Sandbox games have become one of the most successful Western genres. Just look at the 70 million copies of Grand Theft Auto V that have been sold to date, not to mention the huge array of other franchises in the genre like Assassin’s Creed and Saints Row. Unfortunately, all of the titles that come from the U.S. and Europe overshadow the only major sandbox franchise to come out of Japan, the Yakuza franchise.
Following the life of Kazuma Kiryu of the Tojo Clan, the Yakuza franchise has always been a very different example of the genre, much like Sega’s other sandbox game Shenmue. Speaking as a huge fan of the franchise, I can say that while they are different in every way conceivable from Western sandbox games, they also provide their own brand of quirky excitement. That holds true of Yakuza 0, easily the best game of the franchise, and I would readily recommend it to anyone willing to cast aside their notions of what a sandbox game should be.
Yakuza 0: PlayStation 4 [Reviewed], PlayStation 3
Release Date: 24 January 2017
Price: $59.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
As can be gleaned from the title, Yakuza 0 takes the franchise back in time, 1988 to be specific. The story is told in chapters and follows the plots of two characters familiar to fans of the series. Series star Kazuma Kiryu is a rookie Yakuza who has to clear his name after a collection job gone wrong, while the more-than-a-little-crazy Goro Majima is on a mission to regain his standing in the clan following a disaster that took his left eye. Trimming the story down to just two protagonists rather than the five seen with previous entries was a definite improvement and made Yakuza 0‘s story far easier to follow.
Yakuza 0‘s story plays out much like a great crime series with top-tier voice work. I actually didn’t mind the fact that all the games dialogue is in Japanese since the delivery worked for 90% of the characters, and while a few of the supporting characters sounded a little too excitable and obnoxious, it wasn’t enough to hurt the package. The cinematics throughout Yakuza 0 is extremely well-directed, giving the game the feel of an epic gangster saga. All of the above is brilliantly anchored by the games playable leads who are just awesome. Kiryu is a stoic bad-ass that remains likeable while Majima is the kind of fun fast-talker that I could have imagined Michael Keaton playing in the 80s.
Anyone who thinks that Yakuza 0 is like other sandbox games where the player could have Kiryu mug random people or Majima go on a rampage with a rocket launcher will need a reality check. Combat is initiated by Japanese RPG rules, only with specific groups of enemies at random or when the story demands it. That said, the combat is great. Kiryu and Majima have plenty of hand-to-hand attacks at their disposal even without mentioning the heat-based finishing blows and environmental attacks. The addition of multiple styles per character accessed by the D-pad was a great move by Sega to keep the Yakuza 0‘s combat feeling fresh.
Yakuza 0 also makes a great change to the character development system and the in-game economy that killed two birds with one stone. In the past, money was a bit hard to come by while each game toyed with how experience points improved characters.
For Yakuza 0, experience points have been removed entirely. Now the player LITERALLY beats the money out of his opponents with cash bonuses awarded for speed, not getting hit, finishing blows, etc. Millions of yen can be racked up very quickly, and that money can then be cashed in for character upgrades on a grid very similar to the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X. The aforementioned changes make managing the characters and their finances a lot easier.
Of course, there’s plenty more to do in Yakuza 0 when you’re not simply beating up random groups of thugs. Like any Japanese role-playing game, there are sidequests scattered all over the place, literally hundreds of them. The side stories can be a major source of contention for anyone jumping into this game or the rest of the series for that matter.
While the main plots serve as very gritty tales of life in the Japanese mafia, the side stories border on the unbelievably ridiculous. Some of which include teaching a new dominatrix how to be assertive, trying to distract a crowd as so a guy posing as a human statue can sneak off to the bathroom, and even hunting down a brute who’s stealing random peoples’ pants. While I found myself laughing at a lot of these absurdities, I can understand if the radical shifts from the gritty to the goofy could possibly turn people off.
Away from the games main plot or side stories, there is plenty that Kiryu and Majima can partake in. Friendships can be struck up with a few side characters that can blossom to new side stories. There are four classic Sega games that can be played in the arcades equipped with online leaderboards while fight clubs, bowling, batting cages, karaoke singing, and disco dancing are among the games other playable activities that can be done at almost any time.
Furthermore, these side activities and everything else you do in-game are tallied up for Champion Points that can be cashed in at the temples for further character upgrades. Yakuza 0 actively invites and encourages the player to try everything the game has to offer. It can almost be TOO overwhelming; after 20 hours of playtime, I barely scratched the surface.
Seven of those side activities are playable with other people, four locally and three online. Multiplayer is one addition that, while functional, is rather pointless. Even though the online gambling can add funds to the bankroll of the characters in the main game, so much money can be gained from fighting that it almost doesn’t matter. Likewise, the local darts, pool, bowling, and disco dancing may be a bit of fun for a few minutes, although it doesn’t have much longevity. The multiplayer in Yakuza 0 feels like an afterthought in every way.
While Yakuza 0 on the PS4 looks excellent, it’s not that big of a jump from Yakuza 5 on the PS3. I did a side-by-side comparison between the same shot near the batting cages in Kamurocho for both games and found very little technological difference. The textures were a little sharper, and the framerate stayed at a perfect 60 frames per second. Other than that and a few more people on screen at once, differences are rather hard to spot. It could be because the Yakuza games on the PS3 looked so good to begin with that they just couldn’t get much better, or Sega could have been limited by the fact that Yakuza 0 was going to the PS3 as well. Either way, while Yakuza 0 is a very good-looking triple-A release, it pales compared to games that are exclusive to the PS4.
I admit that I approached Yakuza 0 with all the enthusiasm of a fanboy; hell, Kiryu is even my PSN Avatar! Fortunately, my enthusiasm was well-justified. Yakuza 0 is the perfect jumping-on point for newcomers to the series and a treat for longtime fans as well. That said, I acknowledge that it isn’t for everyone. Some people may hate not being able to start random murder sprees much as you can with any Grand Theft Auto title, and some people may not be able to get over the bipolar changes in tone. However, I would actively encourage everyone to check it out at the very least to see if Sega’s serious and silly stew is his/her plate of sushi.
- Great story with awesome protagonists worth rooting for
- Outstanding combat and development systems
- Huge cities with a near-endless amount of side content
- Extreme shifts in tone that can be off-putting
- Not a huge technological leap from last gen
- Multiplayer is a pointless addition