A gamer and writer at heart who wants to combine his hobbies into one. I am 25 years old and I'm from the Netherlands. Having played many games over the years, I wanted to express my love for them, however obscure they may be!
This is my first ever experience with the Yakuza series of games. I also went in as blind as possible, which means that I knew pretty much nothing outside of the game being an open-world setting in Japan. As a result, this review is seen through the eyes of a complete newcomer. Therefore, I may state things that I feel will become common in the later (or earlier depending on how you look at it) games as well, but that may end up false. My apologies in advance if that ends up being the case.
My first playthrough was done on normal difficulty, though I’ve also played the game on legendary difficulty. Furthermore, the game has been completed 100% according to the in-game completion list and the achievements, so keep in mind that I may review this game through the eyes of a completionist rather than a casual gamer who comes here solely for the story. The game was played on Steam.
Sega is an interesting company–and I mean that in both a good- and a bad way. They have so many franchises under their name, but the amount that I can name that are also still active and well-known at the same time are… not that high. And I don’t feel I’m alone in saying that, as many people associate Sega with Sonic the Hedgehog, and that’s about it. Of course, we have stuff like the Shining series, Total War and others, but none really reach the fame- and attention Sonic gets from the big blue. Unless we count Atlus games I guess who are also part of Sega now. But in recent years, a long-running franchise has been making its name around town more frequently.
Of course, I’m talking about none other than the Yakuza series, a franchise originating from 2005 that was pretty successful, but mostly in Japan. That’s not to say that it didn’t have success in the west of course, but it took a bit longer to become the powerhouse it is today. And while this was a franchise that I’ve always known about, I had never even touched a game in the franchise up till… well, a few weeks ago. But that perfect opportunity came for me and many others when a prequel to the entire series was released, called Yakuza 0. While some may say it isn’t, I felt that this was the perfect place to start with the franchise. So after already owning Yakuza Kiwami 1 and 2 thanks to Humble Bundle, I felt it was high time to finally buy the prequel as well and start my journey into this beloved franchise.
Yakuza 0 was announced at a special Yakuza event in 2014, only for Japan and other Asian countries. The latest entry that was released in the west, Yakuza: Dead Souls, was considered a commercial flop that left the future of English localizations uncertain. So much so that despite the game being announced for a western release a full year later, it wasn’t even known whether Europe would get the game or not. Heck, the original trailer even stated that the game would be released in Europe as well, but that trailer was taken down pretty quickly and re-uploaded, removing the European part. Fortunately, the game ended up being a major success in the west and basically saved the series from death by localization. And that was a very good thing because funnily enough, this was probably one of the biggest games to be localized… ever, due to it having a total of 1.8 million Japanese characters, which exceeds even most long JRPGs. It took the localization team led by Scott Strichart from Atlus USA a year and a half to localize the game in its entirety. Most of the difficulties were with the traditional Asian games however, specifically Mahjong and Shogi. According to Scott, the team wrote a total of 34 pages to even explain Mahjong! Due to the success of this game, the first two Yakuza games have also seen remakes in the past few years, using the same engine as Yakuza 0 uses.
I mentioned that Yakuza was a series that I had absolutely no prior knowledge of, and therefore I also didn’t really know what to expect. Like genuinely, all I knew was that it had featured one or more sandbox cities to walk around in and that it has some very characteristic moments. I mainly bring this up because I was shocked at how rich the story is for Yakuza 0. Yeah, I’m kind of starting this review by getting straight to the point, but I genuinely could not think of a different way to start as it is easily one of the game’s best assets. So allow me to go into what makes the story of Yakuza 0 so good without going into spoiler territory.
The game features two different main protagonists, Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, who both have their own storyline that is intertwined in one big campaign. They are members of the yakuza, which can essentially be summed up as the maffia of Japan. Though in the story of this game, which is a prequel to the entire series, we actually play as them from a time they were temporarily not part of the yakuza. You could say that they are polar opposites in terms of goals, as Kiryu is unrightfully blamed for a murder and has to leave the yakuza to clear the accusations, while Majima is an ex-yakuza trying his best to get back into the family. But yakuza don’t play by the ”ah sure, we’ll forgive you, have cuddles and everything is alright” rule, so the both of them have to go through hell and back not only to return to the family, but to even have a chance of surviving.
In the story of Yakuza 0, which is a prequel to the entire series, we actually play as both protagonists from a time they were temporarily not part of the yakuza.
