Republished on Wednesday, 10th August, 2022: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of August's PS Plus Extra, Premium lineup. The original text follows.
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.
If anyone has any questions, just give me a shout and I'll try to answer them.
Love yakuza games, shame the others ones haven't come west
Already preordered it, although I'm still playing shantae hgh and after that, gravity rush remastered and gravity rush 2.
Well...I'll buy this first and Gravity Rush later down the line...
I'm hyped for the mini games xD
Got it yesterday and I liked it a lot. It's my first time playing any Yakuza game and I really hope that the rest will get a remake for PS4( I know about the first )
Kinda random funny (?) story. I tried to pay through Paypal and had "Yakuza 0" at the paying note, so Paypal decided that they needed to investigate my payment for 24 hours...
@Melucine Haha, that Paypal story is amazing.
@Melucine Haha! Can you blame them, really?! XD
Seriously, though, I can't wait for this game. I haven't played a Yakuza game since the PS2 and I got left behind a bit with the series. Really happy to see a prequel come out that I can get into without being bogged down.
Bloody hell the games coming are going to kill my wallet Yakuza 0, Gravity Rush 2, Kingdom Of Hearts 2.8 and Nioh and that's before you take into March.
I wasn't going to get this for a while, but now that it's here...
I've always wanted to get into the series so I guess now is a good a time as any.
20th Jan Gravity Rush 2
24th Jan Kingdom Hearts 2.8
24th Jan Yakuza 0
24th Jan Resident Evil 7
27th Jan Digimon World Next Order
9th Feb Nioh
28th Feb Horizon: Zero Dawn
Who needs to Switch?
I'm really glad there's a retail version. Downloading Yakuza 5 on PS3 was a huge mess for me. Hopefully I can pick this up day 1.
Never played one of these games, kinda interested after reading the review but I won't manage it on launch.
@Fight_Teza_Fight It's a ridiculous start to the year, for sure.
Do you get an encyclopedia about the characters in game? Yakuza 3 had that, with summaries about each character and their relationships that made it easier to follow.
It sucks that my two favorite franchises Yakuza and Kingdom Hearts are launching games exactly the same day
@Fight_Teza_Fight switch launch line up is pretty pathetic, its a shame but very funny.
My backlog is stagnating, I want this but I can't buy it, I might trade in Watchdogs 2 and sniff around this though, ugh.
@DualWielding That should be great news. Lucky you.
I'm still waiting for streets of rage 4 and timesplitters 4. I wish they release in the same week!
@sinalefa Yeah, there's a 'notebook' in the menu that has entries on all of the game's characters, so you can access that at any time during play.
I will say, though, that I found the story in Yakuza 0 easier to follow than in past games. I imagine this is mostly down to the fact that it's a prequel, so you don't have to remember many faces from previous titles, or have a knowledge of past events.
Waiting for this is brutal I've stopped playing games so I'm not burnt out when it finally arrives.
I liked Ryu ga Gotoku Ishin best in the series. Fresh setting, good story. But the trophies were just a bunch of repetitive time wasters.
@ShogunRok Nice your review was mentioned here
Day one purchase for me.
I am really happy that the first 2 big AAA reviews this year have been 8/10 or higher. It's good to start a year with rewarding titles. Now, the tough decision. This, Gravity Rush 2, or Resident Evil 7 (depending on how that one turns out will wait for reviews). Only enough time and money for 1.
Update: I pulled the trigger on Yakuza 0. I have been interested in the series and all the reviews have persuaded me.
I can't wait, my most anticipated game of the year and it seems like it lives up to the hype. Gravity Rush 2 tomorrow, should be able to get through it by Tuesday and then Yakuza 0. Pretty good way to start 2017.
Great, now I want Yakuza 0. You've won, @ShogunRok.
@Quintumply The picture of that guy on Twitter saying "ya ugly knob" was the final push wasn't it?
@ShogunRok It was certainly a contributor. Your review is great, but you could've just posted that picture and the score and I'd have been just as convinced.
As a first timer to the franchise, is there anything that you recommend me do for Yakuza 0?
@AlphaJaguar Sorry for the late reply. There's nothing you really need to know about Yakuza to enjoy 0 - it's a prequel so it's basically the perfect place to jump in.
