Yakuza 0 has finally arrived in North America, and it’s once again time to return to Kamurocho and join Kazuma Kiryu in the criminal underworld of Tokyo. This time around, it’s a little different, as Yakuza 0 has us going back in time. As the name might imply, it’s a prequel to all of the other games in the series, putting us with our lead character, Kiryu, when he is just 20 years old, and still fairly new to the life of a yakuza in 1988. Now, this is certainly not my first time reviewing a Yakuza game, and considering we have Yakuza Kiwami coming out this summer followed by Yakuza 6 next year, I doubt it will be the last for the foreseeable future. Something I’ve admired about the series is that it manages to balance keeping old elements that work well and putting in new elements to keep it from growing stale.
Sure enough, the elements that made the previous games great are still in place in Yakuza 0: the charming characters, the substories, the combat system, and so on. There’s definitely no sense in fixing what isn’t broken. But the game is not without its changes, and it certainly has added a lot to the world of the series. It’s for that reason I ask, “What’s new with Yakuza?”
I mentioned that the combat system remains the same, and for the most part that’s true, but it has been changed ever so slightly. As you progress the story, Kiryu and Majima each learn three different fighting styles: one with a balance of speed and power, one with a focus on speed, and one with a focus on power. What makes this unique is that you can change your combat style in real time. Being able to change the pace of the battle at will added a great new dynamic to the combat system for me.
Money has always been a big thing in Yakuza. You need it to buy health items, weapons, and weapon upgrades and to do the side activities like going to the hostess clubs (which is the worst at sucking up all your money fast). Yet in past games, the only way you would get money was for winning a fight (sometimes) or selling other rewards you got you didn’t need. Yakuza 0 adds in a new element: as your fight your way through groups of enemies, you gain money from doing combos and special moves. This is another way the game adds an extra layer of fun to the combat. There is something undeniably pleasing about seeing bills and coins flying out of your foes’ pockets and being rapidly added to your own. It’s easier than it ever has been to earn money in one of these games.
Which brings me to the new leveling system. Yakuza 0 has abandoned the old format of leveling up and gaining points to level up your skills. The focus now is money. You need money to invest in different tiers of skills, from new moves to your health, and each style has it own grid of abilities; the further you progress, the more money the upgrades cost. This does have the downside of requiring a lot of grinding and fighting. As fun as the combat system is, it can be daunting to have to continuously strive to get the money you need.
Another new element is “CP,” which are points you earn from completing challenges, such as beating a certain number of enemies with each of the fighting styles. There are a shrine in Kamurocho and a temple in Sotenbori you can visit to exchange CP for passive effects, such as enemies dropping more money or your character getting unique gear with different passive abilities.
Kamurocho is an interesting setting. While it’s nice to see new places in each new installment of a game, there is something wonderful about returning to Kamurocho each time. This is because the area feels alive, and feels like just as much of a character as Kiryu or Majima. For fans, there’s a sense of familiarity.
A big part of Yakuza, outside of the main story, is the nightlife of Kamurocho, and you will find the usual staples of karaoke, darts, and pool in the 1980s version of the district. (I did notice the hostess clubs are curiously absent this time around.) Sotenbori, however, isn’t lacking of things to do around town either. So what new is there to do in the retro Kamurocho and Sotenbori? Quite a lot, actually! The development team went out of their way to bring a lot of new and interesting things to the table, some of which may not to be to everyone’s taste. In Kamurocho, for example, one of the new things is the disco. It works as a rhythm game, and personally, I like it a lot more than the karaoke. Having to move across a grid to get to each button to hit it in time, and getting more points for taking more steps to get there, adds a new challenge to the entire thing and is refreshingly different.
In Kamurocho, Kiryu can engage in Pocket Circuit racing, which has its own quest line, surprisingly. I admit, playing this part was strange for me, as I can’t say I have much experience being a grown man publicly indulging in a hobby primarily enjoyed by children—though that is the source of more than a few jokes at the start of the plot line. That said, it’s undeniably fun getting to participate in races and modding your car to get through the different obstacles of each track. You have to buy the right parts, which can be pricey, and having to grind for money did get tedious at times.
There are a few elements that some people may find unsavory. One example (which can be found in both Kamurocho and Sotenbori) is Gandhara, an establishment where you can view erotic videos. The videos themselves are fairly softcore, not going beyond women posing in bikinis and lingerie, but regardless, some might find it a little uncomfortable. One substory does require you to watch one to progress the story, but you have the option to skip them at any time.
The arcades in Kamurocho and Sotenbori are nothing new to the franchise, but it is worth noting that they have playable versions of classic games like Space Harrier, Out Run, and Super Hang-On. It was a lovely addition to be able to play these retro games, and it really brings the feel of the ’80s to life. While I’m not a child of the ’80s myself, it was hard to not feel a little nostalgic for the days I spent at the arcade as a kid playing similar games.
Lately, the Yakuza series has expanded to included cities besides the classic Kamurocho—Osaka, in the case of Yakuza 0. Let’s face it, though, that’s just a little too wordy.
At the end of it all, Yakuza is a game that is heavily steeped in story. Sometimes it does feel like the balance between gameplay and plot leans a little too hard to the latter—while the stories and characters are engaging, sometimes it’s hard to not feel a little frustrated, wishing you could just go back to exploring the city and playing all the various minigames again instead of sitting through long, expository conversations.
However, Yakuza 0 has done something different and interesting with the visual aesthetic of some of its cut scenes. It has the usual categories: prerendered cut scenes, voiced in-game cut scenes, and in-game cut scenes that are entirely text dialogue. But the game also adds a new kind, which gave the feel of a comic.
This type was a rare sight throughout the game, but certain moments took on a new, distinct visual style. They are almost still frames, but they have a small degree of motion. The characters are still, their poses only changing when it switched to new angles; the rest of the time, the only thing that moves is their faces during pivotal lines of dialogue, when their expressions change, ranging from subtle to extremely dramatic. The scenes are voiced, with subtitles, naturally, but the subtitles are laid out in a way that almost feels like speech balloons
This style was jarring at first, as I’d never seen anything like it before, with harsh lighting and a look that was almost hatch-shaded. I didn’t know how to feel about it at first, but I quickly grew to appreciate it. It was visually appealing, and it was nice to see the series try something different for the cut-scene visuals.
So, what exactly is new with Yakuza 0? Surprisingly, a lot. I am continuously amazed at how well this game series has managed to balance keeping the elements that made older games great and adding in new ones that are fun but also consistent with the overall feel of the series. It isn’t without its flaws, as having to grind through fighting enemies for money is always fairly tedious, but the game is undeniably fun and still rampant with entertaining and memorable characters you can’t help but like. It’s an excellent entry to a series that seems to have boundless passion and energy to keep each new game fresh and exciting for new players and veterans alike.