Kiryu’s plot mostly focuses on clearing his name, but also preventing sketchy politics in the family from going through that will bring an end to the Kazuma lineage. This all has to do with a small insignificant plot of land in the middle of the city with an unknown owner, which is the driving force behind the entire plot as it is not as insignificant as it seems to be. This place, called the Empty Lot, is conveniently where the murder happened that Kiryu is framed for. Given that he alone cannot prove his innocence, he is approached by a real estate business who have made their name known around the city in a short amount of time. The yakuza aren’t too fond of them–especially now that Kiryu has joined them.
Majima isn’t framed for murder, but to get back into the yakuza, he has to actually commit murder. At least, not originally, as he initially had to run a cabaret and make 100 million yen in profits to be allowed back. He is surprisingly good at his job too, as shown in the awesome 15-minute long cutscene that introduces him. But while he was well on his way to the big money, the higher-ups were like ”nah, you go kill”, and the plan changed.
As you can imagine with this being a prequel to the series, a lot of emphasis is placed on developing both of the main protagonists. And while I am definitely of the opinion that this applies to Kiryu too, I feel that Majima’s development in particular was very well executed. Like I’ve mentioned a few times before, I am not too familiar with the series in general, though I have seen some scenes of Majima in later games–particularly his crazy nature. So take this with a grain of salt yet again, but Yakuza 0 did an excellent way of shaping who he becomes due to all the characters he meets and the events that happen in this game, as you see it all happen not only through his character, but his fighting style as well. The goals both of them have will remain their driving force, but they will accomplish that goal their own way as that is who they are.
What I find especially fascinating about this story is how the two protagonists refuse to commit murder, however much their buttons are pushed to do so. Kiryu is accused of murder early game, but he makes it clear right away that he would never do such a thing. Once you commit murder, you will never be able to go back after all. The same goes for Majima who also doesn’t want to murder, but is encouraged by his higher-ups to do so in exchange for accomplishing the goal he is working towards. On the other hand, the yakuza make murder a hobby, and the protagonists will suffer from either being targeted, or their allies facing that fate. They will keep doing their best at preventing murder, but will they succeed? Sure, they slam people’s heads into the ground quite hard and may use guns at some point that should totally kill, but apparently that just leaves enemies mostly dead. ”As long as they breathe, it’s not a murder” -Kiryu and Majima, probably.
And I should really emphasize the part about allies because, just like the great story that is full of constant plot twists and action, the characters also have very good writing behind them. The characters in the main story itself are very memorable, but even the more minor characters that don’t really have that much to do with the plot are ones that I won’t quickly forget. People like Reina, the bartender at Serena who helps out Kiryu and his brother on multiple occasions, or Yuki, the easy-to-tease but sweet hostess from the cabaret club Majima becomes the manager of. And let’s not forget about the characters in sidequests that are also very much memorable characters, like the employees at SEGA Arcades that end up building a friendship with both protagonists, or Mr. Libido who… um… yeah.
Even though I’ve been doing nothing else but praising the story so far, it’s surprisingly tough to keep your full attention to it even though it’s so good. Why is that? Well… due to pretty much everything else the game has to offer. The game remains an open-world sandbox game after all, spanning areas in the cities of Tokyo and Osaka–or more commonly known as Kamurucho and Sotenbori respectively. These are all cities filled to the brim with content, using their space wisely as every single street not only has its use, but also functions as a memorable landmark. I can remember both cities pretty much perfectly, and the relatively smaller size compared to other open-world games is not the sole reason for that. These cities feel alive, with people walking around everywhere and minding their own business. People are shopping, salesmen on the street are still annoyingly trying to get your attention; it just feels like a real city. Except that every thug on the streets wants to fight you for one reason or another, but maybe that’s common in Japan for all I know.
I joked about this to friends about how instead of making progress on the story, I just spent an entire day walking around the cities, completing some of the many substories, or indulging myself in the minigames scattered around the city. The reply I got was basically ”Welcome to the Yakuza series”, so I guess I played the game how it should be played.
The substories involve a cast of colourful and memorable characters with funny plots that usually show the more crazy side of the Yakuza series. And when I say crazy, I truly mean it. From helping knock-off Michael Jackson moonwalk through the streets of Kamurucho while fending off zombies, to impressing a girl with your bowling skills who gives you a turkey as a reward… that is actually a chicken, who also becomes a manager at your real estate. Or what about deciding the future of the Japanese tax system because you helped out some politician who was being mugged for the changes he already made? These are just a glimpse of what you can expect, and there are a total of 100 different substories. And don’t worry; there are also some genuinely wholesome substories in there, especially on Majima’s side.
