Yakuza 0 is an extremely Japanese game. Not Japanese as it’s contextualized through the Western perspective, used to describe games utilizing anime aesthetics or Final Fantasy-esque role-playing mechanics, but in a cultural, holistic manner. Everything about Yakuza 0 is wholly representative of a time and place in Japan, a faithful capture of life in the Showa period.
Set in 1988, at the height of Japan’s economic boom, the plot of Yakuza 0 centers around two protagonists: Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. In Tokyo’s fictionalized Kamurocho region, Kiryu is framed for murder after a routine debt collection goes south. Majima, meanwhile, is in a prison of his own making in Sotenbori (another fictional town, this one in the style of Osaka’s Dotonbori), finding himself caught in multiple crosshairs while facing a crisis of conscience.
The story of Yakuza 0 is over-the-top, at times hyperbolic and even absurd. Most of the main plot is by-the-numbers gang drama, with plenty of double-crosses and tense staredowns intermixed with the climactic fist fights between characters. Monologues on the nature of duty, honor, pride and being a yakuza are numerous, to a level that Hideo Kojima himself would blush.
Though the melodrama and emotive voice acting elicit both passion and cheese in all the right ways, the main story still stumbles on the occasional pacing issue. Sometimes an objective will be given with no clear indicator of how to progress, and at other times a chapter will consist solely of running from place to place, suffering through half an hour’s worth of dialogue before anything of consequence occurs.
When the action ramps up, Yakuza 0 fires on all cylinders, with a simple but effective combat system that makes for intense fights throughout the game. Both protagonists have four different fighting styles of their own, each uniquely suited to different combat scenarios. Yakuza 0 maintains the series’ focus on martial arts and hand-to-hand combat. Though weapons like handgun, tasers and broadswords seep into the fold in the latter half of the game, most combat will be resolved with fists.
As the difficulty of the game escalates, assessing the field and identifying critical openings becomes integral. Switching into Kiryu’s Rush mode empowers the player with flurries of attacks, effective for building up Heat (a meter that grows while in combat and can be spent to dish out special attacks). Kiryu’s Beast form isn’t as fast, but better against groups, letting the player grab nearby objects mid-combo to use as weapons. Majima’s breakdancing stance is both entertaining and useful for controlling groups, but does little damage compared to his other stances, so switching styles becomes key as opponents bring more men and weapons.
Each chapter culminates in a Climax Battle against a story-relevant boss, and these were some of my favorite moments with Yakuza 0’s combat. The system feels the best when fighting an opponent one-on-one, carefully pacing and using well timed attacks to come out victorious. Though many bosses repeat themselves throughout the story, effort is made to at least bolster each opponent’s move set between Climax Battles, giving them a new weapon and abilities to adapt to.
Yakuza 0’s abundant sidequests provide a break from the routine. Dozens of non-critical quests branch off the main path, guiding the player through a host of miscellaneous adventures, helping a mother rescue her daughter from a cult in one or teaching a cop the meaning of bravery and heroism in another.
Along with the sidequests are fully fleshed-out minigames. There often seems to be an excess of activites in Yakuza 0’s Japan, from bar games like darts and billiards, a capable roster of AI opponents to beat in shogi, to full emulations of Sega games like Outrun and Space Harrier. Unfortunately these games vary in quality, ranging from the impressive billiards, the fun but annoying bowling, and the lively rock-paper-scissors catfights, where costumed women wrestle while rich spectators bet on the outcome.
Events like the catfights are what highlight how bizarrely complex Yakuza 0 can be. In many ways, it’s an incredibly honest and faithful representation of both Showa-era Japan, and the life of a yakuza in that world. There’s an air of gaudy spending, style-before-substance and showmanship that mirrors the boom of gangland-era Vegas. It may be missing the massive glass buildings of modern Tokyo, but you can see the bones of change forming, pushed up against old soba shops and multi-story apartment housing, the new world expanding and growing, assimilating the old.
