Yakuza Is the Best Japanese Franchise You’ve Never Played
Yakuza 0 (UK) is finally available in the west, just 10 months after it arrived in Japan. Despite earning a fierce reputation in its native country , the series is still mostly unheard of among mainstream western audiences.
Luckily Yakuza 0 is the perfect entry point for those curious about the series. If you’re a fan of open-world action-adventures , the late 1980s, and zany Japanese humor then you’ll probably love this game.
If you’re looking for something a little different, it might be worth a shot anyway.
What Is Yakuza?
First released in Japan in December 2005 on the PlayStation 2, there are a total of seven main Yakuza games to date and a handful of spin-offs too. Not all of them have received good releases in the west — Yakuza 2 was missing a PS3 and Wii U release outside of Japan, and there was a three year delay for 2012’s Yakuza 5 before it finally saw a worldwide release.
The latest entry in the series is Yakuza 6, which released in December of last year. We’ll be waiting till some time in 2018 for that game to release in the west. These delays and poor marketing on Sega’s part has resulted in relatively few western gamers (and even critics) trying out the series — that is until now.
The game takes the form of a story-driven open-world action-adventure, with a focus on fighting and mini-games. As the title suggests, the games tell tales of the Japanese mafia, the politics within the underworld, street fighting, and the importance of flashing your cash. But there’s a lot more to these games than simply fighting, with many of its cues taken from Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue series.
Tonally it’s quite different. Yakuza isn’t as open, and it doesn’t encourage exploration or freedom of movement in quite the same way. But this doesn’t stop some players from referring to it as the spiritual successor to the Dreamcast fan favorite, and that’s not a bad thing.
The Perfect Jumping-On Point
Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the original 2005 release, so it’s the perfect introduction to the series. You don’t need to know any of the existing story to jump right in, and you’ll have a richer understanding of the main characters if you end up continuing the journey when the remake of the first game (Yakuza Kiwami) arrives sometime in the near future.
Yakuza 0 is set in 1988, and so to western audiences manages to be both nostalgic and exotic. You’ll be using pagers, pay phones, arcade machines, VHS tapes, and CRT televisions against the neon backdrop of a quintessentially Japanese urban landscape.
It’s also a really good game. A quick glance at the game’s metacritic entry a day after release reports an 85% rating based on 52 critic reviews with a user score of 9/10. Better marketing on Sega’s part and the fact that it’s being released on this generation’s dominant console has probably helped the game find a footing among Western gamers this time round.
The last few Yakuza games have almost entirely been PS3 exclusives, while the Xbox 360 dominated sales in the West. The game has been exposed to a much larger audience thanks to the global success of Sony’s latest console. It’s another Sony exclusive, so there’s no point waiting for an Xbox One or Nintendo Switch release.
To most PS4 owners, the series feels fresh. Characters are new, and the side quests and mini-games are a novel distraction. The story is deep and engaging, and the setting isn’t the usual adventure game fare. The combat, while a little shallow, is easy to pick up and lots of fun.
Not Just a Fighting Game
You’ll spend a lot of your time brawling, and thankfully the fighting mechanics are pretty solid. This time round the game introduces the ability to switch combat styles on-the-fly, so you can choose faster styles to defeat faster opponents and so on.
The combat isn’t exactly deep. You’ve got three “heat” bars which will charge up as you land more punches, and deplete when you take damage. Charge your heat up enough and you’ll be able to use items in the environment to batter your enemies: bicycles, street signs, potted plants, and so on.
You’ll constantly encounter new fights as you travel from area to area, which are great for earning pocket money to spend on some of the games more interesting pastimes. Money is a big part of the game, and the theme of a booming late-80s Japanese economy is ever-present. Fortunately the developers have come up with plenty of ways for you to spend money.
This includes restaurants in which you can buy meals to regenerate health, general stores to buy health items to use in battles, and vending machines which spit out all sorts of items. The game world is also riddled with mini-games like dancing, karaoke, various forms of betting, retro arcade games like Space Harrier and Outrun, pool, slot car racing, and more. These all generally cost a small fee.
Exploration is another pastime, though Shenmue this is not. Many areas are closed off by conveniently parked motorcycles or invisible barriers, but you can check out all of the magazines in the convenience store and gawp at the bright shop frontage.
Expect some zany humor along the way: bizarre side-quests, snarky asides during dialogue, and the usual colorful characters you’d expect from Japanese anime and video games.
Getting Started With Yakuza 0
Yakuza is a fairly self-explanatory game. The story is deep and interesting, and to progress it you’ll need to fight people, investigate your surroundings, and keep yourself sane with a healthy selection of distractions. There are a few things to keep in mind if you’re new to the series though.
You’ll need to save your game manually at pay phones. The game never saves automatically, so look for the glowing S logo or use your map (touch pad button) to find the nearest save point. You can also use the item storage box at pay phones to deposit items you don’t want to consume or sell, and free up inventory space.
Health doesn’t regenerate between battles unless you go home and sleep. It’s always a good idea to have a few health items on you; you can purchase them from convenience stores. Some items apply buffs for use during battle. Restaurants are great for recharging your health instantly, but they don’t allow you to keep items on you for later use.
Side quests are as much a part of the game as the main storyline. They’re a nice distraction from the underworld narrative, and characters you help out can turn up later to surprise you. You’ll get bored with fighting and furrowing your brow in cutscenes all of the time, and there’s no shortage of distractions in the game world.
It’s worth experimenting with the fighting mechanics and styles early on, while fights are still short and easy. In addition to light and heavy attacks, you can dash with X, block with L1, and focus your attention on a single enemy by holding R1. Pick up objects and grab enemies with circle, which also allows you to throw people and environmental objects.
Accessories can help raise your defense and attack, but they won’t be automatically equipped. Hit the Options button and head to Equipment to equip any such items. You should also head to the Abilities menu to spend your money on upgrades for your various battle styles, like more health and new moves.
Are You New to the Series?
Is Yakuza 0 your first taste of Sega’s long-running Japanese hit? Are you excited for the upcoming remake of the original game? If you’re desperate to keep the nostalgic Sega vibe alive, why not grab your old Dreamcast and play some of the latest releases .
Let us know what you think of Yakuza 0 in the comments below!