The Yakuza series has never been one for subtlety. For years, we’ve followed Kiryu Kazuma’s adventures as he continually got deeper and deeper into trouble within the ranks of the Japanese mob. For as reluctant as our anti-hero’s been, trouble always seemed to follow him closely, and as is tradition, these bouts have always hit in epic scale. Yakuza 0 is no different, even if the entirety of its story revolves around a single simple thread of real estate dealings in the fictional Tokyo red light district of Kamurocho during the 1980s.
That decade was special for Japan, as the country saw its economy boom, and with it, people became rich overnight. Not knowing what to do with so much cash in hand, entertainment quickly becomes a priority, and the yakuza families that control the pleasure districts all over the country waste no time in raking in the dough, rapidly expanding their grasp in just about every aspect of society. Yakuza 0 opens with a young Kiryu just starting out in the family, carrying out a collection and taking the blame for a murder he did not commit. On the other side of the coin, we’re also re-introduced to Goro Majima, a disgraced member of the mob who now operates one of the biggest cabarets in Sotenbori, Osaka.
Both characters are huge parts of the Yakuza mythos, and how their eventual entanglement in this latest game develops should go unspoiled, safe to say that all in all, Yakuza 0 is about as crazy and over the top as its predecessors. Well, we shouldn’t call the previous games predecessors, since Yakuza 0 is technically a prequel, but in many ways it’s an evolution of what the past games have laid out. For starters, it’s the first installment to come out on PlayStation 4, and it shows. Yakuza 0 is the best looking entry in the series, and thanks to the new system it’s on, it runs silky smooth. While its visual variety isn’t as dense as the one previously seen in Yakuza 5, which took place in a bunch of different locales all over the isles of Japan, there’s no denying that Kamurocho especially has never looked this good before.
Given the time period the game takes place in, we’re dealt with a somewhat different environment when running around in the streets of Tokyo and Osaka. Sure, there’s still the random thugs and muscle looking to make a quick buck off a sharply-dressed sucker, as well as the many side quests that can be completed just about everywhere, but it’s the sheer lack of any bars held when it comes to cash that really helps set the overall tone for Yakuza 0. Money is everywhere in this game. You evolve your character’s fighting powers with it, you throw it around to avoid random battles (a first in the franchise!), and you even punch it out of people like they’re cash registers. Every single aspect of Yakuza 0 is tied to making dough, regardless of which character you’re currently playing.
On Kiryu’s side, you’ll be quickly inducted into the real estate game, as he helps out a failing office take ahold of one of Tokyo’s ailing neighborhoods from the hands of a monopoly, while Majima is tasked with keeping a cabaret afloat in a sea of rival sharks. Both of these side activities help make extra money, and are uniquely amusing to partake in each on their own, even if they’re pretty much menus to click through. Both hinge on closing deals with local businesses and hiring new employees, but the core functionality differs, same way both protagonists are put apart in the story.
Since Yakuza 0 plays down on the number of playable characters — an aspect of the Yakuza games that has been center stage since Yakuza 4, which had five different protagonists, each with their own fighting style and storyline — it ups the ante in just how much work you can put in developing Kiryu and Majima. For starters, each of them learns three different fighting styles throughout the course of the game. In Kazuma’s case, he takes the role of a mix of the brawler, rushdown and beast fighting types reminiscent of previous series protagonists such as Taiga Saejima, while Goro serves up a fun amalgamation of Yakuza 5’s Shun Akiyama and Tatsuo Shinada, thus bringing out a slugger style as well as my personal favorite, the breaker, a literal spin on break dancing turned into a fighting style that’s just a blast to use.
While Yakuza’s brawling segments were never its shining point, 0’s sheer variety is enough to make all of its many, many encounters somewhat more enjoyable, even if they lack the finesse of a proper fighting game. Random enemies tend to gang up and use that to their advantage, while boss characters prefer to play their battles out in anime style, flashing their auras and turning bananas the closer they get to being defeated. For anyone with minimal experience with the franchise, Yakuza 0 won’t really be much of a surprise on that front.
In terms of story, you could make the comparison between Yakuza 0 and a movie like Rogue One: both the movie and the game’s outcome is something that everyone knows, but since they’re so well made, it’s fun to see how it all unfolds. In terms of scale, especially in comparison to previous entries in the series, Yakuza 0 isn’t quite as big, but considering just how far the franchise has taken things — Yakuza 2 even took things to Korea! — the bar doesn’t really have to be met in order to carry a formidable crime story within the confines of the series. And in that regard, 0 is gripping and extremely entertaining to follow. It manages to be both dead serious and absurdly silly on the same dose as everything that came before it.
There isn’t anything quite like Yakuza in videogames these days. One could argue that the Metal Gear games are even more ridiculous than anything Kazuma and crew can muster, but Yakuza takes the cake when it comes to adapting something concrete and thoroughly explored in other media like the crime scene in Japan into something players can relate to and grow to care about its characters. Yakuza 0 may not reinvent the series, but it certainly doesn’t drag it down in any way. It was cool to see how Kiryu and Majima got their start, and hopefully us Westerners will get a chance to catch a glimpse at where it’ll all lead up to in Yakuza 6!