Playing Yakuza 0 is like spending an evening watching TV, provided you’re in Japan. Visits to the game’s convenient stores, fast food chains, and the Don Quijote discount store resemble what you would see in Japanese commercials. The game’s colorful inhabitants are the same lively characters you’d find in Japan’s many variety or comedy shows. And its main story cutscenes exude a powderkeg degree of seriousness that aspires to the crime dramas you’d find on Japanese TV channels like ANN or NHK.
As its numbering denotes, Yakuza 0 is a prequel to Sega’s urban crime adventure series, where its 1980s setting is itself a bonus. This interpretation of Japan’s last truly prosperous decade isn’t what you’d call authentic, but it is nonetheless an intriguing window into a period when Sega found themselves making creative strides. If you need a reminder, Yakuza 0‘s Sega-branded arcades have Out Run sitdown cabinets among its many amusements.
Yakuza 0 is not what I expected for an origin story to the series. While non-interactive flashbacks briefly hint at how series protagonist Kiryu Kazuma joined the yakuza, the actual playable portions of Yakuza 0 find him already well-integrated among the ranks of the Tojo clan. In other words, there are still other stories that can be told about Kiryu’s upbringing and I would gladly welcome a Yakuza 0-II prequel.
Equally surprising is that (assuming you haven’t seen the cover art or the trailers) the usually unpredictable Goro Majima – considered a supporting character of the series – gets equal billing in Yakuza 0. A combustible personality and mysterious background primes Goro for an unsurprisingly engrossing narrative, one that complements Kiryu’s. As is often the case in Yakuza, both storylines are in some measure tied to untimely deaths and the ambitions of a few rival clans and families. In the grander schemes of things, the lust for power is inextricably tied to acquiring territory, themes that play well in the backdrop of 1980s urban Japan and its economic bubble.
It’s not hard to notice the dichotomy between the overt life-or-death seriousness of the main story and the avenues of leisure that the two main urban centers offers. It’s typical for the series and even echoes the same contrasts of Shenmue, which influenced Yakuza. This makes playing Yakuza 0 all the more poignant, given the shared 1980’s Japanese urban setting. It ultimately comes full circle the moment you take Kiryu to an arcade to play Space Harrier, which was also playable in Shenmue.
Sega’s visual interpretation of the decade of excess is convincing but not overly ambitious. Thugs talk on giant cel phones and cars look accurate for the period, as do some of the fashions. Still, its locals sport haircuts that could fit any decade and its erotic video parlors actually use models from the 2010s. For subtler 1980s nods, head to a bar with a karaoke corner; Pioneer’s iconic green LaserKaraoke bird mascot has been reimagined as a cute kappa imp (below).
It’s hard to imagine an adventure series that has gotten so much mileage from reusing the same locales as Yakuza. In all these years, I’ve never gotten tired of revisiting the fictional districts of Kamuro-cho and Sotenbori (modeled after Kabuki-cho in Tokyo and Dotonbori in Osaka respectively). Sega recognizes the value of familiarity, to know that you can count on convenient stores for health items and an arcade to needlessly collect UFO Catcher prizes. Even letting out stress in the batting cages feels like visiting an old friend, especially since its inclusion in the series dates back to the first game. Of these many minigames, the one standout flaw is fishing, which feels dumbed down compared to the more involving version in Yakuza 5.
As a prequel to a decade old franchise, Yakuza 0 greatly benefits from years worth of series refinements. At the forefront of these improvements is its combat system: Yakuza’s melee-driven battles have come a long way from its humble origins on the PS2, when a couple of the boss fights occasionally felt cheap and very difficult. Fighting in Yakuza 0 is by no means a cakewalk, but you’re offered a variety of styles from a well-rounded street thug to a move set tailored for quick attacks. All styles are potent and success against the tougher opponents often comes down to personal preference. The one exception is Majima’s baseball bat-wielding move set, which often nerfs street encounters.
Yakuza 0’s progression challenges also encourage mixing up your combat repertoire. Not surprisingly, this high level of proficiency in fisticuffs presents a small degree of series retconning, but it’s forgivable for a series that doesn’t take non-story continuity seriously. I’m certainly looking forward to the changes made to Yakuza Kiwami – a remake of the original Yakuza – and how Yakuza 0’s combat has potentially influenced Kiryu’s now-dated moves and controls.
As with many games rich in optional content (eg. The Witcher and Assassin’s Creed series), a strict critical path playthrough of Yakuza 0 is valid experience, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you deliberately ignore its myriad well-crafted diversions. It’s not unheard of to plan an hour-long play session only to make zero progress in the story, much thanks to a steady stream of random combat encounters, visits to the convenient store, and helping out people in distress. When you’re not filling in for a missing TV producer, you’re helping a meek band improve their rebellious image. One of my favorite substories involved a kid who got mugged over a sought-after video game. The inevitable brawl between Kiryu and the mugger was not the end of the story, as I learned that the mugger was himself mugged for the same prize. To share more would ruin the ending of a 10-minute detour that amusingly depicts the early days of game fans lining up for new releases.
Many of the side missions are so involving that the main story occasionally feels like it takes a back seat to the engrossing and often hilarious side stories and the local citizenry who come in and out of the protagonists’ lives. When you do choose to move the campaign forward, you’re treated to serious dialogue nearly as drawn out and verbose as anything you’ll find in the Metal Gear Solid series, only with better pacing. With sentimental music to match, these cinematics play out like a Japanese TV drama, where tension can hang like a specter even when the scene is a simple one-on-one conversation. While I was caught up trying to predict ulterior motives or even a double cross, I was also admiring the high definition, pore-saturated faces of anyone given a close-up, young and old.
Pacing isn’t limited to the cutscenes; there’s evident thoughtfulness on how various gameplay components are gradually introduced. This obviously helps the player from information overload over a short span of time, but the slow burn of mini game and move set unveilings effectively hold your attention for hours on end. You can log in 30 hours before you try your hand at growing your own commercial real estate business, leaving you to wonder what else Yakuza 0 have saved up for the later chapters. The impetus to keep playing comes easily and naturally.
If the objective of a prequel is to reinvigorate interest in the game that follows next in the timeline, Yakuza 0 achieves that goal convincingly thanks to its 1980s atmosphere and its two most popular playable characters. Its thorough use of its two main districts and the substories that litter those streets also makes this installment a fitting entry point for those new to the series. It transcends the novelty of the decade in favor of earnest nostalgia. This is accentuated by the yellow hue that color both Kamuro-cho and Sotenbori at night. Memories of trips to Japan in the 1980s are hazy, but I don’t remember Tokyo’s street lighting giving off this particular shade, so I’ll chalk it up to creative license by Sega’s art directors for choosing this yellow sepia to invoke this sense of fitting sentimentality.