Despite the Yakuza series' cult status, mainstream success has eluded it in the west. If you've never played a Yakuza game before, however, Yakuza Zero is a logical place to test the waters for yourself. It's the series' debut on PlayStation 4, and as a prequel to the first Yakuza game, it doesn't rely on preexisting knowledge of its principal characters. More importantly, you should play Zero because it's a fascinating game that combines equal parts drama and comedy, and is unlike anything else out there at the moment.
Such a statement is worth scrutinizing, so to be clear: It's Zero's flaws that leap out at you at first glance, be it some seriously outdated character models and textures or the repetitive nature of combat. A reasonable person would take these warnings as a sign that something's amiss--maybe it's not surprising that Yakuza continues to persist as a cult-classic series after all. But to get hung up on these shortcomings is missing the point. Where some elements languish from a lack of attention to detail, other facets of Zero are masterfully executed.
Take the story, for example, which jumps back and forth from the perspective of two different yakuza on opposite sides of Japan. Kazuma Kiryu is a young yakuza gangster from Tokyo with an iron first but a heart of gold. He's caught in the middle of a battle between criminal organizations seeking to take control of a valuable piece of real estate. On the other side of the country, in Osaka, we meet Goro Majima, a disfigured yakuza masquerading as the manager of a grand cabaret. Also on the outs with his clan, Majima's sent on a mission to kill a troublesome business owner, but soon finds himself unable to complete the job for personal reasons.
Majima and Kiryu are on the run for the majority of the game, and they stumble into conflicts with yakuza big and small on a regular basis. During story-related cutscenes, Zero takes its storytelling seriously: Nobody cracks jokes or makes empty threats. When yakuza are involved, everything is at stake, including your life, but also the lives of your family and close friends. As such, the story is relentlessly tense.
Both characters will surprise you, slipping out of harm's way by showcasing a hidden talent or by devising a clever plan, elevating them to herolike status in short order. Extraordinary luck or ability aside, it's the allies they meet along the way that prove to be their most valuable assets. By weaving a complex web of relationships and alliances, Zero's story grows ever more fascinating, proving to be equal parts surprising and exciting from beginning to end. In the final act, all the cards are laid out on the table, and you realize who your real friends and enemies are--and what Kiryu and Majima are truly capable of.
Zero's plot is definitely a high point, and it’s dutifully conveyed through effective camera work and strong voice acting. While the game is only playable with Japanese audio and English subtitles, the energy and attitude behind most characters doesn't need to be translated. When a yakuza boss snarls your way, you believe it. Bosses--or, more appropriately, captains--are often rendered with photorealistic facial features. Some textures go too far, revealing what looks like extreme cases of clogged pores, but blemishes aside, Zero's key characters look just as convincing as they sound.
Almost across the board, however, Zero's other characters exhibit middling animations. Where its most prominent characters offer nuanced expressions, the vast majority of models in the game move in a somewhat robotic fashion. Likewise, most passersby look as if they were lifted from the series' PlayStation 3 entries, if not from a PlayStation 2 Yakuza game. Given that moving through story missions is only half the Yakuza experience, this is a reality you have to confront on a regular basis.
Hand-to-hand combat is another key component of Zero that feels dated, despite its improvements over past games. Both Kiryu and Majima feature different fighting styles--three varieties apiece, no less--but Zero's straightforward beat-em-up trappings ultimately grow repetitive. By and large, you can choose one fighting style that works for you and focus on that for the entire game. Styles are developed by spending money you collect from fights and missions to invest in new skills and stat boosts, and you can get away with experimenting as much as you like.
Zero is nothing if not a brutally violent game. You’ll grind enemies' faces into the pavement, stick a bat in their mouth and kick the exposed end, and pile-drive thugs skull-first into the street.
Majima is by far the more interesting combatant, as he can fight with a bat or by breakdancing in addition to standard fisticuffs. Both characters can pick up weapons in the environment and use them for a limited time, but otherwise, Kiryu’s primarily a brawler, albeit at three different speeds. The enemies you face on the streets are somewhat diverse and include the likes of lonesome drunks, bikers, and lowly yakuza thugs. Thematically, the variety is appreciated, but mechanically, most enemies fight the same.
