I went in not knowing anything about the franchise, but I came away a huge fan.

I am sad to say that I have never played any entry in the Yakuza franchise before. Between never really knowing much about the games and some of them never making it Stateside, it just wasn't meant to be. However, thanks to SEGA and the upcoming Yakuza 0 for the PlayStation 4, I finally got a heaping helping of what the franchise has to offer.

The focus of Yakuza 0 is split between Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. From my limited knowledge about the series, Kiryu is a series mainstay and the incredibly eccentric Majima is also prominently featured in the other games. Set in 1988, Yakuza 0 serves as a prequel to the events in the other mainline entries. This means it's a perfect starting point for anybody that has been looking to jump into the series but were too afraid because they wouldn't know what was going on. Right from the get-go, we find that young Kiryu is nothing more than yakuza near the bottom of the totem pole. He was framed for a crime he was quite sure he didn't commit. Kiryu feels that the only way he can freely get to the bottom of this obvious setup is to leave his yakuza clan and start down a mysterious and dangerous path. On the flip side, we have the high-end cabaret owner, Majima. Majima explodes onto the scene and into your heart from his very first appearance. I won't ruin the moment for you aside from saying that the introduction includes a big band orchestra, an unruly patron, and the idea that "the customer is always right!" Trust me when I say that Majima loves to steal the show.

The game just oozes atmosphere. Set in late 80s Japan, the game takes the era's ideas of fashion, glitz, bright lights, and the non-fictional real estate bubble economy for the housing market and runs with it. It runs with it so hard and I love that it does so with almost everything cranked up to 11. So much in Yakuza 0 is done with such a flair for the eccentric that you cannot help but smile even in some of the more down to earth scenes. The fights especially showcase this tendency towards the exaggerated. Each character can learn a few different fighting techniques, which can be swapped to at will in the heat of a battle, and all of which are unique both visually and technically. Though the combat across all styles can be simplified down to light attack, heavy attack, grab moves, and dodge moves there are simply too many variables at play here to ever make the combat in this game ever feel stale. The styles mix beautifully with the ability to utilize the environment to your advantage during fights. Players can pick up and wield items such as swords, bats, traffic cones, bicycles, and the like. These methods are all capped off by the ability to execute highly damaging charged-up Heat moves to finish off one or a group of foes in one cinematic attack. You just haven't experienced how crazy the combat can get in this game until you pick a weak foe up and swing him around to knock out his nearby buddies.

New moves and abilities are earned in one of two ways. First, you can spend your hard-earned cash to purchase upgrades such as increased health, new combos, new contextual actions, and even more moves. Each fighting style has their own experience grid, though there are some cross-over benefits between styles such as an increased health pool. This means that money plays a hugely important role in Yakuza 0. Upgrades start out relatively "inexpensive" at around 2 million yen per upgrade but will quickly make large leaps to 30 million yen or more. It doesn't seem too bad because you do earn a fair bit a cash in the early game, namely from performing well during fights, but there are some caveats to all of this. Money isn't just spent on upgrades. Money is also spent on purchasing healing items, weapons, defensive accessories, food at restaurants that restore health out of combat, and a plethora of mini-games and arcades around the game world. When you factor all of this in, you realize that finding an early game balance between spending and earning can be a bit tricky. Thankfully, Yakuza 0 quickly cuts out whatever perceived grind you may think there is. Kiryu will eventually find himself earning money through his real-estate side business while Majima earns his fair share through his cabaret club. Later on, the wealth is shared between the two, meaning that you are free to focus on one business or the other if you don't like to juggle both at the same time. Of course, just be sure to keep an eye out for Mr. Shakedown. Yes, that is his name. Mr. Shakedown is a man of imposing size and strength who, you guessed it, will shake you down (read: beat you up) for all your money should he find you on the streets. If you lose, say goodbye to your earnings. However, if you win you get to take his money, which is usually a decent chunk of change. Make no mistake about it, encounters with Mr. Shakedown are a test of your abilities, especially in the early game. I advise you to steer clear of him when possible until you're confident you can win.

As mentioned, there is one other way for Kiryu and Majima to unlock their hidden potential. Hitting up a shrine in the city will allow you to spend special points that you earn by accomplishing certain tasks. Some of these tasks may include things like defeating 50 enemies with each fighting style, defeating Mr. Shakedown for the first time, completing karaoke songs, hitting point milestones in Out Run and other arcade games, using items, travelling various distances, finding collectible cards, and the list just keeps on going. Once you hit some of these milestones, you earn some points that you can spend at these shrines. Spending points at these shrines allows you to earn new passive abilities for your player, such as being able to sprint for longer periods of time before tiring out.

This upgrade method coupled with the combat upgrades allow you to tailor the gameplay towards your personal style. It also means that nobody will ever really have to do something in the game that they do not enjoy doing just to grow their character. There is always some way to earn money or spendable skill points that you will find enjoyable. There will come a point where you can purchase every upgrade under the Sun but that won't be for dozens upon dozens of hours. Most people probably won't ever "fully" upgrade their characters and that is perfectly fine.

