If you haven’t played a Yakuza game before, you might be picturing something along the lines of Grand Theft Auto, only set in modern-day Japan. After all, like GTA, Sega’s Yakuza is an open-world action game series with a focus on crime. But despite their thematic similarities, the two aren’t much alike at all. Whereas GTA and its ilk offer stunningly dynamic locations to explore, ones that feel shockingly close to their real-world counterparts, Yakuza’s hyper-detailed world is more static. It’s also unabashedly a video game.
Yakuza 0’s rendition of 1980s Japan is like an arcade disguised as a city. When you walk down the streets you’ll fight with thugs like you’re in a PS2-era brawler, while going out for karaoke will pull you into a Guitar Hero-style mini-game. It’s a weird and wild place, but also one with a lot of character and heart. At times it feels like a game from another era, with lengthy cutscenes and lots of text dialogue. But this is rarely a bad thing. It’s more of a reminder: they don’t make games like this anymore.
Yakuza 0 takes place in 1988, and is spread out across two locations and characters. At the outset you’ll control Kiryu, a low-ranking yakuza in Tokyo, who early on finds himself framed for a murder he didn’t commit. It’s all part of a broader scheme. Amidst the frenzy of Japan’s real estate boom, multiple criminal elements are fighting for a tiny slice of land, the only unclaimed spot in the seedy Tokyo district Kabukicho. Kiryu’s setup is just one piece of a much larger plan. Meanwhile, in the tourist-filled Dotonbori area of Osaka, a former yakuza named Majima finds himself as a club owner biding time and hoarding money in an attempt to rejoin the crime syndicate. He’s eventually tasked with pulling off a hit on a mysterious individual, and like Kiryu, this pulls him unwittingly into a much bigger conspiracy.
What makes this story work is how it manages to be both incredibly silly and incredibly sincere. The core narrative is a crime epic full of all the prerequisite twists and turns like shocking betrayals and copious deaths. And it’s gripping: toward the end of the game I found myself ignoring most of the side activities because I needed to find out what happened next. Kiryu, in particular, is a fantastic character, a hard-headed but big-hearted mobster who can beat up dozens of baddies by himself, yet won’t hesitate to sacrifice everything he has for those close to him.
In the midst of this sprawling yakuza epic are a copious number of side stories that add a much more lighthearted vibe to the experience. It seems like just about everyone you bump into is in need of a favor, and naturally they’re always asking Kiryu or Majima for help. This will have you doing everything from helping a punk band act like real punks, to pretending to be someone’s boyfriend and meeting their dad. A simple night out for sushi could turn into a mission to help a chef regain his confidence. One particularly memorable quest involves teaching a dominatrix to stop being so nice. No matter what you’re doing, though, these optional stories all follow a similar tack, starting out incredibly goofy before revealing themselves to be much more. You’d be surprised how touching it can be to help a living statue go to the bathroom.
And because Yakuza 0 is a prequel, you can enjoy the story without having to worry about having played any of the other games. (There are five main Yakuza titles to date, with a sixth due out in English next year.) It’s essentially the perfect place to get started — though it might take a bit for you to acclimate to its decidedly old-school style of play.
Despite the fact that it’s being released on the PlayStation 4 in 2017, Yakuza 0 often feels — and occasionally looks — like a game from more than a decade ago. Its rendition of 1980s Japan is gorgeous, and packed with detail, from the neon-lit thoroughfares to the narrow, garbage-lined streets. But it also feels restrictive compared to modern games. You can’t go anywhere you want; instead, you’re restricted to the streets and a few buildings where you can interact with things. Don’t expect to steal a car and go on a GTA-style rampage.
Meanwhile, its structure is somewhat reminiscent of a Japanese role-playing game. When you’re exploring the city you’ll come across enemies — there are plenty of drunk thugs and angry yakuza out on the streets — in what are essentially random battles. When this happens the game switches to an old-school brawler where you literally beat the cash out of people. Outside of exploration and combat, which you’ll be doing a lot of, Yakuza 0 also features a large number of minigames and side activities. You can do karaoke, dance in a disco, or head to an arcade to play OutRun or try to win stuffed animals. Eventually you’ll be able to run your own businesses to make extra cash. These scenarios all feel distinct from each other — managing a hostess bar is like a strategy game, for instance, while dancing takes the form of a simplified rhythm game.
This could easily be the recipe for a disjointed game. But instead each of Yakuza 0’s disparate parts work together to create a surprisingly cohesive experience. It helps that virtually each aspect is strong on its own. The brawling may be old-school and repetitious, for instance, but it’s also deep and addictive. There are multiple fighting styles to learn — my favorite is a violent take on breakdancing — and you can unlock new abilities by literally investing cash in yourself. There is so much to do that you are safe to skip a lot of it. I didn’t invest much time in learning to fish, and I completely ignored a quest line involving a character nicknamed “walking erection.” But everything I did do felt valuable.
Yakuza 0 does a lot of things that modern games shy away from. It features cutscenes that can span many minutes, and lots of text-heavy dialogue you’ll need to pore over. There’s plenty of repetition, with occasionally excessive amounts of battles and missions that boil down to boring fetch quests. A lot of the time you’re simply running from one place to the next. It even has long and frequent load times that harken back to another era. It can take some getting used to, but eventually Yakuza 0 settles into a pleasing rhythm. Beat up some bad guys, watch some cutscenes, and then relax with a visit to the batting cages. Instead of making the game feel dated, these aspects give it a distinct sense of charm. It’s not perfect, but it’s unlike anything else being made today.
Yakuza 0 is a game where one minute you’re beating up gangsters with a steel pipe, and the next you’re belting out Japanese power ballads in a swank karaoke club. And if it’s your first time with the series, it’s the perfect opportunity to learn just how fun it can be to be good at both of those things.
Yakuza 0 launches January 24th on PS4.