You no longer have an excuse not to play a Yakuza game.
I’ve been telling people for years to try this series, all the while knowing deep down that I was asking the impossible. I mean...jumping into such a lore-heavy franchise at its 4th and 5th entry, hundreds of hours deep into conspiracies and personal dramas, was crazy talk.
With Yakuza 0, that’s no longer a concern. This is a prequel, an origin story, set well before the events of nearly everything (Yakuza 4's 80s flashbacks aside) that has come in the series since. New players don’t need to worry about getting buried under a mountain of politics and intrigue and inter-family warfare, because this is where it all starts.
And it’s where you should all be starting, because this is 2017's first great video game.
On paper, outsiders who have never enjoyed a Yakuza game must look on and think the praise is crazy. That a bizarre hybrid of animated film and beat-em-up is an ill fit, and that any attempt to marry the two must result in a torn experience. How can you have a fighting game where you barely fight? And how can you try and tell a heartfelt story if you’re constantly interrupting it with moments of comic absurdity?
And yet the beauty of Yakuza 0, like its predecessors, is that its disparate elements all come together. It’s honest and sincere enough with its saccharine moments that you really do start to care about the characters, but it’s just the right kind of stupid throughout to have you expecting that for every moment of tenderness you’re going to be shown some dude gyrating in his undies talkin’ about jizz, and you’ll be 100% fine with the dichotomy, because that’s just how Yakuza games are.
For those new to the series, here’s how Yakuza 0 works: you take control of two young gangsters, one in Tokyo, the other in Osaka. The game is set in exquisite little dioramas of both city’s red light districts, which are modeled in astonishing detail, so much so that you’ll soon be navigating your way around based on landmarks and shop signs instead of the minimap.
Most of your time will be spent either reading/sitting through cutscenes or running around the streets of Tokyo and Osaka between missions. When you actually get to a mission, it almost always goes like this: there’ll be even more talking, someone will shout at someone else while the camera zooms in dramatically on their last words, and you’ll be handed control for some brawling while you punch a few dudes back into the 15th century.
Combat plays out much the same, though there’s been enough tampering around the edges to encourage series veterans to experiment. It’s a very old-fashioned Japanese style of brawler, more Devil May Cry than Batman, so you’ll either love its fast action and gut-wrenching physicality or grit your teeth and put up with its twitchiness and over-reliance on crowding you out with waves of grunts.
This is not a game of surprises or innovation. Yakuza games are very quaint, having changed little since the series’ debut over a decade ago. They have always played like this, and likely always will. They’re on an annual release schedule in Japan, just like a sports game, and there’s always the argument that if Sega’s team spent a little longer on these games they could come up with something a bit more refined around the edges, a bit more modern.
Yet there’s a comforting dependability in the Yakuza games, and Yakuza 0 is no different. You know exactly what you’re getting, and what you’re getting is good.
Here’s the video version of this review.
Settling in with a Yakuza game is the same as sitting down with a genre piece like a crime thriller novel, or a horror movie. You know what kind of experience you’re going to have before you have it, and you don’t give two shits that it’s not trying to push boundaries, or redefine expectations. Yakuza is a Japanese soap opera about grim dudes punching each other, and it’s very happy in that role.
You can tell because here, given the chance to tell an origin story for the game’s long-time hero Kazuma Kiryu, series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi has played it about as safe as he possibly could. Kiryu is a cool guy, I guess, but he’s also always a bit of an empty vessel, a clear attempt by Nagoshi to construct a conduit through which to project his crime fiction fantasies.
On the other hand, Goro Majima, the game’s other playable character, is a blast. A long-time frienemy of Kiryu’s throughout the series’ modern entries, players don’t just get to control him for the first time in a proper Yakuza game here, but we get to see where he came from and what exactly made him such a whackjob. His transformation is so thorough, and so well told, that it completely changes your views on the guy, and his arc is the real highlight of the story.