And if the substories weren’t enough, there are a ton of minigames. There is the usual stuff like the casino, but we also have some eastern gambling minigames to add up to that count. I mentioned bowling earlier, and right next to that is a surprisingly in-depth RC racing minigame that also has a ton of substories with it. Probably the most well-known minigames are karaoke- and disco, which are also used multiple times in the main plot. Both are rhythm games where we see our totally serious protagonists have the time of their life in outfits and colourful backgrounds that totally don’t fit them, but at the same time, it really fits them. And while there are so many more to talk about like the actual retro SEGA arcade games that are playable from beginning- to end, I just want to mention one more and call it a day, otherwise we’ll be here for a while.
The Telephone Club is, surprisingly, my favourite minigame of them all, mostly due to how well I feel it represents the Yakuza franchise–at least, that’s what I say while only having played this game so take that with a grain of salt. Kiryu gets put in a booth and waits for a call to come in, after which he grabs the horn in the most over-the-top way possible. Then, some responses- or questions fly across the screen that you have to select, while a girl in a bikini is erotically moving in the background. Also, major props to the voice actor of Kiryu who makes these awkward conversations even better. After a successful call, a date will ensure that… well, I won’t spoil the results for you. But this minigame in a nutshell is just so stupid, so awkward… I love it.
The Telephone Club in a nutshell is just so stupid, so awkward… I love it.
And funnily enough, we are this far into the review already and I haven’t even talked once about the main gameplay yet. When I said Yakuza likes to distract you, I wasn’t lying, and this review is living proof. Also, proof that my review is the most accurate out there so please spread the word thank you love you <3. Anyhow, let’s talk about the combat.
So first- and foremost, Yakuza 0 is actually a beat ’em up game. Both Kiryu- and Majima fight their way through the story and through the streets–even if they don’t really have a choice in the latter since just looking at thugs already means a fight apparently. Never had this feeling personally but hey, fighting resolves all issues. Over the course of the first few chapters, they both have access to three different fighting styles. I am not really the most experienced beat ’em up player, so let’s just summarize them as fast- but weak, slow- but strong and something in the middle. At least, that description is most accurate for Kiryu, and even that doesn’t really do it justice. The slow- but strong Beast style also allows him to grab pretty much anything nearby to slam it into people their faces.
I definitely enjoyed fighting as Majima more though. The TL;DR description still mostly applies, but his way of fighting is way different. The slow- but strong Slugger style specializes in weapons like the bat for example, but more later on like Nunchakus and Katanas. But my favourite fighting style is the fast- but weak Breaker style, which is just a bunch of breakdancing moves that can be combo’d together depending on how well you do. Works absolutely phenomenal for when you’re surrounded by multiple enemies, and I’d also say that it might even be on par with the other styles in terms of strength due to the high hit count.
But my favourite fighting style in the game is the Breaker style, which is just a bunch of breakdancing moves that can be combo’d together depending on how well you do.
Overall, I would say that the combat system feels pretty satisfying. It’s easy to understand for beginners- and veterans alike, has a good amount of moves- and combos for each style, and deliciously gory heat actions–which are basically super moves that get filled up the better you perform in battle. And boy, there are so many of them. Like, I’ve 100% completed the game and there are still multiple of these over-the-top animations that I haven’t seen yet. Many of them probably involve weapons as I wasn’t too big a fan of using them over barehanded combat, even though the amount of different weapons is also very high. Not a fan of when they give enemies guns though; there are definitely multiple ways to deal with them, but I hate when they are far away. If you aren’t careful, it’s down to the ground and surrounded by a horde of enemies, making it even tougher to get rid of them.
What’s also very noticeable is that you aren’t just slamming blood out of the enemies, but also lots and lots of money. They’re basically pinatas, but having the candy be replaced by cold hard cash. And believe me, you’re going to need every single yen you can find because upgrading each skill tree for the different styles is going to set you back big time. I guess that’s my only gripe with the combat system aside from enemies having guns, since you probably won’t have most of the abilities unlocked during the main game due to how expensive they are to get. The fastest way to get money, not counting Mr. Shakedown, is through specific minigames for each protagonist, but they are pretty long side content in their own right. The game overall isn’t too difficult though, so you don’t need the more expensive abilities that badly.
The battles and character-specific minigames are also not the only methods of obtaining money. Most of the other minigames also have a way of earning cash, or a specific mode dedicated to it. Both pooling- and bowling have ”puzzles modes” for example that can bring in some nice cash depending on how you are doing. Pretty much every minigame has a completion requirement to them as well that usually has to do with earning money, all listed down in a convenient completion list in-game. And if you know me, you know how much I love completing games. This… ended up being a very long journey, though not one that I regret. But during that journey, I began looking a bit more critically at the various minigames.