For as seriously as the game takes itself during the main story, it's nice to know that many of the side activities and missions are more on the light hearted side, even when fighting is involved. The cities of Kamurocho and Sotenbori always have something fun to do. Kiryu and Majima can hit up the batting cages. They can dip into one of the many SEGA branded arcades, which contain classic titles like Out Run and Space Harrier while also including those totally not frustrating crane games where you can win some SEGA themed prizes. Don't like arcades? No problem, go play a few games of bowling and take on the staff to win Nugget! You'll understand what I mean after you win that prize. Feel like catching some fish? Go for it. How's about some karaoke that plays out a bit like Parappa the Rapper? You can do that too. Maybe you need to go to the store to buy some new accessories or top off on health potions? Be my guest. Hey, maybe you would rather hit up one of the many fine eating establishments and continue to grow your friendship and relationship with the employees that run those places. Maybe you'll run into any number of side-missions that spring up from NPCs around the area. You can go from serving as a producer on a food focused commercial shoot one moment to helping a young child get his newly purchased game back from a bunch of thugs the next moment. And while many of these side-missions can be considered goofy or bizarre, they also often end on a bit of a sentimental note or life lesson.
right now when it comes to women in games. This is a subject I try not to dive into too deeply because it really isn't my place to do so. I mainly mention that particular issue because a lot of it is kind of overdone by now and really doesn't fit in well with the rest of the game. Here you have a gaming experience where the story is absolutely phenomenal, you have main characters that have an immense depth to them, you have a story presentation that you will fall in love with, and a game where you have women just kind of there to re-highlight that "random bad guy x" is quite evil or to serve as window dressing. It feels weird and super hypocritical at times.

While the portrayal of women in Yakuza 0 is the game's biggest shortcoming, it isn't its only one. I found the visuals in the game to be a bit of a mixed bag. The game actually makes use of three different methods for telling the story. There is the expected CG cutscenes which are absolutely gorgeous. There is a second method, one that I have never seen used before in a game. The best way for me to describe this method is that it's like a sepia dipped storyboard come to life. Much of the on screen movement is minimized almost to a complete stop. There are occasional pieces of movement such as a flick of a lighter, a car passing by, or even a curl of the lips as emotions change. This more minimalistic method is perhaps my favorite of the three. The final way that story is told is through the in-game engine. Compared to the other two, there aren't very many surprises here. Animations are obviously not quite on par here when compared to the CG cutscenes, but they're still quite good in the grand scheme of things. Yakuza 0 runs at a very smooth framerate (I believe it's 60 but I cannot test to confirm) that works well with the fast-paced nature of the game's combat. Sure, this high framerate means that sacrifices had to be made elsewhere and I'm not really talking about some of the low resolution textures I kept noticing. No, I'm more annoyed that there doesn't seem to be much in the way of ambient occlusion. I never really thought I'd notice when games don't have it, but it's hard not to notice when there isn't a subtle darkening on the ground near feet or at various geometry junctures in the game world. Thankfully, the game tends to make up for that shortcoming with the smooth framerate, the wonderful depth of field work and the overall look, "feel," and atmosphere of the two main cities. I feel the need to point out that I don't normally like depth of field in games. There are some very rare occasions where I actually think it's implemented well and this game is one of them.

Bottom Line
Aside from those issues, there really isn't anything to complain about with Yakuza 0. The combat system is robust and allows you to build your character with techniques that fit your style. Boss encounters are suitably challenging and will test your skills without ever feeling unfair. The story had its hooks in me from the start and never once let go. There is also no shortage of things to do in the game, even if you barely touch the numerous side-activities and missions. Most players will take at least a few dozen hours to complete the game and that's a very conservative estimate. Voice work is all done in Japanese and all well performed. Even without knowing the language, I say that the voice acting was well performed because it was just so easy to pick up on conveyed emotions and shifts in tone during a conversation. They really did a great job here. This of course means that you will have to read the subtitles throughout the entire game if you do not speak Japanese. Oh well, this shouldn't be a big deal at all. The soundtrack is on point right from the rocking pre-title screen intro video.

There is an awful lot to like with Yakuza 0 and it is hands down an easy purchase for anybody looking for a solid game that is just so much damn fun to play. If you're worried about not knowing who is who because you never played any of the earlier games, don't be afraid at all. As the game is a prequel, starting with Yakuza 0 is perhaps the best way to get into the franchise because it introduces the characters, places, and events mentioned in the other games. It perfectly sets the stage for the upcoming release (arriving later this year) of the remake of the first Yakuza game, Yakuza Kiwami. I never played any of the other games either but I thoroughly enjoyed every single hour spent in Yakuza 0 and I know that you will too. Oh, and be prepared to drop a small fortune on the crane game in the arcades. You know, not that I'm speaking from personal experience or anything.

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Yakuza 0 (Developed by SEGA, Published by SEGA)
Starting at $59.99 (USD) for the PlayStation 4
Rated M for Mature 17+ for Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol
Yakuza 0 was provided to Total Gaming Network by SEGA for review purposes.