Author’s Note: I am now doing videos for each of my reviews. They will be posted on YouTube. Yakuza Zero‘s video can be found here. Enjoy!
My new favorite.
I love Yakuza Zero. There, I thought we would get that out of the way in the first sentence. Yakuza Zero is a prequel to the Yakuza series and it not only contains everything that makes a Yakuza game a Yakuza game but takes it to the next level as well. It is a game that is at times completely ridiculous and at others heartfelt and sometimes both at the same time. Once again, in short, I loved Yakuza Zero.
Let’s begin this review with those elements in Zero which will be familiar to fans of the series. For starters, Zero takes place in both Kamurocho (a fictional district of Tokyo) and Sotenbori (also fictional but in Osaka). Yes, that is correct, Zero takes place in the same locales as Yakuza Kiwami 2 (which I reviewed earlier this week so be sure to check that out). You may be saying to yourself, “How can this game be good if it takes place in the same locales as the previous games?” Well, my astute reader, Zero is awesome because it features all new content just waiting to be found. The only recycled content is the building assets that you see when walking around both Kamurocho and Sotenbori. Everything else is brand new.
Now, even though there is new content, I have to admit that the way you consume this content is mostly the same as in previous titles. For example, there is a plethora of sub stories scattered throughout both cities. Almost every single one of these sub stories was memorable. During my time with the game, I played through a sub story full of old video game references (and I mean absolutely chock-full of them); gave tax advice to a government bureaucrat; distracted passersby with amusing entertainment so a street performer could escape to use the restroom; rescued someone from a cult; taught a dominatrix how to do her job; and fought a guy in order to keep my pants. And this is just a taste of the dozens of sub stories in Zero. Each one was almost always better than the last and I couldn’t wait to see what I would uncover next.
In addition, the side activities in Zero all hail from previous games in the series. You can fish (admittedly a new activity in this game), bowl, sing Karaoke (of course), play darts, pool, or Mahjong (and yes, I still don’t know how to play this damn game), gamble at the casino, talk with girls in a telephone club, and so much more. Side note, I didn’t capture proper footage of the side activities so I went back to record some more for this review. Long story short, the side activities sucked me back into Zero for a good three hours at least. And I barely scratched the surface during that time! In addition to the normal side activities, there are two larger activities that have their own storylines; Cabaret Club Czar and Real Estate Royale.
Cabaret Club Czar is similar to Cabaret Grand Prix in Kiwami 2. You must manage a club that is facing some stiff competition and you must help it stay afloat by recruiting hostesses, managing the club while its open, and facing off against your (mostly corrupt) competition. Like I said before, it features its own storyline separate from the main game so you can complete it at your leisure. I personally preferred the story and controls and layout of Cabaret Grand Prix in Kiwami 2 to Club Czar in Zero but I still had fun with it.
In Real Estate Royale, returning series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu becomes the manager of a real estate company in Kamurocho. It mostly consists of buying real estate around town, assigning managers and security to those properties to collect money, and then defending those properties from the five real estate kings of Kamurocho. There are a few story scenes interspersed among the profit collecting and property managing aspects of Real Estate Royale. I was kind of disappointed with Real Estate Royale to be honest since it wasn’t that much fun to manage all of those properties. I would have preferred if Clan Creator from Kiwami 2 had been in Zero instead of Real Estate Royale.
Although Cabaret Club Czar and Real Estate Royale are fairly substantial in their own right, I didn’t spend much time with either of them which is contrary to my nature. I usually have trouble staying away from side content in a video game. This wasn’t because these side activities weren’t fun. Quite the opposite, in fact. I enjoyed what little time I spent doing them (especially Cabaret Club Czar). The reason I stayed away from these activities was because the main story of Zero is so damn good (more on that later).
The combat in Yakuza Zero is what you would expect from a Yakuza game. It’s the same beat ‘em up action style the series has come to be known for. Kiryu has four fighting styles instead of only one this time around (in fact, Kiwami, the remake of the original game, took its four fighting styles from Zero). These different styles spice up the combat in interesting ways. Heat Actions also make a return and, as always, they are as entertaining and brutal as ever.
As per usual, Kiryu’s combat skills can be upgraded using a skill tree. Instead of using experience for upgrades, however, Kiryu has to spend cold hard cash to upgrade his skills. Enemies will drop large amounts of cash while Kiryu is beating them up which makes the combat all the more hilarious. This mechanic, using cash instead of experience, is really cool because Zero is set in the 1980s when Japan was experiencing an economic boom and everyone had tons of cash (apparently). As a fan of history, I thought that this was a clever way to incorporate history into a video game. You must be careful when holding a bunch of cash in Zero, though. There are a couple of characters who roam the streets in both Kamurocho and Sotenbori who will fight you, and can defeat you quite easily, to take your cash so be careful about carrying huge amounts of money. You have been warned.
As I said before, the main story ironically distracted me from all of the distractions in Zero. I was enthralled with it for nearly its entire runtime. The game starts off with a young Kazuma Kiryu (it’s set in the 80s, remember?) beating up a guy in a space that’s off the beaten path. Kiryu is a newly minted member of the Tojo Clan and thus he has been assigned to the lowly position of debt collector. After collecting the money, Kiryu leaves the scene and a few hours later it’s reported that the guy Kiryu was roughing up was found dead. Not only have the police begun searching for Kiryu but the Tojo Clan has as well. For you see that the dead man is not the most important part of the incident; it’s where his body was found that’s important. He was found in what becomes known as the Empty Lot.
