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Review: Yakuza 0

19 Jan 2017

Watch or Play?

As the technology behind games has increased, so has the desire and opportunity for developers to make their titles more “cinematic.” Crafting stories on a grander scale, acted out by highly-detailed digital performers on your console of choice. Quite often, though, this desire for higher storytelling has put games at odds with their real purpose: the gameplay.

There are supporters on both sides of the spectrum. Some very much enjoy lengthy story and cutscene moments, as the story becomes their main drive to push through the gameplay. Others, though, say that if they wanted a story focus, they’d rather watch a movie or read a book. After all, the defining aspect of the video game medium is in its interactivity.

Both have their pros and cons (and I, personally, lean toward the story end of the spectrum), but there is definitely a strong market for more story- and cutscene-focused games. Most famous for cutscene focus would have to be the Metal Gear Solid series, with many claiming Metal Gear Solid 4 as being “the best movie they’ve ever played.”

Perhaps surprising to some, though, is that there are some games that manage to have their cake and eat it too; titles with a strong story focus and lengthy cutscenes, but also with vastly entertaining, varied, and rewarding gameplay.

Developed by Sega and published in the Americas by Sega of America, Yakuza 0 is set for release on January 24th, 2016 exclusively for the PlayStation 4.


Tale of the Two

Yakuza 0 acts as a prequel to the overall Yakuza franchise (hence the name) and follows two separate characters. First up is series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu, a member of the Dojima Family of yakuza. While performing a “debt collection” for a local loan shark, Kiryu later finds out that the man he collected from wound up dead, with the police finding his body.

While he did beat the man half to death, Kiryu knows that he did not kill him…but excuses aren’t enough for the Dojima Family, and the three family lieutenants quickly come down on him for killing a civilian.

Kiryu sets out to prove his innocence, quickly becoming entangled in a battle between the family and the thuggish Tachibana Real Estate agency over the last plot of undeveloped land in the red-light district of Kamurocho. After all, whoever can lay claim to this Empty Lot has a lynchpin to controlling the entire district.

Running concurrent to this is the story of Goro Majima. A disgraced former yakuza, Majima currently runs a cabaret known as The Grand in the city of Sotenbori. Desperate to rejoin the yakuza, he has raised a wild amount of money through his cabaret to buy his way back in.

However, it turns out money isn’t enough. When his yakuza overseer tells him so, Majima claims that he’d be willing to do anything to rejoin the family. Thusly, he is presented a single question…”can you kill?”

The dual stories presented by Yakuza 0 are, simply put, incredibly crafted and wildly entertaining. The game is grounded in reality, and serves up some amazing moments in both action scenes and character development, pacing the climaxes perfectly against quieter moments.

A plot based around real estate seems unusual for a video game, it manages to be engaging and very apt to the setting – Yakuza 0 takes place in 1988, at the height of the economic bubble in Japan, where people were tossing around money and snatching up buildings left and right.

While Kiryu’s story is excellent, it was Majima’s plot that absolutely blew me away. Right from his introduction I was enraptured by his character, and the things he has to go through made his turns in the spotlight the highlight of the game.

Money Talks

In between the story moments, Yakuza 0 presents you with a semi-open world to explore. You’ll be running around each character’s city (Kamurocho or Sotenbori) to complete the various tasks presented to you. The cities are relatively compact, only taking a couple of minutes to cross end-to-end. Despite this, though, you’ll still find plenty to do.

This game is a brawler at heart – as you explore the city, and during story moments, you’ll come into battle with groups of thugs, delinquents, and yakuza. When encountered, the game seamlessly switches from exploration to battle mode, with nearby NPCs approaching and surrounding you to create battlefield boundaries.

The basic controls of battle are pretty simple: square for a light, chainable attack, triangle for a heavy attack, and circle for grabs (most of the time). You can tap X for a quick dodge, and hold L1 to block.

Battles are usually pretty quick, and the controls are tight and functional. The twist, though, is that each of the two main characters has three different fighting styles. Kiryu has a standard brawling mode, a “Rush” mode focused on fast light jabs with no grabs, and a slow yet powerful “Beast” mode that allows him to instantly attack with environmental objects. Majima’s standard is “Thug” mode (basic, but a bit more hard-hitting), a mode that allows him to attack with weapons you can craft, and “Break” mode – weaponized break dancing.

While early-game battles can easily be finished with any style, story fights and late-game battles require you to read your enemies and environment to pick the best styles to use. Each style also has its own set of “Heat Actions” – special attacks that be pulled off in certain situations, as long as you’ve built enough energy in your “heat gauge” by landing hits. These attacks are strong, damaging, and rather gruesome, and there’s so many of them that it’s always fun to discover a new one.

Outside of battle, there are a vast number of ways to entertain yourself. You can visit the local karaoke bar or dance club to play a couple of rhythm games, hit up an arcade to play some old-school Sega classics like Space Harrier, go bowling, shoot darts, play pool…watch erotic videos. It’s quite impressive how much Sega has packed into this game. Some of the various games can even be played two-player.

