Yakuza 0 Review – Zero the Hero (PS4 Import)
It’s hard not to smile when playing Yakuza 0. If Kazuma Kiryu does anything, he’s damn well going to be the best at it, even if that thing is just racing RC cars or answering the phone. He’ll do those like he’s in a Michael Bay film, except he sees himself as the explosion. His over-the-top action approach to life isn’t the only reason to love Yakuza 0. There are plenty of others.
Logic follows that this would be the best-looking Yakuza game. Yakuza Ishin is close if not equal in environmental detail, but in Yakuza 0, the character models look a step above last year’s game. Everything is beautiful.
A Boy and His Mob
Yakuza 0 delivers the best story the series has seen. While still guilty of using the same tropes as previous games, the instances of outright abusing said tropes to the point they go from being funny to being stupid is noticeably cut down. Yes, guys still bro it out before becoming allies; you’ll still hear gunshots from people who just arrived in the nick of time, and there’s of course the token time when the bad guy tries to kill himself but the hero won’t allow it. They exist, but they’re at least used in moderation. I can tolerate and even welcome that.
While some plot twists and conclusions can naturally be predicted, others are welcome surprises leading up to a surprisingly memorable, satisfying ending. Though it’s set in 1988, long before the first Yakuza game, newcomers can jump right in.
Longtime series fans will enjoy seeing certain characters (especially protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Majima Goro) in their younger days, as well as little touches and hints of how certain things in present-day Kamurocho came to be. People who were in Japan in the 1980’s will likely get a kick out of seeing everything the way it used to be, including older-styled logos, building exteriors of a bygone era, and giant trash bags sitting all over the place. The bubble, baby!
Yakuza 0 is perfectly paced. No segment overstays its welcome or feels too short. It has the perfect flow of story and combat, with ample opportunity to leave the beaten path and do some independent exploring. Rotating back and forth between Majima’s character-driven story and Kiryu’s wider-reaching clan politics drama helps keep the pace just right.
Sounds Like a Winner
Zero takes the series to new heights with its sound direction. Never has there been a weakness in the sounds of Japan and its people in Yakuza games, and yet that aspect is constantly improving. Walking around town, you’ll hear tons of detailed, varied, realistic conversations that are much more than the one-and-two liners of the past. It was already good and impressive on the PS2 and PS3 when you’d here some token words and phrases thrown around by pedestrians, but in Yakuza 0, NPCs will go on and on in full conversations, ever bringing the game closer to reality. If you can’t understand Japanese, you might not notice the fine level of detail here, but if you can, prepare to be amazed.
The wannabe designer in me is having a hard time truncating my praise for NPC behavior. They all pathfind very well for one thing, but more interesting is their reactions to Kiryu and Majima. They’ve always had token reactions when getting bumped into, but Yakuza 0‘s are the most detailed and lifelike yet.
At one point, I leered creepily up behind an NPC who was standing and chatting in a group. All of them turned to look at me, some longer than others. Some of them asked, “What’s this guy’s problem?” Soon, the one I was trying to weird out actually did get weirded out and suggested, “Let’s get out of here,” and the whole group left together. That’s the kind of behavior NPCs so often lack. To see my actions having more consequence, even if it didn’t impact the story, added more fun to exploration.
Baseball Bat Out of Hell
Combat, like everything else in this game, is the best it’s ever been. Though heat actions on these PS4 Yakuzas tend to do less damage while coming more frequently, everything is balanced well. Both characters have a great variety of moves, and with three distinct combat styles each, fights never got boring. Gauntlet battles that bogged down Yakuza 5 have been greatly reduced in number and severity, and with the addition of more styles and customization, fights can truly be fought your way. Yakuza fans will have a slight bit of reorientation, of course, but for the most part feel right at home.
Money replaces experience in Yakuza 0, as all upgrades are purchased with cash to match the game’s theme. Money’s in everything you do: you get it after fights, you can throw it in the air to distract bystanders and lure them into dropping items, it explodes out of happy customers in the hostess bar, you can drop it on the street to distract aggressive enemies, and it’s of course at the heart of the cabaret and real estate functions. Some items and services are insanely expensive, but with the billions of yen freely flowing, Zero is still nicely balanced.
