Yakuza 0 Review: That’s rad
Yakuza 0's vibrant, neon-flooded 80s Tokyo shows SEGA has still got it.
Yakuza 0 for PlayStation 4 is the video game equivalent of introducing your chain-smoking love interest to your conservative parents. Yes, at first glance they're a little rough around the edges. Fundamentally, they behave differently to what your traditional folks have come to expect and what they do for a crust is better left unsaid.
If first impressions are a video games' primary economy, your parents would encourage you to not waste another minute on Yakuza 0 and instead settle for a more conventional suitor, like Uncharted or even save yourself for someone special, like Horizon: Zero Dawn.
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But they don't know Yakuza like you do. If they just gave it a chance they would see that it's actually really deep and most importantly, not afraid to have a bit of fun.
Yakuza also isn't the easiest series to get to know. The long-running brawler has 6 entries in its core series (including Yakuza 0) that span over 10 years. At its fifth title, Yakuza had seven years of characters, lore and complicated mob politics to catch up on. You will have no such problem with Yakuza 0. Set in the 1980s, Yakuza 0 is an origin story for series protagonist Kiryu Kazama and fan favourite Goro "Mad Dog" Majima and while there are certainly a few nods to old plots and characters, anyone can enjoy Yakuza 0 without so much as the shirt on their tattooed back.
Players alternate between controlling Kiryu and Goro every few chapters, guiding both wildly different personalities from the bottom rung of Kamurocho and Sotenbori's seedy underbellies (fictionalised versions of Kabukicho and Dotonbori).
Both cities bustle under a thick coat of opulent neon sheen. Drunkards and delinquents line the streets, essentially Yen-filled piñatas for Kiryu and Goro to wail on between missions. If you do manage to make from point A to B, you'll find a wealth of cultural touchstones like Sushi bars and Don Quijote general stores. While it looks lush and alive, each city has a dated PS3 vibe. Transitioning from the game's impressive cutscenes to the dustier in-game graphics doesn't make it any easier on the eye.
There's also the fact that Kiryu and Goro's actions are severely limited outside of combat. When you're travelling the streets by foot, all you can do is walk, run and interact with a select few pedestrians. There's also the odd choice of giving you a stamina meter in the city hub. If something would pursue you for more than five metres this would make sense but for the most part, you're just trying to make it to the next point of interest as quickly as possible. It's a slog already, made worse by Kiryu and Goro running out steam every five seconds.
We didn't miss beating on random passers-by but there's just nothing to do on the streets other than search for your next distraction.
However, that's where Yakuza 0's world shines, when you're burning time fumbling your way through a game of Shogi or visiting the local Club Sega arcade (where you can play old-school classics like Space Harrier or Out Run).
Crime drama that packs a punch
The multitude of smaller activities and Yakuza's brutal and addictive combat system combine to create an absurd and wonderful world at odds with itself. One moment you're slamming a thug's head in a car door, blood spraying over the sidewalk, and the next you're dressed up in a ludicrous costume belting out karaoke after too much sake.
It's small moments like these, whether it was the creative combat or bizarre activities, that pulled me through Yakuza 0's murky first-impressions and into the insane wonderland of Japanese pop-culture.
We've established that life outside of Yakuza's main missions is unhinged but when you steer away from the bright lights of Kamurocho and Sotenbori you will find a comparatively earnest crime drama. Both Kiryu and Goro are downtrodden mobsters who have been completely dicked on in one way or another (there may even be a scene where we find out how Goro lost that eye).
Facilitating their slow rise to the top is a rewarding adventure in its own right but you'll really come to root for Kiryu and Goro's characters by the end of your playthrough. Lucky for them they're both males because Yakuza does an inexcusably poor job of handling its female characters. Aside from the badass debt collector known as Miss Tatsu, female characters are reduced to quivering caricatures of helpless women.
I can't help feel that Yakuza would have benefited by making Miss Tatsu more central to the story. Her fighting technique is so impressive, it's immediately added to Kiryu's arsenal.
Kiryu and Goro acquire three battle styles each. Both start with a fairly standard all-rounder (Brawler and Thug) and go on to acquire speedy styles (Rush and Breaker) which get faster as you land more combos and a slower, more powerful style (Beast and Slugger).
No two styles are the same for either character. Kiryu's Rush is all about dodging and delivering lightning fast punches, whereas Goro's Breaker is a seamless flurry of offensive dance moves that's reminiscent of Eddy Gordo's capoeira (Tekken 3).
The combat in Yakuza 0 took me a little getting used to (as evidenced by the video above). On the surface, it seems like a game that begs to have its buttons mashed but if you dig a little deeper into each character's move sets, you will find a roster of combos and specials that later become key to taking down an especially difficult shakedown man.
If I haven't sold you on the wacky world of Yakuza, please remember there's a character called Walking Erection (or Mr. Libido) who walks around in nothing but white underpants and joggers, humping every inch of oxygen in his path.
We reviewed Yakuza 0 on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
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