Tying all of this together is the overarching theme of cold hard cash. Like I said, the game takes place during Japan’s economic bubble, where people were making money hand over fist. As such, it isn’t unusual for you to be running around town carrying billions of Yen. Beating up enemies literally makes money fly off of them. Kiryu can learn a skill that lets him throw money in the air to distract enemies. Cash is used to upgrade your character’s skills and stats. It’s both hilarious and a perfect match for the game’s setting.

To earn all this money, though, there are two major subsystems in the game. Once Kiryu gets involved in the real estate game, he joins up with a small firm and unlocks the ability to buy buildings around town, collecting cash from them. Meanwhile, Majima gets involved in running a smaller cabaret club, managing its hostesses and assets.

Both of these systems are relatively simple on the surface, but provide a surprising amount of depth, to the point where it’s easy to get distracted from the base brawler game and instead focus on manipulating numbers and watching your businesses grow.


Neon Excess

Yakuza 0 was originally released in Japan in early 2015 as a cross-generational title, for both the PS3 and PS4. I’m usually skeptical of these kinds of releases when it comes to graphical presentation, since more often than not, graphical fidelity is decreased so the game can run on the older system.

However, what this game presented to me on the PS4 absolutely blew me away. The streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori are flashy, gaudy, and most of all, alive. There’s small details all over the environment, with dozens of NPCs running around in the busiest parts of town. Despite everything going on, I encountered no slowdown or framerate drops whatsoever.

The numerous pre-rendered cutscenes, though, are absolutely beautiful. Characters are detailed right down to the pores on their skin, lip-synching is excellent, and the animations are detailed and realistic (despite some occasionally odd clothing animations). Cutscenes that take place in-engine are obviously less detailed, but still incredibly high-quality (although lip-synching isn’t as perfect here).

My only real gripe with the game is in some rarely occurring cutscenes that are presented as mostly still images. Graphical fidelity here lands somewhere in between the in-engine and pre-rendered scenes, taking place in still shots with some very minor character animations.

I really can’t understand the point of these scenes – if they weren’t “impactful” enough for a pre-rendered scene, it’d be easy enough to do them in-engine, rather than creating a third style that doesn’t fit the game all that well.

An Outstanding Performance

Most of the time, the soundtrack of Yakuza 0 is ambient. Quiet tracks that blend into the background chaos of the cities help to establish environmental character, but don’t really stand out. In the moments the music comes to the forefront, the style is mostly hard rock with some synth folded in. Typically high-energy, rather fitting of a brawler and the fast lifestyle of the setting.

What the music really does well is set the mood. Suspenseful moments are heightened perfectly, battles and high-energy scenes have tracks to get the adrenaline flowing, and some of the more off-kilter scenes are scored with more unusual (but still grounded, rather than crazy or out-of-setting) tracks. There are also numerous vocal tracks spanning a number of genres, many of which you get to hear Kiryu or Majima sing hilariously during karaoke.

The game is also fully voice acted in its original Japanese. The voice acting seems to be a point of pride in this series for Sega, to the point that some characters in game are modeled after their actors or actresses. I’d say they have a right to be proud, as the performances here are absolutely stellar.

Every character, from Kiryu and Majima to some minor NPCs, gives an excellent and believable performance. Out of everything else, it’s the acting that really sells the story, conveying the emotions across the game perfectly.


One of the Greats

If it seems like I’ve just spent this entire article gushing about Yakuza 0…it’s because I really have, quite intentionally. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game this well crafted and built. The story is intense and amazingly told, the characters receive great development, and the setting is absolutely beautiful, with everything about the game being built around it.

There is one thing that may stay some hands though, and that’s in relation to the intro of this article. For those hesitant to accept lengthy story moments – yes, there is still deep and lengthy gameplay throughout. However, it is often broken up by cutscenes that can run up to 20 minutes at a time (maybe even longer, I didn’t actually time any of them).

I do feel that this game manages to balance its story and gameplay well – you can easily spend hours performing tasks and playing games around Kamurocho and Sotenbori before advancing the story – but the fact that there are long periods where you’ll be sitting and watching/reading still stands.

As I said, I lean heavily on preferring lengthy story in my games. I consider these scenes a positive for this review, especially since the story is so wonderfully told. If you’re not so much a fan, though, I wouldn’t say to avoid this game, but to go in prepared.

With that note out of the way, Yakuza 0 is one of the best titles I have played in a long time, and is a stunning video game in general. There’s very little I can complain about here, and those things are so minor as to be insignificant. As such, I would like to award Yakuza 0 with a full score. PS4 owners would be doing themselves a disservice by not including this in their libraries.

~ Final Score: 10/10 ~

Review copy provided by Sega for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.