SEGA’s Yakuza 0 is a triumph. I really can’t say it any plainer than that. Even at its most bizarre (and it DOES get bizarre), the incredible variety of activities combined with gripping storylines, intense combat, and incredibly slick presentation make it appealing both to returning fans and those who have never experienced a Yakuza game before, like yours truly.
From the opening credits riff, Yakuza 0 embraces the gaudy excesses of the 80s. Kamurocho and Osaka are awash in neon lights, while their denizens are decked out in the loud colors and crazy hairstyles that mark the rich and (in)famous and served as status symbols for this booming period. The level of detail on character models is simply stunning. Every stich on every piece of bespoke tailoring is lovingly rendered, while tremendous facial models show each scar, tattoo, and patch of stubble that represent the hard-living Yakuza of the time. Animations are crisp and detailed as well. NPCs react realistically to being manhandled as you race down an alley, and combat moves look absolutely devastating, especially when weaponry (both improvised and standard) is brought to bear on your numerous enemies. I really like how Kamurocho and Osaka are characters in their own right, showing a gauche face to the wealthy while trying to hide the impoverished (or the foreign) in well-rendered slums. Both locations feel lived-in, with people making their way to and from the restaurants, clubs, and arcades, and for some reason I’m taken with Osaka’s pedestrian bridges. I wish enemies didn’t look recycled, especially the game goes on, and some NPCs aren’t quite as visually impressive as those in the foreground, but these are incredibly minor issues. The soundtrack complements the action perfectly with its mixture of driving rock and more somber songs during the more emotional moments. There’s occasionally some disconnect when you play a more light-hearted sub-story immediately before or after a hard-hitting plot point, but that’s only to be expected due to the open nature of the narrative. Punches, kicks, and weapon strikes sound, well, impactful, only adding to the wince-inducing fight animations. The only sound effects that don’t quite work for me are some footfalls which sound generic. You can see how solid the sound work is if I have to reach that far to find anything to criticize. I cannot comment on voice acting because as I’ve stated before, I’m not a native speaker. I don’t want to enter the “sub vs dub” debate, but there is a LOT of text to read (which I have no problem with) as some cut-scenes are very lengthy. I can definitely understand those who may be disappointed to see no English voice-overs, but it makes no difference gameplay-wise. The translations seem to be top-notch, although I’m not sure how I feel about the broken Japanese spoken by non-Japanese characters. Story events lead me to believe this is not supposed to be racist, but rather an indication of the degree to which characters have access to language training, but I can see how it may be off-putting. More of an issue is the game’s treatment of women as basically items to be collected in the form of hostesses for Club Sunshine, fighters to bet on, as videos to watch, or phone cards to collect and trade. Granted, we’re talking about a criminal society in the 1980s, but it made me somewhat uncomfortable that there are few truly strong women in the game. Otherwise, the plot is well-written, with numerous plot twists and solid pacing. Switching back and forth between two protagonists is a gamble, but watching Kiryu and Majima go through their respective struggles is a great introduction to the characters for existing fans as well as a fantastic way for new players to enter the series (and perhaps check out the other games as well). Substories range from heart wrenching to plain silly, giving the protagonists to be genuine heroes as well as giving them both a lighter side. Majima is definitely the more likable of the two main characters with his ready wit, cool demeanor, and awesome eye-patch, but there’s something about Kiryu’s quiet, not quite nobility and his honor that make him appealing. Strong characterizations along with realistic dialog help the plot move along nicely.
Playing Yakuza 0 is an exercise in mood whiplash. Where else can I explore city streets, fight desparate battles against impossible odds, then fish? What’s amazing is not that each of the mini games is well-designed on their own, but how addictive they can be. I spent over an hour during one play session with the claw machine trying to win a fictional, digital stuffed toy. I’ve sung karaoke (badly), disco danced, taken batting practice, bet on a catfight tournament, and bowled. I’ve spent hours fishing, buying and maintaining properties (for Kiryu’s real-estate substory), recruiting and training hostesses (for Majima’s club), and eating in many different restaurants while learning about various Japanese liquors. You’ll notice I haven’t even mentioned the board games or kart racing! Yakuza 0 has almost too much to do. Helping locals in Kamurocho and Osaka solve all manner of problems is endlessly entertaining, and I’m genuinely sad when each substory ends because I begin to miss these characters. Controlling Kiryu and Majima is effortless, and unleashing their fury in combat is immensely satisfying. I love making use of makeshift weaponry (tea kettles FTW) during battles, and switching between various combat stances is always fun. The Heat moves are simply brutal, and I always enjoy building up the meter during normal combat in order to unleash devastating finishers and context sensitive attacks (here, let me get that car door for you…) Unlocking new moves by purchasing them is a clever design, and collecting “CP” by performing various tasks (defeating certain numbers of enemies with a specific style, eating all foods in a restaurant, etc.) gives you even more reasons to explore thoroughly since you are rewarded with more moves, more money, and the ability to enhance your businesses in the challenging real-estate and club-management modes. You’re looking at a minimum 80 hours of entertainment if you try to accomplish everything Yakuza 0 has to offer. I wish some tasks were a bit better defined- I don’t feel like I’ve learned to play Shogi that well, and I still have difficulty completing trainer’s challenges (to learn additional moves and styles), but the fact that the game doesn’t end when the plot does encourages me to come back to these tasks later.
To put it even more simply, Yakuza 0 is addicting. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, even when Mr. Shakedown steals all my hard-earned (?) cash when I’m not prepared to face him (you’ll see). It’s a joy to play, and it deserves a place of honor in your PS4 library. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to play this, and I’m seriously tempted to go back and run the series (once I own ALL of Kamurocho, that is).