NEED TO KNOW
What is it? An action game that's constantly trying to distract you with minigames.
Expect to pay £15/$20
Reviewed on GeForce GTX 1070, 16GB RAM, i5-6600k
Multiplayer Online minigames
Link Official site
The first thing you do is beat up a gang of street thugs. The second thing? Before the hard-boiled conspiratorial crime drama unfolds, before a real estate turf war earns you hundreds of millions of yen, before you battle your way through the Japanese underworld, you sing karaoke. You tap your way through a rhythm action minigame; the dingy bar transforming into a concert stage as series lead Kiryu imagines himself in a leather jacket and bandana, rocking out to an '80s power ballad.
Welcome to Yakuza 0, ostensibly an open world action game, but one that blends a beat-'em-up's arcade brawling with a visual novel's languid conversations, throws in a selection of weird and wonderful minigames, and wraps it all up in a world where the sublime meets the ridiculous and the ridiculous is sublime. Where one minute you're fighting for your life, and the next you're teaching a rookie dominatrix how to successfully humiliate perverts. Where, when you tire of trying to foil the callous plots of the rich and powerful, you can pop over to the arcade for a quick game of Outrun. Where you'll sit at a bar and wax poetic about what it means to live outside of society, only to leave and run into a man wearing nothing but his underpants suggestively gyrating his hips.
This is the sixth game in the Yakuza series, which primarily tells the story of the Dragon of Dojima, Kazuma Kiryu, a man for whom being good at punching people is both the cause and solution to all of life's problems. It's also a prequel, making it the perfect entry point for new players—handy, as this is the first game in the series to be ported to PC. Yakuza 0 is set in the '80s, making it the start of Kiryu's long story, and, other than a few veiled references to the future events of previous games, it does a great job of introducing the characters and the world.
And what a world it is. The dual settings of Kamurocho (based on Tokyo's Kabukicho district), and Sotenbori (based on Osaka's Dōtonbori district) feel vibrant and real—a fascinating contrast of neon and grime that feels more true to life than many of the virtual cities I've visited. While there's some low-res textures and noticeable aliasing, the scale and density of these spaces is remarkable. The way the buildings tower over you, and rubbish and debris spills out over the narrow streets, reinforces the immersion, creating a powerful sense of place.
You're free to explore; to visit stores and restaurants, to stumble into the strange encounters (called 'Substories') scattered liberally throughout, or to beat up the thugs and drunkards that pick fights with you. But you'll rarely interact with the civilians swarming the streets. If anything, that heightens the immersion of the space. Where other open world games let you go on a cheeky murder rampage in your downtime, Yakuza 0's open world is more restrained. It exists so you can play a few rounds of mahjong between missions, visit the convenience store to stock up on health replenishing drinks, or siphon your money into one of the vending machines in the hope of acquiring a new motor for your pocket circuit racing car.
In one mission, I'm asked to buy different types of alcohol to loosen the tongues of a group of homeless informants. I run between shops, picking up Carlsberg from the Poppo on Tenkaichi Street, and champagne from the Don Quijote on Showa Street—lodging the store's earworm of a jingle firmly in my head for the next half an hour. Later, I visit Osaka's Shot Bar STIJL, and strike up a friendship with the bartender as he explains the love-it-or-hate-it charms of a 10-year-old bottle of Laphroaig. It's rare to interact with an environment in such a grounded, low-key way.
Elsewhere, the game leans into the dramatic, never more so than during its main story. In Tokyo, Kiryu, here a low level member of the Dojima crime family, is framed for murder. He soon discovers that he's been set up by one of his family's lieutenants as part of a convoluted plot to acquire a small plot of undeveloped land. In Osaka, Goro Majima, a former yakuza member, is trapped, forced to work off his debts as manager of a cabaret club. The action switches between Kiryu and Majima every couple of chapters, letting each character's story build to an intriguing climax, before shifting gear, giving you time to ponder how the two threads will eventually intertwine.
The final part of Yakuza's tonal trifecta is its Substories, which are arguably the highlight. In most, you'll be presented with an absurd situation, make a number of conversation choices, and punch someone until they stop. It's a simple enough structure, but one that entertains throughout thanks largely to how silly it all is. You'll help definitely-not-Michael Jackson shoot a music video by battling zombies as he dances down the street. You'll advise a mild-mannered punk rock group on the best way to fit in with their hardcore fans. You'll go on an elaborate quest just to use a guy's bag phone.
This clash of realism, drama and comedy might sound like a disparate grab bag of styles, but Substories are a key part of why Yakuza 0 works so well. They help humanise Kiryu and Majima, letting their personalities shine through. Both are warm-hearted, naive and a little bit goofy. Even when Kiryu's sampling the more risque entertainment of Tokyo's red-light district, he does so with such childlike innocence that it seldom feels sleazy. These are likeable characters, which makes you care more when things do get serious. The localisation also does a great job of teasing out the personalities of these characters. I can't speak to the accuracy of the translation—I have no idea what the voice actors are actually saying—but, other than some anachronistic phrases clearly out of place in the setting, each character comes across as distinct.
Whatever you're doing at any particular moment, you're never far from a fight. Yakuza 0's combat system is pretty simple on the surface—on normal difficulty you can go a long way with just a basic combo. But scratch beneath the surface and there's a lot going on. Each character has three different attack styles. When Kiryu is in Beast stance, for instance, he'll automatically pick up objects to use as weapons as he attacks. Majima's Slugger stance, meanwhile, can unleash devastating combos with a baseball bat. Each style has its own quirks and special 'Heat' moves—powerful specials that can be deployed at opportune moments to deal massive, often brutal-looking damage. And each can be upgraded, not only by spending cash, but by completing the training of the colourful characters who teach you each style.
It's arcadey, snappy and a little bit stiff, but I've played over a hundred hours of Yakuza 0, and I still enjoy wailing on whichever unfortunate trio of punks have stepped to me. And it allows the game to revel in the ridiculous. Because this is the '80s, money flies out of enemies when you knock them down, which is handy because the cost of upgrading combat skills quickly gets into the millions of yen.
Not that all of Yakuza 0's quirks are so charming. You have to visit a phonebooth to save your game, which is fine in theory, but, in 2018, it's a little too easy to take autosave systems as granted. At least if you die in a fight there's the option to try again.
As for the PC port, it's mostly solid. There's plenty of scope to tweak graphics options, with 4K resolution support, supersampling and a handful of more granular options. And while a gamepad is recommended, I found keyboard and mouse an acceptable alternative—although I did miss analogue 360 degree movement during fights. Both keyboard and gamepad are remappable, too, although the default keyboard bindings seem pretty sensible.
Performance wise, I've tested on both a GTX 1070 using a 165Hz, 1440p monitor, and on an R9 Fury X using a 3440x1440 ultrawide monitor (albeit letterboxed). Both ran well, maintaining well over 60fps on the highest graphic settings. Weirdly, I did experience some light stutter on my GTX 1070 machine, but only when playing in borderless windowed mode, and only when using keyboard and mouse. Otherwise, it's been perfectly smooth. Perhaps the most notable issue is how Yakuza 0 scales to higher resolutions. There's some notable aliasing on the subtitles of cutscenes and on the map. It's not a major fault, but it's not ideal when you're meant to be paying attention to the content of the subtitles, not the presentation.
Putting up with a minor annoyance is worth it, because Yakuza 0 is one of the most eccentric, idiosyncratic and downright charming games around. It deftly moves between drama and humour, between story and action, between arcade action and lengthy, well written pulp dialogue about a man who is incredibly good at punching. There's simply nothing else quite like it, and it's well worth your time.