The Yakuza series has a special place in my heart. In an industry saturated with derivative sandboxes, Yakuza has always stood out for its unique approach to worldbuilding and storytelling. Each Yakuza entry can be best described as a season of Breaking Bad or Sherlock, unlike the conventional movie-style approach seen in most AAA releases. The emphasis on character building and superb writing, a praiseworthy mix of comedy and gangster lore, is unrivaled. It’s unfair to compare Yakuza to other franchises, because there’s nothing quite like it. Many have likened Yakuza to Shenmue, and while that may be true on a very basic level, Yakuza delivers so much more in terms of gameplay and narrative depth. It’s the perfect example of how to take inspiration from a popular series, and evolve it into something entirely new and original.
Yakuza 0 released in Japan in 2015 and it has been one of my most anticipated titles since. Even though my expectations remained high with each new trailer release, the final experience is beyond anything I anticipated. Yakuza 0 may very well be the series’ pinnacle. It’s an expertly crafted JRPG/brawler that radiates with charm and personality. The combat has been polished to perfection, and the enhanced visuals are some of the finest on Playstation 4.
"The emphasis on character building and superb writing, a praiseworthy mix of comedy and gangster lore, is unrivaled."
Yakuza 0 is perfect for both newcomers and veterans alike. It’s a prequel that takes place in the late eighties, and chronicles defining moments in Kazuma Kiryu’s and Goro Majima’s early criminal life. Both characters are key figures from previous Yakuza entries, and this backstory gives insight into their complicated past. Even if you’ve never played Yakuza games before, the developers have done a commendable job introducing players to Japan’s criminal underworld and its eccentric personalities. Yakuza 0 is a dark, gangster drama that’s enveloped by quirky Japanese humor and a healthy dose of insanity. It’s easy to draw comparisons between Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction and especially Kill Bill.
I would be doing the game great disservice if I discussed the plot beyond its premise. There are so many unexpected turns, the adventure is best consumed with as little information as possible. The story begins as a land-grab war between rival Yakuza families, and a conspicuous realty company that’s set on toppling the region’s underground empire. What seems like a typical setup to a traditional gangster drama quickly evolves into an epic saga of friendship, betrayal and plenty of karaoke.
"The mechanics have received a substantial lift, and the jump to 60fps has done wonders for input responsiveness."
The narrative takes several dark turns, but the game never abandons its sense of humor. One moment you’re chasing rival Yakuza gangs with a samurai sword in one hand and a baseball bat in the other, then a minute later you find yourself playing emulated SEGA classics in one of the many arcades scattered through the locales. Yakuza 0 brims with exciting content around every corner. The best part is that the side-activities are genuinely entertaining and original. Be prepared to stand in as a TV show producer, run a successful cabaret club, enjoy female wrestling, collect cards of female models that unlock semi-adult videos, spend some time bowling and shooting pool, and of course, show off some snazzy dance moves by partaking in dance competitions. Yeah...Yakuza 0 is as ridiculous as it sounds!
Beyond the quirky side-missions, superb storytelling and colorful characters lies some of the best brawler-style gameplay on modern consoles. The mechanics have received a substantial lift, and the jump to 60fps has done wonders for input responsiveness. Since there are fewer playable characters compared to past Yakuza titles, the devs have added numerous fighting styles for each character to diversify the combat. Using the D-pad, you can choose between three styles of varying speed and efficiency. Yakuza 0 is still a button masher for the most part (and I mean this in the best sense possible), but the added fighting styles add more strategy and thrill to encounters. As you progress deeper into the game, recognizing the right style for each enemy becomes a crucial tactic for survival.
"The devs have done a monumental job remastering the entire package, and I can’t think of a single other game on PS4 that offers an experience as unique as Yakuza 0."
Yakuza 0 originally released on Playstation 3 in 2015, and while it was a gorgeous looking game two years ago, the boost in resolution, textures, lighting, and, most importantly, framerate, has done wonders for the game’s aesthetic. Yakuza games are famous for their authentic representation of Japan, and Yakuza 0 takes the art direction to a whole new level. The main hub areas, Kamurocho and Sotenbori, (they’re fictionalized recreations of Tokyo’s Kabukicho Shinjuku Golden Gai and Osaka's Dotonbori areas) are brimming with life and glamour. The streets are crowded with distinct-looking NPCs that engage in constant chatter, which gives each block a real sense of place and time. The same attention to detail extends to the fantastic character models. Imagine if Uncharted 4 took place in a massive open-world, and instead of a few characters, the world was filled with dozens of highly-rendered models, each meticulously crafted to perfection. That’s the level of quality you can expect from the talents behind Yakuza 0.
Conclusion: Yakuza 0 is, in my personal opinion, one of the best Playstation 4 games, even if it’s just a ported last-gen title. The devs have done a monumental job remastering the entire package, and I can’t think of a single other game on PS4 that offers an experience as unique as Yakuza 0. It kind of reminds me of Netflix’s Stranger Things in that it revitalizes a nostalgic memory from our childhood by enveloping it with a modern coat of paint. Yakuza 0 is, without a doubt, a TGS Instant Classic!