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Review: Yakuza 0 – double trouble

Welcome to Yakuza. It’s like playing Shenmue if anything actually happened while playing Shenmue.

Yakuza 0

Yakuza 0 (Zero) is a prequel that establishes protagonists in future (read: already released) Yakuza titles. The story follows Kiryu Kazuma and Goro Majima on different paths through different sections of Japan. In some chapters, you play Kiryu’s story — which is one of framing, murder, betrayal, and retribution. Kiryu is an orphan who is raised by a Yakuza leader and remains loyal to him even when the family asks for him to betray his mentor (and by proxy their Captain.) Kiryu’s struggle is tumultuous, tangible, and feels familiar and easily identifiable. While I’ve never been an orphan, I can respect the idea of being loyal to someone no matter what, and Kiryu’s story is one that will hook you quickly.

On the other side of the fence, Goro Majima makes his first playable appearance in the Yakuza series and his backstory while equally compelling gives you a story that will keep you playing even with the focus shifting back and forth. Majima is the manager of a cabaret that’s implied to be a little more than simply a club where men can “buy a woman’s time”. Majima is humiliated, embarrassed, and made to look weak, but through that, he shows just how strong he truly is. His story involves a shady Yakuza member who blackmails him by extorting him for cash in order to pay his debt and get back into the family.

If there’s anything Yakuza 0 does well, it makes the “bad guys” totally hateable. There are so many people in this game that deserve a real life ass beating just for giving life to the characters they portrayed in this game – cause it’s that well done.

I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that the game stays in the native Japanese spoken language, but because the game is set in the late 1980s and it’s in Japan, there’s dialogue that is cringy as all hell. We’re talking Trapper Keeper knock-off Engrish bad here. But, that’s also where the game never ceases to poke fun at itself while having extremely serious main stories. The sheer amount of ridiculous that happens between mission points is borderline insane, and because of the side quests, Yakuza 0 is one of the most fun games I’ve played in quite some time.

This hasn’t even covered the superb though flawed combat system. Combat is harsh and thoroughly satisfying in Yakuza 0. Kiryu starts off with the Brawler style which is a heavy-handed fighting stance, but then learns Rush (which allows him to attack with quick flurries and defensive dashing) and finally Beast which allows Kiryu to pick up weapons but also other silly things like motorcycles and giant milk crates.

This swappable stance battle is apparently new to Yakuza but it feels right at home. Majima gets similar styles but with a different twist: Majima has Thug style which is closer to the same default style Kiryu gets, but then he learns Slugger which allows him to pull a bat out of the ether and knock heads around, and finally Breaker which sees the often serious Majima dancing around like a kid mashing buttons on Eddy Gordo in Tekken 3. The fellas also get access to weapons and gear along the way and some of them, such as the dual sticks in Majima’s Slugger style is a real joy to swing around.

While in combat, you’ll focus on avoiding attacks while doing maximum damage. Keeping yourself free from harm not only increases your bonus at the end of fights but keeps your heat meter full. The heat meter allows you to perform devastating attacks on your opponents. Slugger style Majima can swing with an overhead crack that would likely remove someone’s head from their body, while Kiryu prefers to simply curb stomp your face in.

If you need a break from battle, Yakuza 0 is full to the brim of mini-games. You can hit the bar and play pool/darts, karaoke, play Shogi (which is basically Chess), Mahjong, or bet on catfights. There’s probably more that I’m forgetting, but there’s never a shortage of things to do while exploring this 1980’s Japan.

In the span of the first five hours of gameplay I had not only seen Kiryu set up for Murder and beaten the piss out of his former family, but I’d also watched Majima get a bottle of champagne poured all over him, watched him get extorted for a sum five times as large as he was originally asked to pay, helped a Dominatrix learn how to properly humiliate her customers, helped a little girl with a single parent have a good day by winning toys from a skill crane in the arcade, played faithful versions of Hang-On, Space Harrier, and Outrun, and helped a man who’d had a face swap surgery reconnect with his son who he stalked.

I also ate a ton of different foods, met a dork with a cell phone in a bag that died after one phone call, had the shit kicked out of me by an enemy called Mr. Strongman who stole all my money in a few quick punches, and slapped the ham to a teen idol gravure video. The sheer ridiculousness of this game is hilarious and I’m sure this will be a game I keep coming back for a long time to come.

Final Verdict

While Yakuza 0 isn’t the prettiest game, it’s fast. It runs around 60 FPS at 1080P and looks terrific yet dated on the PS4 Pro. Maybe if Yakuza 0 does well in sales we could see some HD remasters of the previous games on the PS4. One thing is for sure: I wish I hadn’t slept on this franchise for so long. Compelling stories, brutal combat, and batshit insane side quests are the kinds of things I live for and Yakuza 0 manages to hit all the right buttons.

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Big-headed Blogger with a press pass. Jonathan is a former KnowTechie contributor.

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