In this world, money is easy come easy go, illustrated by the ease in which your character acquires cash in everyday life. Money buys everything, from food and medicine for health recovery to improved fighting abilities and combat enhancements. Losing a few million is nothing in Yakuza 0; you can probably earn it back in half the time it took to lose it.
Yakuza 0 is a predominantly male-driven story, centered around a male cast with few female characters outside traditional archetypes like a pretty cafe hostess or assault victim. It’s sad, but also honest to the time period and depicted cultural lifestyle. At times, Yakuza 0 draws attention to the lack of female agency in the yakuza world in such a way that opens a path for future games to achieve the same depth with their female characters as they have their male ones. While the central yakuza cast often play to male stereotypes, brooding and putting on unemotional facades, a few characters (especially in Kiryu’s half of the story) emotionally progress as the story does, a perhaps unexpected, but nonetheless satisfying moment given the source material.
Throughout the game’s primary narrative arc, the Showa-era real estate bubble plays a starring role. A small dispute over an unclaimed piece of land, dubbed the “Empty Lot,” becomes central to every conflict in the game, as every faction vies for the last bit of real estate still available in Tokyo’s largest entertainment district. Key to the Western audience’s understanding of the game’s events is the impeccable localization. Beyond just an adequate translation, everything in Yakuza 0 is faithful and comprehensible even to someone with little to no knowledge of Japanese culture. Turns of phrase like “a war’s worth of venom in their words” seem almost as if they were natively written in English, rather than translated from another language. Yakuza 0 excels in explaining a massive body of work to a non-native audience.
Two major minigames serve as both the bulk of the post-campaign content, and a highlight of the culture and lifestyle in the depicted era. In the first, Kiryu becomes a real-estate mogul, facing down the Five Billionaires of Kamurocho in a war to obtain land and stall growth, in an effort to maintain the city’s legacy. Assigning former sidequest characters as managers and security, the player fights turf wars, buying up shops and taking collection, eventually taking over the whole city.
Majima’s side-game sees the former yakuza take over a cabaret club, recruiting and training hostesses and working as the floor manager at night. Majima’s game is less “strategic property warfare” and more “restaurant management training simulator”, focusing on the growth of a respectable club by stealing regular guests from the other five major clubs of Sottenbori.
Of the game’s many roadside distractions, both of these experiences are the most fleshed out. The inclusion of characters from completed sidequests kept me interested in playing all of the game’s content long after the credits rolled. It was fun to revisit folks from the past, like the fake-it-till-you-make-it punk rocker, or, the streetsmart schoolgirl, and put them in a business role. You can even recruit a chicken as a real-estate manager. Though a 100-percent completion run is daunting, playing through the storylines of both the real-estate and cabaret club businesses are a nice reprieve after hours of combat and dialogue, and the experiences significantly stand out among the rest of Yakuza 0’s minigames and carnival-esque attractions.
At times, the mountain of systems and minigames in Yakuza 0 can feel overbearing. The pressure to complete every sidequest makes it easy to get lost on the way to the next objective. (pro-tip: you can’t miss any of the sidequests in Yakuza 0.) Though each quest can lead to fun misadventures and heartwarming stories, it feels strange to halt your murder investigation in order to play some frames of bowling and rack up friendship points with the employees. While some may love the game for its sheer wealth of thematically appropriate content, for the others the clutter may come off as an overwhelming to-do list, more of an obligation than an optional or complementary experience.
Yakuza 0’s overarching faithfulness to its era and place in history provides fascinating insight into the time, and its over-the-top cutscenes and climactic fights quickly endeared me to the series. A hefty batch of side-games and engaging, well-paced combat roped me in and sold me on my first ever Yakuza experience, but the vibrancy of its semi-fictional Japan will be what I remember most. Yakuza 0 doubles-down on the series’ signature combination of hyperbolic action and self-aware comedy, while providing an honest window into a major period in recent Japanese history, and does so flawlessly.
Yakuza 0 was developed and published by Sega. It is available for the PlayStation 4.
Eric Van Allen is a Texas-based writer. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.