Yakuza is a franchise that deserves to be much more popular in America. For the most part, this Sega series has so far failed to find footing in America, mostly because it rarely strikes while the iron’s hot. Debuting in the waning years of the PlayStation 2 didn’t give it the strongest start, and the latest localized entry, Yakuza 5, came to the PlayStation 3 last year in what amounted to an incredibly late digital-only release.
With the newly released Yakuza 0, though, Sega’s open-world(ish) crime drama finally has a chance to plant some roots in the West. For one, it’s finally available on a contemporary system, unlike half of the series’ American releases. This prequel also makes for a fantastic point to jump into Yakuza, seeing as it sets up the story of longtime protagonist Kiryu Kazuma by jumping behind the continuity of the previous five games. Most importantly, Yakuza 0 is an amazing game, and one you should definitely play—regardless of whether or not you’ve dipped your toe in the series before.
A Slice of ’80s Japan
Yakuza 0 takes place in 1988, near the end of Japan’s short-lived “bubble economy,” which brought the country some of the most economically healthy years it’s ever seen—and plenty of fretting from those who feared America’s industries couldn’t keep up. Relatively large urban areas serve as the regular backdrop for most Yakuza games, but this time, 0’s fictional Kamurocho district gets dressed in the sights and sounds of the late ’80s. Sticklers may be able to identify a few anachronistic touches, but, for the most part, Kamurocho feels completely plucked from the past.
It also helps that Yakuza 0 is pretty cheeky with its take on the bubble economy. Money buys literally everything in Kamurocho—from food to new fighting moves and stat bonuses—and dollars and coins comically fly out of everyone you beat up in copious amounts. Yakuza 0, like its predecessors, also goes for a different approach to the open-world genre. Instead of focusing on sheer sprawl, the world of Kamurocho amounts to a dense slice of a major city, with plenty of claustrophobic alleys to explore. But what Kamurocho lacks in size, it makes up for with an impressive attention to detail. No square inch of Yakuza 0’s fictional district gets neglected, making for an absolutely beautiful and realistic environment that’s simply fun to exist in.
Though Yakuza sets out to tell a fairly serious story of organized crime—think of it as a Japanese Breaking Bad—the most fun can be had with its many optional diversions. Sure, you can cut the fat and just walk down Yakuza 0’s critical path, but you’d be missing out on some of the most playful and memorable parts of the game. The many diversions of Kamurocho include fishing, dating hostesses, gambling, dancing, playing era-appropriate Sega arcade games, singing karaoke, and just about every urban delight the Yakuza 0 developers could think of (including some that are decidedly Not Safe for Work).
As Yakuza 0 passes the narrative baton back and forth between the stoic Kiryu and the unhinged Goro Majima, plenty of side quests open up that offer more than just the padding you’d expect from an open-world game. For the most part, these little vignettes go for high comedy, often using the given protagonist’s personality as a foil for the situation at hand. And since Yakuza 0 really has a way of getting you attached to its characters, you’ll want to spend as much time with them as possible via these optional missions. On the practical side of things, this optional content usually offers worthwhile bonuses for meeting its goals, providing players even more of an incentive to consume every last bite.
A Different Perspective on Organized Crime
Ultimately, Yakuza 0 stands out as a very Japanese game made strictly for a Japanese audience, with no compromises to appease Western players. Dialogue receives subtitles, rather than an awkward English dub, and most American players will be lacking the cultural context ingrained in its intended audience. (That said, the themes are universal enough to resonate with any player.) But this different perspective makes Yakuza 0 feel fresh, even if it largely operates on the same structure of the last 10 years’ worth of games. And it definitely helps that Yakuza 0 portrays a more Eastern version of organized crime, rather than the Italian-American stories we’re so used to seeing in the States.
Yakuza can be described with the reductive phrase “Japanese Grand Theft Auto,” but it actually goes for a much different tone. While Rockstar’s world of psychotic criminals usually leans on an “everyone sucks” type of message, the gangsters of Yakuza are viewed in a strangely virtuous light. There’s a real moral code at play with Yakuza’s criminals, to the point where Kiryu and Majima never actually kill the scores of enemies they fight—despite how their over-the-top attacks would be fatal in the real world. The fact that Yakuza’s criminal protagonist aren’t irredeemable scumbags really keeps you invested in the game’s sometimes-excessive storytelling.
Sega’s Sole Blockbuster
Though Sonic the Hedgehog remains a popular series for Sega, Yakuza stands as the biggest jewel in their crown. They pour a lot of resources in these games, and it shows: while they may operate under a fairly similar formula, each sequel gives Sega’s developers the chance to further refine what came before, and add even more diversions to Yakuza’s bustling world. Given the series’ low profile and tendency to stick to older consoles, it’s understandable if you’ve missed it before. But if you pass over this big, bold PlayStation 4 prequel, don’t be surprised if you regret it.