Zero is nothing if not a brutally violent game. You’ll grind enemies' faces into the pavement, stick a bat in their mouth and kick the exposed end, and pile-drive thugs skull-first into the street. Special takedowns like these add a necessary amount of flair to combat, saving fights from becoming truly rote. While these attacks would kill a normal person, enemies in Zero are able to walk their injuries off. This is your first sign that no matter how seriously the story takes itself, everything outside of cutscenes is a tongue-in-cheek affair.
The more you play, the more apparent it becomes that Zero wants you to feel both like a badass yakuza and like a participant in an absurdist comedy. The open-world structure of Tokyo and Osaka's fictional districts affords you the chance to interact with non-yakuza citizens through 100 optional missions that you discover by walking the streets and frequenting the game's various stores and amusement centers. Though these missions couldn't be more different from the main plot, that's part of their charm.
No one will argue that a yakuza on the run has time to pretend to be a random girl's boyfriend to impress her father or to stand in as a producer on a TV commercial, but these random and lighthearted challenges are excellent palate cleansers that often elicit a chuckle, make you scratch your head in bemusement, and refresh your perspective. You can also blow off some steam by taking on a handful of minigames, including bowling, darts, real-estate management, and ports of classic Sega arcade games like Out Run, Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone, and Hang-On. These events are shallow but ultimately serviceable, and the game includes enough of them to satisfy your curiosity should you grow bored of any one in particular.
Traditional for the series, Zero also doesn't shy away from thrusting you into erotic situations, be it it in the form of softcore-porn video parlors or in a minigame that involves betting on wrestling matches between two scantily clad women. At best, you can momentarily excuse its more tasteless pursuits as a reflection of Japanese society in the late 1980s or accept them at face value as a source of titillation.
For the most part, you can avoid these erotic amusements if you want to, but there's an ever-present air of sexism in Zero's story beyond the aforementioned "catfights". Stereotypically, yakuza view women as objects to be owned and manipulated, and this issue can't be avoided if Zero aims to present a realistic yakuza tale; just don't expect the game to address it in a meaningful way. While these elements don't outright poison the well given the basis for their presence, they’re ultimately an unavoidable and harsh reminder of the cultural valley of that exists between the game's setting and modern sensibilities.
Otherwise, Zero relentlessly adheres to its Japanese roots mostly for the better, and if you've ever traveled to Japan, the game's sights and sounds will almost instantly trigger fond memories and feelings of nostalgia. Its fictional slices of Tokyo and Osaka are based on real-life locations but tailored to custom-fit the adventure's scope and scale. For an open world, in terms of raw real estate, Zero's maps are small by modern standards. But what it lacks in scale, Zero makes up for with a wide variety of activities. It can keep you busy for 100 hours and then some if you take advantage of everything it has to offer.
By weaving a complex web of relationships and alliances, Zero's story grows ever more fascinating, proving to be equal parts surprising and exciting from beginning to end.
Were it not for the wealth of activities and side stories available around every corner, Zero would still be a riveting game for its story alone. It does a fantastic job of pulling you into the plight of its main characters and holds your attention through every step of their winding journeys. But, when you take in everything the game has to offer, Zero becomes something special. Yes, its presentation leaves a lot to be desired at times and the fights aren't always as engaging as they could be, but the rest of the game is incredibly diverse and engaging. The sheer amount of activities at your fingertips would feel overwhelming if they weren't so inviting--you're never pressured to do one thing or another.
Unless you have a strong aversion to violence, sex, or middling graphics, you owe it to yourself to give Zero a chance. Its story will surprise you, its inhabitants will make you laugh at every turn, and its ambitious scope will redefine how you think about open-world games. It's a fascinating adventure no matter how you approach it, and it’s proof positive that a game can be wildly inconsistent yet remain a great experience.