OK, so when I said you only watch cutscenes and run around and punch guys, I was only talking about the main story, something that should take you around 30-40 hours to complete if you mainline it.
But there’s a whole other side to Yakuza 0, and that’s the fluff, which not only rounds out the experience of living as a gangster in a certain time and place, but which is at the heart of what makes Yakuza 0 so great.
Like I said above, the Yakuza games are about reveling in contrast. Tonally, sure; one second you’ll be crying over the body of a dead friend, and literally 45 seconds later you might be helping a busker take a piss. But the contrast extends to the stuff you can actually do in the game. The main quest asks you to do little more than run around the streets then fight a few thousand goons.
The rest of the world has a lot more to offer. You can manage a real estate empire. Control an armada of hostesses. Go bowling, play some baseball, sing karaoke, visit an arcade or even bet on some underground catfights.
It’s mostly pointless, and all utterly ridiculous. Here you are, playing as two a grown-ass men, up to their necks in a conspiracy involving notorious criminal enterprise, on the run and fighting for their lives, yet also wasting hours singing 80s pop music, getting hammered, helping small boys buy video games and trying to catch plush toys from a UFO catcher.
(Video via Yakuza Fan)
Many of these are rudimentary minigames, that feel like they’re there only so Sega can say they’re there, as they add little to the game and can often be quite dull to play. But then...they’re also there to flesh out Yakuza’s world, to remind you that everything you’re doing in pursuit of your narrative goal is only a small part of a vibrant, living city (Kamurocho, it can be argued, is the real star of the series, growing and changing with each entry while still remaining intimately familiar).
The Grand Theft Auto games do something similar, but there it makes sense because every GTA game is one big running joke. Here, it makes sense because in Yakuza games, the sincere and the absurd walk hand-in-hand, and it just wouldn’t be a Yakuza game without them.
I’m so happy that, finally, the arrival of a prequel and the series’ debut on the PS4 in the West means that people who have put up with me singing Yakuza’s praises for years have a good chance to check it out and fall in love with one of gaming’s most unique and rewarding experiences.
But there’s also a dash of regret that, for all of Yakuza 0's accessibility, it’s not the best foot forward the series could have made with the opportunity.
Yakuza 4 & 5 were more sprawling affairs, but they were also better games for it, their large roster of playable characters and constantly shifting perspectives making for a snappier plot and more testing combat. Yakuza 0's simplicity cuts both ways here; it’s certainly friendlier for newcomers and easier to keep track of, but the story begins spinning its wheels around 2/3 of the way through, before a dizzying rush to the finish line over the final two chapters that leaves you wondering why there was so much wasted time earlier on.
Just because Yakuza 0's tale is weaker than the series’ recent offerings, though, doesn’t mean it’s poor in its own right. This is still a surprisingly competent criminal drama (well, a soap opera version of one, anyway), which sets you up with a neat little murder mystery, gets to work building the genesis of Kiryu and Goro then neatly ties both storylines together towards the end.
A big part of the story’s success—which when considered in isolation is pretty laughable—is the game’s voice acting, which is absolutely incredible. The Yakuza series has long recruited famous Japanese actors to play important roles, and that policy continues here, with the three Dojima lieutenants (played by Hitoshi Ozawa, Riki Takeuchi and Hideo Nakano) a particular highlight (though Hidenari Ugaki’s Goro, is, as always, also a please).
It’s almost impossible to recommend this game by telling you what it is, because at a superficial level it sounds stupid. This isn’t a GTA clone, or an RPG, nor is it a brawler. It’s something more than that but also different, a human drama that combines rudimentary game elements and weaves them into something that can make you laugh, cry and feel within the space of minutes.
Yakuza 0 is the closest thing video games have to a prime-time soap opera. Only instead of families having arguments over a dinner table, it has families going to war over real estate and blowing up vans and forcing you to fight in underground gladiator pits and making you visit hostess bars and buy drinks for homeless guys and...