Take Mahjong and Shogi for example. Both are pretty well-known eastern board games, but not ones that the average western gamer is familiar with. Unfortunately, Yakuza 0 does a very poor job at explaining both of these minigames, resorting to me using outside sources to learn them. And this also applies to pretty much every Chinese gambling minigame as well. The explanation of minigames isn’t handled that well overall, but while it doesn’t matter too much for stuff like the SEGA Arcade games, the gambling minigames- and board games require more than a plain text tutorial.
Since we are talking about Mahjong and Shogi, I guess that also raises another point. While I don’t think it’s a barrier that will prevent people from enjoying the game, it’s clear that some interest in Japanese culture will benefit you. All of the text is translated, but everything that is not part of a textbox remains the same. For good reason of course I should state, but it makes minigames like the before-mentioned tougher because they use pieces with Japanese signs on them that most of us just aren’t used to. I had to check often what the symbols were for the numbers four through nine in Japanese.
While I don’t think it’s a barrier that will prevent people from enjoying the game, it’s clear that some interest in Japanese culture will benefit you.
Other minigames, such as the Royal Catclub Fight, have a random issue that I just fail to understand. It’s a tournament of rock-paper-scissors but with girls fighting in bikini’s which is fine and all, but what happens when you have a tie? It becomes a button masher that is already pre-decided whether you can win or not, no matter how quickly you button press. It feels weird to call an entire minigame flawed because of it but yes, this genuinely makes the minigame far worse than it should be. It’s already RNG-heavy, so why is the only element that can change the tide also pure RNG?
I just wanted to get these frustrations out of my system, but I can ensure you that I had fun with at least 90% of the completion list. It’s especially good for me since my OCD allows me to focus completely on one goal, but there’s nothing stopping you either from playing one minigame until you’re tired of it, and then moving on to the next. Every yen earned and progress made is recorded very well. As mentioned many times before, this game has such a living and breathing world with content that will keep you engaged for a very long time; even if you’re tired of one minigame, there are many others waiting for you. And hey, what other games force you to watch thirty softcore porn videos at an erotic shop for completion purposes? I rest my case.
This game made me hate baseball with a passion though, so you win some, you lose some.
This was my first endeavour into the Yakuza franchise, and what a sublime experience it was, providing me with a feeling like there is nothing else like it on the market. And this feeling all has to do with multiple strong points that synergize really well with each other. The game had a constantly engaging story that wasn’t just written really well, but also had plot twists around every corner that did not feel forced at all. It is further complemented by the colourful characters that are not only part of the story, but also of the substories that show the more characteristic side of the franchise. And really, I cannot understate how much character this game has, from the super-serious moments to the hilariously awkward cutscenes that blend seemingly well together. Not to mention the lively cities of Kamurucho and Sotenbori, filled with activities such as minigames around every corner, or thugs looking for a fight in the solid beat ’em up gameplay style with many beautiful gory heat actions. Going for completion did make me look more critically at minigames, specifically for the western audience as the western board games have very poor in-game explanations to them, but I don’t feel the issues I had with the minigames were enough to hinder the overall pleasure I had completing this game. I just wouldn’t quickly do it all over again, but given that I am very hyped now to explore more of this franchise, that will happen… sooner or later.
- Excellent story writing that kept me engaged at all times.
- Two lively cities filled to the brim with content.
- Solid beat 'em up gameplay with over-the-top heat actions.
- While not a requirement, interest in Japanese culture is good to have.
- Bad explanations for eastern board games.
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this review. I had a blast playing Yakuza 0… so much so that it basically took up most of my schedule. Yeah, I won’t deny it: this game was one of the reasons why there hasn’t been a review in such a long time. The other reason being that I was also hitting a slight writer’s block. My apologies for not making an update post regarding that, but I wanted to avoid making a post that would come down to being a weak apology. I may make an update post in due time still, but the TL;DR is going to be that I may not try and review every game that I beat anymore, simply because I can’t catch up.
But enough moody talk. I’m mostly back, and I hope I can provide many high-quality reviews again in the near future. And since my PC is unfortunately asking to be laid to rest, I have more time to write. Win-win situation for you guys, win-lose situation for me! Oh well. The Messenger and ActRaiser reviews are already WIP, though which one will come out first is not something I can answer yet. Hope to see you all soon regardless and take care!
What game or series has a character that gives you the feeling of ”there is nothing else like this on the market”?
Funnily enough, I’d say Toshihiro Nagoshi’s work before he began working on Yakuza fits that bill: Super Monkey Ball. Sure, there are other ball-rolling games, but Super Monkey Ball has this deliciously arcadey feel to it.
Danganronpa also fits the bill if you ask me. Sure, it’s definitely not the only murder mystery where the characters have to play detective, but the style it uses feels like nothing else.