The Yakuza series is special. Special in a way that it's an ever-evolving franchise that builds upon each release with more characters and deeper storylines. Yet it somehow manages to retain its 90s beat-em-up approach with simple, hard hitting moves. The completely polarizing design philosophy extends to the game's main narrative and side-missions. The narratives are always series, often emotion-filled rollercoasters, but then when you're not taking care of business, you take up Karaoke in a bar, or slot car racing, or arcade games. It's crazy and whacky, and yet, somehow it just works.
What's great about Yakuza 0, outside of the series finally being on current-gen hardware, is that it's also a perfect entry point for newcomers. With Yakuza Kiwami confirmed for a US release which is a remake of the first game that originally came out on PS2, Yakuza 0 comes at a really great time. While there are certain nods to the games if you've been playing the series since its inception, you don't really need to know anything about the Yakuza series or Kazuma Kiryu to get the most enjoyment out of the story.
Speaking of the story, it's absolutely fantastic, in almost every way. Not only is it filled with fantastic dialogue (all voiced in Japanese) but contains some really great twists. If you're a big fan of the crime drama genre, then Yakuza brings it in spades.
I forgot to mention that since this is a prequel to all the games that came before it, it takes place in the 80s, and man does this game make you feel it. Right away from the intro sequence, you'll notice people on pagers or in-line to use a phone booth. You can see it in the various establishments and the clothing as well. SEGA went all out ensuring that we'd feel like we're in the 80s.
Like many of the previous entries, Yakuza 0 also lets players step into the shoes of Majima, the crazy bat-wielder and experience certain chapters from his point of view as well. This intertwining storyline keeps things interesting, and also breaks up the flow of combat, since the two have different fighting styles.
And man oh man, is the combat fun. While I did describe it as a 90s beat-em-up, I don't want anyone to take that as a negative. While the actual mechanics of combat are rather simple, the ability to unlock new moves and finishers, as well as change up fighting styles on the fly keeps things interesting from start to finish.
Whether you decide to switch to a style that gives Kiryu a burst of speed with lighter punches but the ability to dodge faster or give him a focus on using his environment as a weapon, the choice is entirely up to you. You'll notice that sometimes sticking to a single fighting style isn't always a good option, as you'll need to counter some of your opponents styles, but for the most part, it's all about player choice, giving you the freedom of how to knock the living daylights out of street thugs.
You earn money as you fight, which explodes out of your enemies in a very satisfying way as you land punches and defeat enemies. This money can then be used on quite an extensive skill tree that further unlocks even crazier combo moves and finishers. Trust me, there is a lot of variety of combat, even despite its seemingly archaic design.
But when you're not beating someone's face into a concave bloody mess, you'll partake in a slew of activities. These can range from tame activities like belting out in Karaoke bars, playing some self-referential SEGA arcade games like Out Run and Space Harrier, Gambling, Bowling, or even the more traditional Japanese board games like Mahjong and Shogi. But then there are also weirder activities like the staple hostess clubs or even a women's Catfight Club. What I'm trying to say is that outside of the main game's dramatic storyline, you'll have plenty of opportunities to dive into more crazy activities.
The game runs beautifully on the PS4, at a consistent 60 frames per second. While I'm not technical savant on the level of Digital Foundry, I can't say that I've noticed any drops or any lower performance levels.
Yakuza 0 isn't only a fantastic game in the franchise that fans will surely love, it's a fantastic starting point for those that might not have been there since the beginning on the PS2, or maybe never took the chance to get into the games during the later games. For those that are familiar with the series, it might seem redundant to call this game very Japanese, but for those possibly interested and aren't sure what you're getting yourself into, let me reiterate, this game is very, very Japanese.
It's commendable that SEGA keeps taking chances with the Yakuza games here in the US. Even though we do get the titles fairly late, it's still fantastic that we get them at all, and with Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza 6 already announced for a Western release, we owe it to SEGA to show our support.