Yakuza 0 is an… interesting experience. The sixth installment of SEGA’s Yakuza series is a prequel to the five games that came before it. We learn Kazama Kiryu’s origin story, and how he went from low ranking Yakuza member to one of the most powerful figures in the Japanese underworld.
The game is an open world beat ’em up experience that switches perspectives between Kiryu as a low level grunt and disgraced Yakuza and cabaret club manager Majima Goro. Each character lives in a city independent of each other — Kiryu in Kamurocho, Tokyo and Majima in Sotenbori, Osaka — and are living in entirely separate narratives until a late divergent point in the narrative.
Both cities are filled with a ton of restaurants, convenience stores and other areas filled with side content for you to explore. Each character has their own set of wacky side quests to take part of in their city, including stepping in as a commercial director, winning a few stuffed animals for a little girl out of a claw machine and even helping a child chase down a video game thief, and finding out the final thief was his dad all along.
All of this takes place alongside what is a surprisingly great narrative. Both characters have their own well fleshed out stories that keep you engaged throughout. You begin to care for the plight of both characters, and I was fully enriched in both plots.
As the game wears on, things seem to drag on for just a little too long. The wacky exciting world loses its charm. While the story is great, every player interaction with the story (until one change of pace near the end) is just a marathon fight through a few large groups of enemies, with a climax battle against one really strong enemy at the end.
The combat can stale out incredibly fast. While the developers certainly tried to allow for player expression with six fighting styles — three per character — players are usually forced to commit hard to one for each character as it is too expensive to continually upgrade all three. This means that throughout the game you are basically doing the same thing over and over.
Fighting can feel kind of stale after a while as well. Basically every fight is just your guy fighting against a large group of people. At some points you are fighting while protecting someone your escorting, sometimes the enemies have more health, sometimes they have weapons. But it the end, almost every fight plays out nearly the same way. Kite away one guy from the group (usually the one with the most dangerous weapon), beat him down, rinse and repeat.
The weapons the enemies hold feel cheap as well. While the regular knives and bats seem fair and add an extra challenge, the others feel broken. Guns chunk your health and score the enemy a knockdown on you. This can quickly lead to your character getting put into a situation where you are effectively stuck in a knockdown chain — especially in the later fights against huge groups. Characters with sabers do the same, but at least feel fairer as they have to get close to you to hurt you.
Enemies with guns are clearly there to provide a unique challenge similar to archer enemies do in games like Skyrim. They can outrange you and make you think about how you approach them. In a fight against a group it makes you think about how you prioritize your targets. In Yakuza the enemies are just stronger than anyone else and there is no real counterplay other than just quickly running up on them and pressing X over and over so they don’t get a window to shoot you.
Let's talk about that, too. All six of the combat stances essentially boil down to the same common pattern. Use A (Xbox controller buttons here) to get some space, then press X-X-X-Y to knock them down. Then, while they are on the ground, press Y while standing over them to perform a special. That is the entire combat system in a 30+ hour game.
The combat is janky as well. When trying to unleash a special on a knocked down enemy you must be standing absolutely still within a very specific distance of the enemy. If you are standing over him, you will just do a basic attack, too far, and you will just whiff an attack. The range for the attack is extremely small and unclear. While you can usually adjust your character’s position on the fly in a one-on-one, when fighting a group you will often just get punched by someone else while you attempt to readjust. This is the same for when you attempt to activate a special move while both of you are standing.
The amount of combat the game features makes it even staler. Even beyond the many plot battles that are exactly the same, the guys who chase you down to fight you on the street are even more annoying. While you can avoid them, getting caught in these fights seems like a chore after a while. Especially later in the game where they have enough health that it takes a long time to deal with these needless enemies. While the fights do serve a purpose — a way for the player to grind money — there are just too many of them. It is hard to stay engaged in the plot when I have to beat up two random groups of hooligans on my way to the next big story element.
Yakuza does not make it easy to continue the story either. There are multiple points within the game where your character is just thrown into the city with an objective, with the player having no idea how to continue. They will tell you to find information on a topic, and while it does force the player to explore the city, the way to find the information is just happen to walk up to two random people talking twice.
The game will drop you in the city and tell you that you have to hide, and the way to continue the story is by going to a building you haven’t been to or heard about in hours, and have never actually needed to go to on your own for plot reasons in the past (in your previous visits you went there through cutscenes or being escorted by someone else). There are occasions where the game just tells you to “pass the time” while another character is doing something, then basically gives you nothing to do or no sense of how much in-game time you will have to wait.
Moments like this pull you out of the action, and confuse the player. It can be frustrating to want to continue a game but being literally unable to because of a timer that you can not see. They could fix this issue by giving the player something to do during this period, but you literally just have to wander around the open world until you receive a message to return.
All of these feel like oversights that could have easily been fixed with some sort of play testing or focus groups. The combat is great, but SEGA made no attempt to vary things other than giving enemies more health. While forcing the player to explore the world on their own without direction seems interesting, the way for them to continue the game needs to be more obvious then just talking to random guy in city. The ideas are great, but small oversights hurt an otherwise great game.
Despite all of my criticism, this is still a game I would recommend to anyone. The narrative is fun, and the big twists genuinely came out of nowhere despite being perfectly telegraphed. While it can feel like a melodramatic soap opera at times, if anything that adds to the absolutely wacky world you are thrown into. The juxtaposition between the serious plot and the un-serious world is near perfect.
Yakuza 0 had the makings for an all-time great video game that would be remembered for a decade. Instead, these small flaws all add up to ruin an otherwise great experience.