Wishing for realism in Yakuza combat would be strange, but it was nice to see that being shot or stabbed in a fight now instantly drops the protagonist to the ground. Scoffing in a gun’s general direction seemed silly, even in a game where you can swing a couch around as if it were a tennis racket.
Games Mini, Impact Huge
In past Yakuza games, one could move along without paying attention to mini games or sub jobs; it wasn’t as fun, to most people, but it could be done. This is again theoretically possible in Zero, but the difference is a lot more pronounced. The pure fun things like Sega World’s crane games, arcade racers, Super Hang On, can still be viewed as entirely optional, but things might get tough on Normal and Hard difficulty modes without the huge income boosts from Kiryu’s real estate business and Majima’s cabaret club.
Healing items will still be easily affordable, but characters’ body and skill upgrades become insanely expensive after about halfway through. Fights on the street might award an average of 500,000 yen, but upgrade pieces eventually start costing a billion yen. Yeah, as in, nine zeroes. Those aren’t full level-ups, those are just one upgrade and, taken alone, doesn’t do much. You need three or four upgrades to really notice a difference in a character. Without the shloads of money that real estate and cabaret management can bring in, you’ll really have a hard time getting any stronger.
Beyond that, each of those business ventures can unlock secrets the likes of which weren’t even mentioned in PR info from Sega. I won’t spoil what they are, but when you see what’s possible for reaching the top of the food chain in cabaret and real estate, the interest level takes a step up.
As games themselves, they’re alright. They don’t create urges to play them because of how fun they are — the way darts or disco might — but you’ll be coming back because of the huge cash rewards. Each comes with its own type of mild tedium. The real estate management requires real time to pass, while the cabaret thing demands 100% of your undivided attention and can feel appropriately stressful.
Yakuza 0 allows offline and online multiplayer for darts, bowling, disco dancing, and billiards, all of which can of course be played within the single-player game as well. In the offline version, you don’t even need multiple controllers, except for the dancing. All were good fun. The disco dancing is a particularly fun take on music games, as it actually rewards extra moves before the timing cues, rather than just encouraging the times taps ala Hatsune Miku and the like.
One can’t help but notice how smoothly Yakuza 0 runs. Moving through the city and rotating the camera, regardless of how many NPCs are around or what they’re doing/saying, I had one bad frame rate drop and one instance of weird pop-in, both within the early going, and that was about it for my whole 50-hour time. That’s it. All the while, its graphics and details can certainly stand among the PS4’s most impressive (the screenshots you see here absolutely don’t do it justice). In a world this size, so full of content and moving parts, to have such intricate details and run this smoothly deserves a tip of the hat. And all of that with very short load times.
An Offer I Can’t Refuse
This is the best Yakuza game to date — the result of 10 years spent not just perfecting a formula, but adding to it. Zero has the best of everything the series is loved for and more with its extremely detailed environments, rewarding exploration, endless side content, outstanding combat, fun mini games (including multiplayer), and a great story. Put that in a fantastic graphical package that runs like a dream and you’ve got a game I’d recommend to any action RPG fan.
(Post-review notes for importers. Read the PSLS guide to importing here.)
For the most part, the core gameplay is enjoyable no matter what. There are, however, a handful of times when you can’t simply depend on objective markers to guide you; you’ll need to understand where you need to go and what you need to do. Prepare to be stuck and spend a lot of time wandering if you can’t understand Japanese or find a good guide in your preferred language.
While the gist of the story can be gathered through gestures and tone, you will be lost without a very high working knowledge of Japanese, including a good amount of kanji reading (as dialogue from Chinese characters is subtitled entirely in Japanese). There are so many twists and turns, I’m afraid you’ll be quite lost without knowing what’s being said.
Almost all of the story is voice acted with subtitles to boot. There are several side conversations — especially when Majima is training girls at his club — which are not voiced. You’ll have like five sentences straight with just a “Sore dewa…” as the voiced portion.
Much of the game takes place in Osaka, so it’s recommended that you be familiar with Kansai-ben.
I assume, in time, that foreign walkthroughs and translations will hit the internet. If you can find one, that might have to do, as Sega’s Ryu Ga Gotoku / Yakuza localizations are few and far between. No Yakuza 0 English version is planned at this time.