It's already been covered but you don't really need any previous experience with the series, Zero is the perfect place to jump in chronologically. Only thing I'd say is that the Yakuza games can sometimes get off to a slow burn, if you're feeling that way, just stick with it, the game will pick up and it will be an awesome 25-40 hour ride.
@ShogunRok I'm trying to make sense of the Cabaret club and investing. Is the best rating double Circle, then circle, triangle, and X? Trying to match up the right advisors and hostesses with clients. The tutorial was good exempt for that part.
@smythelove Yeah, you've got that all correct. Triangle is like neutral, neither good nor bad, so usually a safe option if I remember right.
@ShogunRok Thanks I thought I was messing it up 😀. I found the poker blackjack and Texas hold 'em last night. You can play this game for tons of hours if you go play all the mini game distractions like 4 meta games in 1 full game! I think you mentioned that in your review!
@smythelove Yeah the minigames have insane depth. Definitely value for money!
@ShogunRok Very true! Was able to get 9 hostesses trading in CP at the temple and buying stuff to ladies on the street. Did pretty good seems like giving gifts to dudes and thanking them helps. The whole changing appearance thing I was like idk lol leaving that alone
@ShogunRok After reading the review for yakuza kiwami I decided to read this review too. It has definitely piqued my interest as I've never played a game in the series before. Only question I have is about the audio. Is it all in Japanese with English subtitles, or is there an English option in the settings? I don't think it's a deal breaker or anything. I just don't want to be distracted from the cutscene whilst reading the subtitles, or vice-versa, miss something in the subtitles whilst watching the cutscene. Multi-tasking isn't my strong point hahaha
@blakey78 It's full Japanese audio with English subtitles. Every Yakuza game since Yakuza 3 has been that way. Yakuza 1 and 2 on the PlayStation 2 had English dubs, but I suppose SEGA didn't think it was worth continuing.
To be fair to SEGA, though, I don't think the series would work as well without Japanese audio. Definitely keeps things feeling authentic.
@ShogunRok Thanks for the info. I think I'll give it a shot. It'll be a bit silly to miss out on what seems to be a great game just because I have to read subtitles. Thanks again
@blakey78 No problem, and I know what you mean about subtitles. Sometimes they can be a bit of a chore when you're trying to watch the action, but in Yakuza's case, I think the direction is usually good enough that you won't feel like you're missing anything by reading them.
@ShogunRok hihi I was wondering if you could give a recommendation for a game to play after finishing Yakuza 0. My fiancé just finished playing it, and I was thinking of surprising him with a new game 🤓 buuuut I'm not familiar with this style of video games, so I thought I'd ask someone more knowledgeable than I!
@W3045256 Well for starters there's another Yakuza game on PS4 called Yakuza Kiwami. It came out in the summer and it continues from where Yakuza 0 left off. It's not as good as 0, but if your fiance enjoyed it then he'll more than likely enjoy Kiwami too.
Here's our review of it: https://www.pushsquare.com/reviews/ps4/yakuza_kiwami
The thing is, there aren't really any games like Yakuza — it's very unique. The closest things you get are other action role-playing games. The Witcher 3 is one of the best, as is Horizon: Zero Dawn and Bloodborne.
Persona 5 isn't an action RPG, but it is very Japanese and is very story-based, so it might be worth considering.
We've got a full list of the best role-playing games on PS4 through here, which could help: https://www.pushsquare.com/news/2017/10/guide_the_best_ps4_rpgs
Other than that, if your fiance enjoyed the cutscenes and the story, it may be worth looking into the likes of Uncharted 4, which is very cutscene heavy and linear.
Hopefully that helps!
Just wanted to pop in and thank @ShogunRok for bringing the Yakuza series to my attention - just grabbed this entry in one of the (seemingly endless) PSN sales and it’s bonkers, but brilliant! If you’re wanting to try something totally unlike anything else you’ve ever played then this could be the game for you.
@IneptRebel Thanks! Glad more people are enjoying Yakuza — it deserves all the success it can get.
@Bad-MuthaAdebisi yup and now switch is killing and cleaning hous its not for kiddies anymore and its destroying xbox lol well xbox is dead this gen they cant even get 3rd party games like risen series or edf any more and switch well getting games like doom, leasure suit larry and tons of great games like witcher
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