If there is one thing game publishers know how to do, it is to repackage older games with a new veneer and relaunch it. From Game of the Year Editions to re-releases for a new console, PlayStation 4 fans have had a larger number of PS3 titles grace their PS4 machine.
Yakuza Zero, the prequel to Sega’s popular Yakuza open world action/adventure series, is almost two years old and it shows. Outdated visuals and character models are placed front and centre, and the constant and repetitive nature of combat echoes a design choice that seems positively ancient, especially in a generation that has games such as The Witcher 3 and Final Fantasy XV.
Yet, to focus on such flaws is to deny the gem that is hidden beneath. Zero is both a great entry in the Yakuza series, as well as a very good starting point for newcomers to the franchise.
With its focus strictly on the Japanese underworld and cities, there is a case to be made for Yakuza’s general lack of popularity outside of Asia, which explains why Yakuza Zero eschews all knowledge of previous characters and storylines, and places you right in the epicentre, where it all began.
Zero’s story begins and ends with two playable Yakuza protagonists, circa 1980s Japan. Kazuma Kiryu (the face of the series) is a young up-and-coming Yakuza member in Tokyo, who is as brutal in combat as he is kind-hearted. Caught in a plot involving power grabs, a piece of real estate, and framed for murder, Kiryu fights to prove his innocence and reveal the real perpetrators.
On the other hand, we have Goro Majima, who runs a hostess bar in Osaka. Tasked to assassinate a troubling individual, he fails it as a personal choice and has to bear the consequences.
The story is a standout, weaving a heavy tale of brotherhood, betrayal, family, and explores the inner workings of the Yakuza. Serving as a serious tale, the story is suitably tense and gripping. The myriad of relationships built throughout our heroes’ tales sets a solid foundation on which to progress the story further, and their allies and enemies are integral in the layered narrative that is both intriguing and full of surprises. In the end, you will know who your true allies and foes are, and how far our heroes will go.
This strength is complemented by great Japanese voiceovers that convey the right tone and delivery, lending a realism to the characters that is often lacking in games. Stylish camerawork and cutscenes break up the monotony, and the game manages to frame each story moment and encounter almost perfectly.
The key players, such as Kiryu, Majima, as well as the high command of the Yakuza, are gorgeously photorealistic, and they definitely look the part. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the rest of the game’s cast in Zero. Street punks are almost always the same few looking ruffians, and passersby seem as though they belong in the PlayStation 3 era.
The surroundings fare much better, and anyone who’s been to Japan will instantly recognise the design aesthetics of the fictional Tokyo and Osaka. While the various maps are quite small compared to the sprawling worlds that commonplace these days, their depth and density more than make up for it (more on that later).
The combat system is now refreshed with the help of fighting styles. Our protagonists have three distinct styles that can be developed and levelled up, like in a role-playing game, and the environments can be used to your advantage to smash your enemies. Kiryu is a brawler, with his styles granting different speeds to moves and attacks. Majima is a departure from Kiryu, using his fists, his bat, or more interestingly, breakdancing, in fights.
Focus on one style, or master all three, as there are no real drawbacks or incentives with what you choose. The Yakuza series has always been violent, and Zero is no exception. No one actually dies, but the amount of punishment you can dish out is truly astounding. From pavement stomping to smashing someone’s head in with a bat, the action is visceral and rewarding.
Outside of combat and the main story, there is plenty to get lost in. With over 100 side quests and streets, stores, arcades, and clubs to explore, a distraction is never far away. Whether it is queuing to buy the latest videogame, producing a TV commercial, or just spending money at the various SEGA arcade cabinets of classics like Out Run and Space Harrier, these activities add depth, and offer more of the tongue-in-cheek humour that runs parallel with the serious overtones of the story.
Like all Yakuza games, Zero has its fair share of erotic situations and encounters, and worth checking out, to have a peek into the societal views of the 80s, compared to now.
Take away the glut of side-activities and missions, and you will still have a solid core game to go through. The riveting story and captivating personalities will draw you in and whisk you on an exhilarating ride through the Japanese underworld over 30 years ago. The graphics may be lacking, and the general combat can get a tad repetitive, but the rest of the game remains engaging and suitably diverse. Yakuza 0 is as dense as you want it to be, and as straightforward as a jaunt through the story alone. You will be hard pressed to find another title that is equally compelling and humorous at the same time, and a true gem even though it is rough around the edges.