Yakuza 0 (PS4) Review
THE SHORT VERSION
If you're after a complex, occasionally melodramatic plot with no shortage of beating the snot out of gangsters, then here's the game for you, my friend!
It's 1988, and the Japanese underworld is battling it out for control of an empty patch of land.
This empty patch - ominously titled the Empty Lot - acts as the key to control of a substantial amount of Japanese real estate. Two men each with their own criminal stake in the conflict - young yakuza enforcer Kazuma Kiryu, and cabaret club ooperator Goro Majima - operate separate agendas to in relation to the Lot, while a number of backroom deals, deceptions and unholy alliances play out around them. Against the grand canvas of operatic criminal dealings, Kiryu and Majima also deal with personal struggles; the former is dealing with the fallout after being wrongfully accused of murder, and the latter is tasked to assassinate a young blind woman whom he later comes to protect.
As much as I ended up liking the plot, Yakuza 0 has a bad habit of overloading the game with Metal Gear Solid-style cutscenes and moments where the player is catapulted out of play. The opening chapter in particular feels like it takes a good half hour before you're able to take control of Kiryu for important gameplay things, with the rest of the time taken up by a lot of vague setup and lingering camera shots of Kiryu looking stern. The game routinely takes the wheel from you to tell its story, and some of those chunks of narrative can take up a lot more time than the average sandbox crime game's plot.
To its credit, though, Yakuza 0's plot is at once labyrinthine and somewhat easy to follow. The characters each have complex motivations and backstories, quickly becoming compelling through some quite exceptional writing which only occasionally strays too far into the melodrama. As someone who's completely new to the franchise, I was afraid it'd be too much of a prequel story which is reliant on players' past knowledge of the series. Thankfully, though, you can step into Kiryu's snappy black shoes without knowing a thing to do with the Yakuza series, and the story doesn't confuse you for it. I would nonetheless presume there'll be moments where characters or plot turns appear that'll make veteran fans cheer with enthusiasm.
Keeping in mind that I'm not a veteran fan, I was initially thrown by Yakuza 0's playstyle. I was expecting a sandbox more in the mold of Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row but with an '80s Japanese flavour; while that's certainly present, the way the game goes about it is initially off-putting if you come in with those expectations.
Rather than GTA, the closest comparison I immediately thought of was Final Fantasy. The sandbox map is usually sealed off for a lot of the story-driven beats, and combat only occurs when enemy thugs appear in JRPG-style random encounters as you walk the streets of Japan. You're unable to initiate any kind of combat until those encounters cross your path.
But once combat does start, it's intensely satisfying. My understanding is the Yakuza series largely favours fisticuffs over firearms, so the close quarters combat of Yakuza 0 feels like it's been honed over several games of experimentation before finding the right fit. Both Kiryu and Majima have multiple combat styles, all of which are beautifully animated and highly cathartic in execution. It feels solid when Kiryu uses the Rush style to smack the crap out of random goons, and thankfully such smacking isn't too reliant on complex button combos to pull off (although there are some of those for the players who're into that sort of thing).
In addition to the story and combat, there are also a raft of mini-games and side activities, most of which are pretty enjoyable (although the karaoke mini-game can go dive under a tractor and stay there). Their time-sink nature really makes you question how valuable the Empty Lot is if you can hold off on securing it in order to beat your Space Harrier high score, or engage in climactic dance battles, or chat up girls at the telephone club. Priorities, y'know?
VISUALS/SOUND AND VOICE ACTING
I don't know if the real 1980s Japan was really this gorgeous, but Yakuza 0's version definitely is. The neon-drenched streets and dingy back alleys feel real, a fully fleshed out simulacrum of one of the world's most vibrant countries. In contrast to some of the more dimly-lit and geographically unengaging realms of other sandbox games, like Saints Row IV and GTA V, the locales of Yakuza 0 feel alive and far worthier of exploration.
Character models are also animated well, with realistic skin textures and suitably '80s fashion styles to admire. On a technical level, the game occasionally dips the framerate when combat gets hectic, but is predominantly a smooth experience.
The game's vocal track is unchanged from the Japanese release, so you'll spend a lot of time enjoying the subtitles here. The voice actors acquit themselves well, and the top-notch ambient soundscape adds an extra immersive factor to the game's worldbuilding.
Though it can be a little clunky at first, particularly if you're only flush with Western sandbox games, Yakuza 0 is a great game once the story hits the road, if you can forgive the plethora of cutscenes which routinely withdraw the gameplay from you. As someone new to the venerable crime franchise, it definitely encouraged me to check out the back catalogue once I'm finished with all the existing side activities. So thank you, Yakuza 0, for prompting me to use up the last of my free time punching dudes and getting better at darts afterwards.
Yakuza 0 is available now for Xbox One and Playstation 4.
Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Five Star Games.