When a series has gone on long enough, it’s hard to find a place to jump in. I get asked every week where the best places to start are for One Piece and Gintama, and the same can be said for games with a consistent, long-running story like Sega’s Yakuza series. I played the first two games back on PS2, but for various reasons never picked the series back up despite absolutely loving those early games. I played a bit of Yakuza 3, and didn’t play any of the fourth or fifth games, but it’s Yakuza 0 that’s made me a fan again.
Taking place fifteen years before the first Yakuza game, 0 follows a much younger, hotter-headed Kazuma Kiryu, a nobody in the Dojima Clan who’s relatively new to the gang life. Everything seems simple enough–do your work, keep your head down, show respect to your seniors–but accusations of a murder (technically once again) drag Kiryu into a wild conspiracy and put him at odds with Dojima leadership. Meanwhile in Osaka, you also get to play as a much younger, somehow-less-crazy Majima Goro, Kiryu’s lunatic rival, as he works to get back into the family he was kicked out of. It’s a lot of rough, grimacing men in suits, dramatic shouting, and sudden double-crosses as Kiryu and Majima have to fight for their lives, and eventually for each others’.
I know that all sounds very grim and serious, but one of the Yakuza series’ finest points is its sense of humor and relaxing atmosphere–between tense cutscenes and shocking story revelations, you get to run around town and soak up the local experience: food, massage parlors, karaoke, classic Sega arcade games, and of course, beating the living crap out of every random thug who thinks they can take you down. You’ll also run into a huge variety of side quests, where Kiryu and Majima get to help a band be cool and tough for their fans, give a hapless errand boy some backbone, and track down a kid’s stolen video game, among many others. You’re never at a loss for things to do in Yakuza 0, and while the tone may not be consistent, this is much-needed levity and a chance to catch your breath before you dive back into the main story.
Combat feels just like it did back in 2006–that’s not a bad thing, as it’s a pretty straightforward 3D brawler with some nice quality-of-life improvements. Kiryu and Majima can, as before, build meter to unleash powerful “Heat” attacks, which can be used barehanded or with weapons, and use a variety of counters and environmental interactions to trash the opposition. In a series first, characters can now learn three different fighting styles, upgrading them on boards that remind me of Final Fantasy X‘s Sphere Grid. The sheer number of times you’re going to get stopped in the street can get kind of annoying, but the ferocious (and sometimes hilarious) options at your disposal makes each fight a chance for you to show off, and possibly make even more money.
Money makes the world go ’round in Yakuza 0, and while you can certainly make money just by beating down random goons, you’re given a few higher-risk, higher-reward opportunities with the Business minigames. Kiryu can get involved in real estate, buying and investing in properties to try and push out rival developments, and will sometimes have to patrol neighborhoods and beat down troublemakers to keep payments coming in smoothly. Majima gets to run a hostess club, providing white-glove customer service as a manager and helping his hostesses feel safe and comfortable. Both of these minigames are addicting as hell and very distracting from the main game–not only is it a chance to earn more cash to level up your fighting skills, but you’re literally doing work that the yakuza (allegedly) have their hands in, so it just adds to the atmosphere and never feels like you’re just doing busywork.
Running around town and doing sidequests is great, but you’ll eventually have to go back to the story, with its sometimes-unskippable cutscenes and long sections where there’s either no spoken dialogue or minimal character animation, breaking the game’s immersion. For all my love of the game’s awesomely manly characters and feel, you’re constantly interrupted, and at times have to listen to a character repeat the same sound bytes over and over again while you read through reams of text, and then suddenly it’s time for a gorgeously-animated cutscene and the whole thing just feels inconsistent.
Yakuza 0 does a lot right, and even its imperfections have the same charm as its characters: rough men with hearts of gold who may not be on the straight and narrow, but they know right from wrong. This seems like a lot to take in–a winding story, an accessible-yet-deep battle system, and two separate businesses to run in addition to all the side quests–but I can’t think of a better place for new Yakuza fans to start. Get acquainted with Kiryu and Majima in their early days, then you’ll be all set for Yakuza Kiwami (a from-the-ground-up remake of the first game) sometime in the spring. Longtime fans already know what’s up–come back to the glory days when Kiryu and Majima were just small fry, and fight your way to the top. Y’know, after I find a new part for this pocket racer.
+ Balances a badass, brutal crime story with plenty of humor and heart
+ Characters each have three unique, flashy, and satisfying fighting styles to learn, keeping combat fresh
+ Massive variety of side quests and collectibles mean you’ll never run out of things to do
+ Business minigames not only feel right at home, but are addicting and never feel like a grind
+ Perfect starting point for new players, and a great flashback for hardcore Yakuza fans
+/– The story is great, but unskippable cutscenes (and some inconsistent presentation) breaks the mood
– Camera can sometimes be unreliable in tight quarters
– Constant random encounters can get annoying when you’re just trying to reach a destination
Nate Ming is the Features and Reviews Editor for Crunchyroll News, creator of the long-running Fanart Friday column, and the Customer Support Lead for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter at @NateMing.