see, but it also brings the series’ main story arc to the next generation. While the execution would have been better without being anchored to the old-gen by the PS3 version, it’s definitely a title worth keeping an eye on, even without considering the plot, which I didn’t see and which is normally the strongest perk of Yakuza games.
If you want to see it come to the west (and if you don’t, I’m taking your gamer card), you may want to consider supporting Yakuza 5 when it’ll be released next year, because I have a feeling that Sega will use it as a guinea pig to consider future localizations.