Very few games have as much packed into them as Yakuza 0, and even fewer manage to deliver an experience that is so much fun. Along with darts, bowling, real-estate and entertainment club management, arcades, and a bevvy of other distractions, it’s the beat-em-up combat and the storytelling that are the most common elements of Yakuza 0. This ambitious concoction of different gameplays come together to create an enjoyable, slick, and sometimes wonderfully ridiculous game.
Yakuza 0 is set in 1988 in fictionalized versions of Tokyo and Osaka and serves as a prequel to the rest of the Yakuza series. The story follows two of the series’ stars, Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, as each make their way through their respective stories of redemption. Kiryu’s goal is to clear his name after being framed for a murder, Goro’s is to find any possible way back into his Yakuza family after being cut out years before. The game apparently does drop some fan-service call outs throughout, but as someone who has never played a Yakuza game, I never noticed them and never felt like my experience was hindered from being a Yakuza game rookie.
Each character has their own city to explore, where side-quests and mini-games litter every street and avenue. The two cities are relatively small when compared to the huge maps of other open world games on the market, but Yakuza 0 trades quantity for detailed quality. Hardly any two buildings in the game look the same and the cities feel organic thanks to large numbers of folks strolling the streets, including employees who try to lure you into their establishments as well as a number of quest givers. The streets are highly detailed with bikes, trees, neon lights, walls with posters and graffiti, shops and bars to enter, litter, and typical civil infrastructure. Despite their small size, the cities in Yakuza 0 give the player a lot to do and a lot to see.
As you make your way through the cities, different gangs or delinquents will try to fight your character, with the reward being a cash payout. The combat is a beat-em-up style, although patience and timing are still important for efficient victories. Each character has three fighting styles that vary between their speed, damage output, and combination moves. The fighting styles play very differently from one another and the inclusion of weapons adds another layer of experimentation. Agents can even be sent out across the virtual globe to search for the ultimate melee weapons.
There is something incredibly satisfying about beating up a bunch of guys with a bicycle, or a sword, or a street sign, especially when fights finish with such a stylistic camera shot as they do in Yakuza 0. And yet, I did find myself tiring of Yakuza 0’s combat after some significant time with it, the fights occurring too often. However, the game allows you to upgrade your fighting styles. This includes your ability to avoid or run away from fights altogether, leaving folks like me happy as well as those who want to dive even deeper into the combat system.
Where Yakuza 0 really pleased me is in how much fun it is and how many small yet memorable incidents of ridiculousness it delivers. Side-quests are a large part of these, with nearly each one telling a story that I have never experienced in games before. Along the way, I helped a shy dominatrix hone her craft, taught the sensitive band members of a rock band how to deliver on their bad boy image, and played the part of a commercial producer. Quests are highly enjoyable, thanks both to some hilarious lines of dialogue and the comedic circumstances, and they also reward players with cash, employees, or items. The game’s fun extends to combat as well, where using items such as toy lightsabers and bullet-firing plastic fish in fights can be as useful as simply throwing cash out on the street to avoid combat altogether.
Mini-games are everywhere in Yakuza 0 and the amount of work that went into them is surprising. Darts, bowling, pool, batting cages, and mahjong are superficially simple, but do have lengthy quest lines ending with significant rewards. The pocket-car racing is surprisingly deep for a side game, with various parts in the arena and around the city ready for purchase and placement on your vehicle. A number of separate quests originate from pocket-car racing and some of the best animations are when your character reacts to losing with a dramatic cry, or winning, which presents a hilarious scene of crossed-arms, a nodding head, and a sweeping camera, akin to something out of an over-the-top anime. On top of all this, the game also has a real estate management and entertain club management system, which is a beast all its own. The amount of things to do in Yakuza 0 is incredible.
While many elements of Yakuza border on the absurd, the two stories told are dramatic and filled with the twists, back-stabbing, and violence that are typical of the gangster film genre. The dialogue is in Japanese but the acting is solid and the facial expressions are second to none in the industry. As someone who has grown tired of video games’ many weak attempts at writing an intriguing plot, I found that Yakuza 0’s scenes were generally very well executed. Characters find themselves in unique and interesting situations, and the dialogue is mostly to the point and without much drivel. There are missteps here and there, mostly when scenes drown themselves in melodrama, but the story in Yakuza 0 is a main star instead of simply supporting its gameplay.
Sega squeezes a ton into one single game and although there are a few shortcomings in its combat as well as its story, Yakuza 0’s overall execution is graceful in how it handles so much content. The developers made a terrific decision by introducing players to a variety of mini-games and side-quests but not requiring players to complete any of it except for the main story. This allows players to explore as much of the weird and often delightful world as they desire.. With all its different gameplay and its plot worthy of the big screen, Yakuza 0 is memorable and most of all, it is really fun.