The Yakuza series is one of PlayStation's most overlooked gems, especially here in the West. Unashamedly Japanese in its tone, humour, and storytelling, it's an undoubtedly niche property, but that's what makes it so different to just about everything else on today's market. Best described as an action role-playing game, Yakuza 0 is a blend of mature themes, mental side quests, brutal combat, and a plethora of bonkers minigames. Those who have dabbled in past titles will know what to expect, but for our yen, this is one of the very best Yakuza instalments yet.
Set in the winter of 1988, Yakuza 0 is a prequel. Traditional series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is just 20-years-old, and at the start of the game, he's being paid to collect debts from some of Kamurocho's biggest losers. Kamurocho itself is a fictional red light district, home to everything from casinos and strip clubs to comparatively innocent karaoke bars. It's pretty much the perfect setting for a gritty crime drama, which perhaps explains why the games still insist on using it as their backdrop, despite the fact that its neon-soaked streets are starting to feel very, very familiar.
Indeed, long-time fans of the franchise will have slogged through this hive of decadence numerous times before, and it's safe to say that the setting gets a little less exciting with each new release. The same buildings mark every corner, the same convenience stores sit in their usual spots, and the same dubious alleyways are once again home to all manner of thugs and gangsters. Yakuza 0 may take place almost 30 years in the past, but aside from some cheesy 80s hairdos and a handful of smaller details, much of Kamurocho feels like it's stuck in modern times – the fact that you can buy Mountain Dew, complete with its current branding, doesn't exactly help either.
The game could have done more with its 80s setting, then, but it's easy to look past the atmospheric shortcomings thanks to the title's downright engrossing story. In typical Yakuza fashion, the plot seems to stretch on forever, and there's a ridiculous amount of twists and turns throughout. It'll take you at least 20 or so hours to see the main narrative through, and even then, you'd have to really rush it. Events can certainly move rather slowly at times, and there is some filler here and there to pad things out, but it's all quickly forgotten when the game pulls out one of its superbly acted cutscenes.
Right from the start, the release aims to tell a mature tale. It's a complex web of lies, deceit, violence, and death – but also one of loyalty and honour. A sensational cast of characters carry the experience, and clever writing gives each and every personality a purpose. As far as storytelling goes in games, Yakuza 0 is up there with some of the best that our industry has to offer. Sure, it can feel a little too dramatic at times, threatening to bury its deliciously dark tone, but the simple truth is that it's incredibly hard to put down. Once you become invested in the characters and their various situations, you'll be completely hooked. The localisation is top notch, too, which is obviously a big help for a title that's voiced purely in Japanese.
Throughout the game, you'll jump between the stories of Kiryu and Goro Majima – a series mainstay who, in 1988, is desperately trying to work his way back into the gangster organisation that disowned him. Switching things up every couple of chapters keeps the overarching narrative ticking along nicely, and sticking to just two heroes means that the plot doesn't get as disjointed as it did in Yakuza 4 or Yakuza 5, where you took control of four different protagonists.
The true genius of the Yakuza series reveals itself outside of the main plot, however. If you fancy a break from all of the intense storylines, you're free to wander the game's world and try your hand at a smorgasbord of activities. When it comes to optional minigames, we'd dare say that Yakuza 0's diversity can't be beat – there's something for just about everyone. Darts, batting cages, snooker, bowling, karaoke, model car racing, arcade machines featuring SEGA classics, UFO catchers, disco dancing – there are even telephone clubs where you chat to strangers and try to land a hot date. And the best part is that they're all shockingly fleshed out – they've all got their own style of gameplay, and each one takes a different kind of approach to master. You can spend hours upon hours hopping from one establishment to the next, and that's without even mentioning the underground catfighting arena.
And on top of all this you've got a frankly stupid amount of side quests to chew through. Unlike the main plot, these smaller quests usually take a more comical route, introducing you to crazy supporting characters and hysterical dialogue choices. In past titles, side quests could become a bit tedious – especially those that would amount to you finding and bringing certain items to an interested party – but they're generally handled a lot better here. Many of the distractions on offer in Yakuza 0 are relatively short and snappy, and either end with a nice, heart-warming moral or a genuinely funny pay-off.
Toss all of these elements into one big melting pot, and you've got a map that's worth exploring – even if you have walked Kamurocho's streets several times before. But once again, it's the combat that holds everything together like a lovely, blood clotted glue. As brutal as ever, fighting revolves around simple combo strings that consist of light and heavy attacks, combined with grabs and the odd environmental hazard. Usually, you'll be going up against groups of foes, which means that there's a heavy emphasis on watching your opponents' moves and reacting accordingly. It's not the deepest combat system in the world, but it gets the job done – even if its controls are feeling rather clunky by today's standards.
It's the heat attacks that really underline each battle, though. Both playable characters have access to bone-crunching cinematic moves that kill off lesser enemies quickly and deal big damage to bosses. Many of them are shamelessly brutal to the point where you'll wince just watching them unfold, but if you can stomach the destruction, heat attacks add a gloriously satisfying kick to combat – it just wouldn't be the same without them.
On the visual side of things, it's easy to see that Yakuza 0 started life on the PlayStation 3. At times it looks decidedly last-gen, sporting blurry textures, some jaggy non-playable character models, and a whole library of clumsy in-game animations. Fortunately, the title does run at a very smooth 60 frames-per-second, which at least keeps everything feeling slick, and, as mentioned, the numerous pre-rendered cutscenes never fail to look fantastic.
Last but not least, the music is as impactful as you'd expect. A fusion of heavy electric guitars and thumping electronic beats, this isn't the best Yakuza soundtrack that we've heard, but it's still a rocking good time that gets the blood pumping during a brawl. And hey, we have to admit, some of those karaoke and disco songs are far catchier than they have any right to be.
At this point, the property's trademark formula is seriously starting to wear thin, but when it comes down to it, there's nothing quite like Yakuza 0. It combines unapologetically mature themes and violence with brilliantly dumb minigames and hysterical side quests, resulting in a thoroughly memorable experience. Bolstered by a gripping story that's packed with great characters, fans of Japanese games or even Japanese culture owe it to themselves to give this a prequel a shot. Yakuza 0 is fantastic place to start a love affair with Kamurocho's finest, and what's more, it's one of the best entries in the series to date.