Yakuza Zero Review: An Instant Classic

After finishing Goro Majima and Kiryu Kazama’s epic origins story in Yakuza Zero, spending roughly 30+ hours adventuring through Sotenbori and Kamurocho I have to say that what Sega’s Japanese crime drama does best is manage the mood.

By all accounts, Yakuza Zero is an daunting game. It has probably a hundred hours worth of content including the main story and several enthralling mini-games (cabaret, real estate) but it somehow manages to make all of these systems and new ideas flow well over the course of time with it. The game takes place in two different cities and has players bounce between two protagonists, Kiryu Kazama and Goro Majima. For all intents and purposes, Yakuza Zero feels like Sega showed just the right amount of restraint to stop the game from becoming too complex.

The stories of both Kazama and Majima are similar but told in very different ways, balancing each other. Set in the late 80’s, both of them are seeking redemption for a wrong, Kazama is framed for a murder and has to leave the Yakuza to clear his name and Majima is paying down a debt to his clan by managing a night club called the Grand. Each take different paths to their eventual conclusions, Majima’s being the more mysterious and darker of the two while Kazama stubbornly plays the Batman type hero who will always do the right thing even if it makes life a lot harder.

Each character have multiple fighting styles which work better in different situations. You may want to use the rush style with Kazama in order to dodge quickly around a powerful foe or use Majima’s slugger style to break through enemies attacks and defense with a baseball. Each style has different nuances which makes them feel unique and there are countless environmental-based ways to brutally finish off enemies.

Combat stays fresh throughout, whenever things started to get a little boring the game would throw a new style at the player or force them to think outside their comfort zone. Add this to the game’s ability to introduce new mini-games, like managing a cabaret or dominating your rivals through real estate, and the experience stays new and exciting when it really shouldn’t be able to.

Another testament to Yakuza Zero’s ability to walk the line is its management of tone. You can go from a comical scene of dancing or singing karoke at a club to breaking up a used-panty selling ring to a well-woven crime drama with betrayals and twists at any moment. This should be jarring but it isn’t. Goro and Kiryu can pull off being funny, charming and foreboding without damaging any other aspect of the narrative. Truly, Yakuza Zero does a better job controlling all of its story’s moving parts than most games in recent memory.

Visually, the game is oozing with style. Be it from Kazama’s horribly cheesy outfits to the bright lights of Sotenbori, the art direction in Yakuza Zero is top shelf like the finest drinks patrons at Majima’s Grand nightclub order. Style is something Yakuza Zero has in extreme excess, from the absolutely hype-inducing intros for each boss fight to the fist-pumping soundtrack which amps the player up for each battle. The contributions of real-world actors like Hitoshi Ozawa, Shingo Tsurumi and others add greatly to an already fantastic game. Each of these actors are animated shockingly similar to their appearance in real-life and their voice acting really bring their characters to life.

There are very few downsides to Yakuza Zero. The game will sometimes show you an area or character model that doesn’t look nearly as impressive as other parts of the game, looking like hold overs from the PS3 era of Yakuza. While the story is superb, it does take some time to get really moving. There are 17 chapters in the game and the first 9-10 can take 2-3 hours to complete and during this time the story is sort of drip-fed to you. Once things get going in the second half of the game it is hard to put the controller down as the narrative truly takes off. It does feel like the game has been padded a bit during the middling stages but it never loses its sense of adventure and never ceases to be a blast to play despite finding myself wishing they’d move things along quicker.

My only other gripe would be the game’s habit of taking control away from the player for long periods to show off 20-30 minute cut scenes. These mini-movies are well done and the dialogue between characters adds a lot the game’s overall personality. Still, there will be moments, like at the beginning of the game and towards the middle where you don’t actually press many buttons for 15 minutes or more. This is very much like older Metal Gear Solid titles that would focus on story telling over gameplay for long, sometimes excessive periods. This isn’t a huge issue since the game’s story is thoroughly engrossing but it does become annoying a few times.

I beat the game’s story mode in roughly 30 hours but there is easily triple that playtime available to the player if they squeeze every drop out of the countless side-stories and mini-games. The ending was probably the most fulfilling climax I’ve played in a game in the past few years, with several challenging boss battles that forced me to re-think proven strategies and an unwavering epicness that few franchises can replicate.

As is, Yakuza Zero should be your starting point for this long-running franchise. It is finally coming back to the U.S. and with Yakuza Kiwami (a remake of the first game) coming to PS4 this summer there is no better time to dive into this stellar Japanese crime drama. It has one of the best stories in video games in recent memory and diverse gameplay that will keep your attention over the course of this very long and very deep game.

Final Thoughts

The only downsides to Yakuza Zero are periods where its wonderful story moves at a slower than desired pace. Overall, the game features amazing characters, an uncanny ability to expertly balance the absurd with an enthralling narrative, engaging combat and absolutely addictive mini-games, all of which contribute to make one of the better complete packages you can find on the PS4 this generation.

Overall Score 95%