Yakuza 0 review

Game Info
Platform PS4
Publisher Sega
Developer Sega
Release Date Jan 24, 2017

I wasn't expecting to leave Yakuza 0 with a deep emotional connection to a character who shrieks and beats people with a baseball bat.

I also wasn't expecting to invest so profoundly in the struggles of a small nightclub and its staff, either. And I absolutely did not expect a story with so much of what I would usually describe as "tough guy bullshit" to draw me in so completely. But here I am, and Yakuza 0 has blown my expectations out of the water.

It's just so ... cool

Yakuza 0 divides its time equally between two characters: series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu and recurring eccentric Goro Majima. As a prequel set in 1988, it offers a glimpse at what made these characters who they come to be in later games. Kiryu is little more than an up-and-coming yakuza foot soldier when the story begins, framed for a crime he didn't commit. Majima, on the other hand, is stuck managing a cabaret in the hopes of earning his place in the yakuza back after being cast out. Between the beepers in their pockets, the Out Run machines in the arcades, and the glossy veneer of bubble-era Japan, it’s pretty hard to ignore the game’s setting. Crime is business and business is crime, and Yakuza 0’s depictions of this period are unflinching. It’s a pretty ugly world all said.

But it’s just … so cool. Fighting people with street signs cool. Pulling off spectacular cinematic QTE nonsense cool. Steel-eyed men crying in the rain cool. I couldn't get enough.

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It was satisfying to experience shades of who these characters become in later games, too — the gleeful "firsts", like the first time Majima picks up a baseball bat in a fight, the first time Kiryu sets foot in the bar that comes to be his favorite haunt. But Yakuza 0 never relies on those teases so heavily that the less familiar should feel lost. Even with these occasional winks and nods to those in the know it doesn't feel like it's out to leave anyone behind.

Much of the action that pushes Yakuza 0 forward is unapologetically over-the-top. Each character can learn and employ multiple fighting styles unique to them, in addition to using weapons that can be purchased or crafted. Though combat is based on familiar light/heavy/grab/dodge attack patterns, these styles coupled with environmental actions and charged-up heat moves make every fight unique, even when I was just clearing out a group of thugs that caught up with me on the streets.

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Rather than having a separate experience system, abilities (like new combos, more contextual actions, and health bonuses) in these styles can be unlocked with cash. This is a big break from how previous Yakuza games have handled experience, but it’s a break for the better. Grinding before a tough fight might mean, say, making a few real-estate deals in Kiryu's side business for example, and likewise picking a fight or two can help top up funds in time for a big purchase. For those who don't want to spend too much time outside of the main story, chapter completion also comes with hefty cash bonuses to help keep the boys in fighting shape. The ability to move (sorry "invest") your money between characters unlocked later on means you don't have to force yourself through Kiryu's real estate management side business when you're rather be managing the cabaret club as Majima.

This change felt liberating; it let me choose the activities I enjoyed most in order to advance in the ways I felt were most important. Even when I was just killing time in a casino I was still literally banking progress.

In a game as crowded with stuff to do as Yakuza 0, that’s something they’re smart to lean into. There's always the option to dive deep into the worlds of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, wiling away Kiryu and Majima's respective time in bowling alleys, arcades, restaurants and discos, but it’s also worth noting that there's no real obligation to linger when you're eager to move on with the main story. In some cases completing certain substories can unlock more combat abilities or even secret fighting styles. Others will yield worthwhile rewards like new save points. employees or even property holdings. It felt easy to do exactly as much as I was interested in doing, while walking away from the rest.

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There’s a lot to praise about Yakuza 0 both mechanically and aesthetically (and I haven’t even touched on the music) but it also has some serious problems. The majority of those problems involve women.

I went into Yakuza 0 with my expectations tempered in this regard, because I know how these kinds of stories often go. I’m not even particularly ruffled by the sexy video gallery available (though I would like to know why so many of those videos prominently feature balloons, just out of curiosity). But even with expectations tempered there were plenty of things that made me roll my eyes or straight-up creeped me out. Little things, like unlocking one of those vaguely sexy videos of a woman immediately after saving her from being sexually exploited by a cult leader. Bigger things, like devoting a significant amount of time to reinforcing how helpless a female character is even as she’s striving desperately to gain just a scrap of independence in her life.

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Then there are the things that are just so damn tired and overdone that they almost risk fading into the scenery at this point — the way women are again and again used more like props than people, devices and fill-in-the-blanks values to illustrate either the cruelty or the kindness of the men in the scene with them. And that's not even touching on the totally glammed-out, feminine-presenting character initially identified as "Effeminate Man" because that's a whole other can of awful, disappointing worms. Gender as punchline, the ultimate low-hanging fruit.

I expected problems, but all of this still got under my skin because it’s a narrative crutch that Yakuza 0 really doesn't need. Its characterization and storytelling hold up apart from this stuff. The vast majority of these cliched moments don't change what’s known nor illustrate anything new — not about the world, not about the characters. How many times do I really need to be shown how heartless someone is, how wicked and wild the city is, before I can be trusted to understand it? It's just so unnecessary, and so frustrating, and so easy.

Yakuza 0 is good in spite of the way it treats so many women as nameless pawns, voiceless pain sponges and stereotyped punchlines — which only makes me wonder how much better it could have been if its developers understood that. It’s like being handed what looks like the perfect chocolate chip cookie only to bite in and find out that it’s half raisins. Then again, at least raisins add flavor and texture; precious few of these moments even do that much.

And Yakuza 0 really is a perfect looking chocolate chip cookie. While its depictions of women are by and large desperately uninteresting, there is great nuance and care given to the men … and not in ways I’d anticipated.

There's no getting around the macho spectacle that permeates Yakuza, but neither lead is a run-of-the-mill tough guy. They care about things convincingly and honestly, and that's treated more as a strength than a weakness. We're talking about characters with gentle and downright lovingly animated smiles, who deliver monologues with tears streaming down their faces, and who exclaim their unfettered delight after eating a very good bowl of soup. For all its underworld bravado, Yakuza 0 is very willing to let its characters be human — to feel, to mourn, to celebrate in ways that consistently feel genuine — and to give that humanity as much room to breathe as all of its grit, gore and goofiness combined.

It kills me a little that something so simple feels so special within this genre in particular, but it is. I would be so happy if more games gave us hard-asses who also happen to enjoy pork cutlets, playing board games with pleasant old men and being kind to strangers even when they don’t need any hero-ing done. It makes these characters feel so much more real and so much more relatable than they would otherwise, and this sincere relatability is without a doubt Yakuza 0’s greatest asset.

Wrap Up:

Yakuza 0 has heart, despite some significant shortcomings

The problem with tough guy heroes isn't that they're done too often, it's that they're so rarely done well. In that regard, Yakuza 0 felt like a revelation — even in spite of some significant shortcomings. It keeps a consistent, strong pace, and it doesn’t meander through side streets you’d rather avoid. But more importantly, it’s just so damned cool. It's vicious and grand, but bears its heart and soul. It has fun without completely sacrificing its gravitas. And with Yakuza Kiwami (the remake of the first game) due out later this year, Yakuza 0 might be the perfect jumping-on point for those who have been put off by the density and complexity of the series up until now.

Yakuza 0 was reviewed using a "retail" PlayStation 4 download code provided by Sega. you can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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