Yakuza 0 is the long-awaited English release of the prequel to SEGA’s venerable open world franchise. It originally launched in Japan back in 2015, and in just a couple of weeks the English-speaking world gets their hands on the title that lets them play as Kiryu before he was a bigshot, as well as the one-eyed badass Goro Majima. We’ve been dabbling in the PS4 release for a week now and have some initial thoughts to share.
For those unfamiliar with the Franchise, Yakuza is a sort of hybrid between the golden age of PS2-era brawlers and open world games with light RPG elements. Would I strictly call Yakuza 0 an RPG? Not by a long shot, but there are enough character building mechanics that SEGA has deemed we should try it by sending us a preview code, by listing the game as an Action RPG, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Basically, if you like open world action games and Japanese-styled storytelling, you’re going to be in heaven with the Yakuza series.
This isn’t GTA though. There are no guns or car-stealing here. Most all the manual travel you do in Yakuza will be on foot, save for taxi-trips that act as the game’s instant travel. In a lot of ways, Yakuza 0 does things in its own style and doesn’t try to chase after some big open-world checklist. You’re not as free as you are in games like GTA, but that doesn’t matter so much when you get wrapped up in the drama that is Kiryu’s rise to power. In a lot of ways, Yakuza 0 reminds me of Shenmue, and as a long-time lover of the Dreamcast that makes me happy.
Yakuza 0 is set in 1980s Japan, and after the first 2 chapters of the story playing as Kiryu, you’ll swap back and forth between him and the series favorite Goro Majima. Kiryu’s angle has some added wrinkles in that you’ll also get to play crime-boss while running a nightclub, managing its workers, clientele, and earning money to power up your characters’ skills. There are some deep skill-trees for each of the game’s fighting styles, which you switch between at the press of a button depending on the situations. Meanwhile when playing Goro, you’ll craft different weapons to use, so each side of the game’s 60-80 hour story has its own unique flair. Goro plays entirely different from Kiryu both in tone and combat, so the fact that the game swaps between each every few hours keeps the action feeling fresh.
Yakuza 0’s not all about fighting and mob politics either – after the first few hours the game world opens up and you’ll find tons of side quests ranging from the hilarious to the ridiculous (I helped a poser Japanese band of greasers hold their first press conference, for example). There are mini car races, fights with Mr. Shakedown (long story), catfight betting, casinos, Karaoke minigames complete with 1980s music video vignettes… the list goes on.
Yakuza 0 isn’t like the open world games of today, and that might do it a great service. It’s distinctly “SEGA” in its gameplay, presentation, and retaining the Japanese voice over work goes a long way to keep you in the mood and setting of 1980s Japan. I know some will wish it was on PC, but it ain’t happening now if ever. SEGA could make a mint on Steam and maybe one day they will. But for now, if you’ve a PS4, put Yakuza 0 on your watch list for this month and see what the reviews say come January 24th.