Leave it to the creators of the Yakuza games to make an engrossing storyline about an empty piece of real estate. As it turns, the Empty Lot is at the center of a new revitalization project and thus whomever owns the lot will rake in a ludicrous amount of money (fans of the series will know what gets built in the Empty Lot based off of what they’ve seen in later games). Not only does the top brass of the Tojo Clan want the Empty Lot but it seems everyone in Japan does. The story is funny, triumphant, and extremely heartbreaking all at the same time. It is full of all the betrayals, surprises, and high drama that the series excels at. Although I do want to go into more details about the story, I will restrain myself here in order to not spoil anything. Just trust me when I say it’s a story worth experiencing.
Now, what truly sets Yakuza Zero apart from Kiwami and Kiwami 2 is the fact that Kazuma Kiryu isn’t the only protagonist. That’s right, there’s someone else who takes the spotlight for half of the game. He’s a fan favorite character and he is none other than Goro Majima. I must admit that I was a little leery when I found out that Majima starred alongside Kiryu in Zero. I was worried because he’s such a great character and I didn’t want him to be ruined by a terrible backstory. Thankfully, the team at Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio are masters at what they do and they did an amazing job with Majima’s story. In fact, I actually enjoyed my time playing as Majima more than I did with Kiryu which is quite the feat. My hat is off to the developers.
Goro Majima’s tale mostly takes place in Sotenbori while Kiryu’s occurs in Kamurocho. At the outset of the game, Majima is a manager of a large cabaret club in Sotenbori. The first few scenes I saw him in are so different from what usually occurs when he appears onscreen that I was dumbfounded at first. His odd behavior is explained later when it is revealed that he is managing the club as punishment for something he did while he was a member of the Tojo Clan back in Tokyo. Majima, through an associate of the Omi Alliance of Osaka, is one day offered an opportunity to rejoin the Tojo Clan and thus Majima’s story begins.
Although you will play as both Kiryu and Majima separately, Zero does a great job of managing both of these tales at the same time. How it works is you will spend at least two chapters with one character and then switch to the other one for the next two. It’s an interesting way to tell the story and I think it works very well.
The main storyline is, like I said, fantastic but there are a few flaws within it. For starters, the cutscenes (which feature Japanese voice-acting with English subtitles as is the norm in every Yakuza game) are extremely long. The cutscenes in Kiwami and Kiwami 2 are long as well but Zero takes this to a whole new level. I personally enjoyed them because, like I’ve said many times now, I loved the story but even I have to admit that some of the scenes overstay their welcome. You can skip them if you find yourself getting bored but I wouldn’t recommend it since you would miss out on so much.
Also, even though the story is great, there is a slight disconnect in my opinion between how Zero ends and Kiwami, the first game in the series, begins. I won’t spoil it but believe me when I say that there couldn’t possibly be peace within the Tojo Clan given the events that occur in Zero. There is absolutely no way that that clan could have stayed together in a workable fashion. This is a minor gripe of mine that doesn’t detract from the overall plot but it does create some dissonance between the two games. Additionally, it is a shame that some of the characters from Zero couldn’t be used in later games. I know that what I’m asking for is impossible since Zero was made after the main series but it is a shame nonetheless since most of the characters introduced in Zero are pretty great.
Not only does Majima have his own storyline but he also, just like Kiryu, has his own combat styles. Just like playing through the main story, I liked using Majima in combat more as well. Each of his styles are so different from each other that they were a joy to use. One of his styles is break dancing-based for example. You can only imagine the fun to be had using that style. This is in contrast to Kiryu’s styles which seem to only be differentiated by levels of strength instead of style.
I do want to mention here that I also appreciated the fact that not only do Kiryu and Majima have different fighting styles but some of the enemies do too. This is especially true of the bosses. In one memorable fight, the boss would pull out a knife, take a few hits, fall on the ground and pretend to be dead, and then slash at your ankles whenever you came near. Little details like that make the combat in Zero the best the series has ever had in my opinion.
One reason I undoubtedly enjoyed Zero so much is because, since it is a prequel, it features many of the big personalities who were present in the first game but weren’t there for the rest of the series (for reasons). Seeing them again in Zero was a real treat. This is why I think that, if you are interested in playing this series, you should play Yakuza Kiwami and Kiwami 2 first and then jump into Zero. Playing through those two games first will introduce you to the characters and give you an understanding of what the series is all about. If you start with those games, I believe you will have a greater appreciation of what Zero has to offer.
If you were to ask me which game, Kiwami or Kiwami 2, is most like Zero, I would have to say that neither is closest to it. Zero contains elements from both of those games and therefore sits comfortably between the two entries. This is another reason why I think everyone should play Kiwami and Kiwami 2 first and then Zero. This is just my two cents on the matter but I hope you take my advice should you choose to jump into the series in the near future. Now is the perfect time to do so given the remakes of the first two games in the series and the release of Yakuza Zero. I can only hope that SEGA re-releases Yakuza 3 sometime on PS4 in the near future. We haven’t heard about it in a long time which has me worried. But enough about Yakuza 3, we have a review to finish!
Yes, Yakuza Zero is a great game. It takes all the things the Yakuza series is known for, the sub stories, side activities, and combat, and takes them to the next level. Not only that but Zero takes a huge risk and puts not one but two beloved characters front and center each with their own stories. I can now say with confidence that the Yakuza series is one of my all-time favorites. Yakuza Kiwami made me take notice of the series, Kiwami 2 made me take a step back and now Zero has definitely confirmed it; the Yakuza series is not one to be missed. I hope you all will at least give it a try.
Final Score: 9.5/10
- Fantastic Story
- Awesome Combat
- Memorable Sub stories
- Long and a little disconnected from the story in Kiwami
Thanks for reading!