The Yakuza series has been around since the heyday of PlayStation 2, and yet the series never really felt like it got going in the West. This author's in the camp where he had never really played a Yakuza game before 0. This flashback episode opened up an entry point to a series that has forever held interest only for many to be deterred by what appeared to be a barrier of entry stretching back two console generations. It’s a series that always seemed to rely heavily on its characters and their interactions with one another, but there's much more to it than that.
The thing is, when we say that one of the best things about Yakuza 0 is the virtual smorgasbord of activities it holds at the ready, it comes off as cheap. We’re now inundated with games that offer, on the surface, the same kind of deal. But what strikes us most about Yakuza 0 is that, actually, its playable world is relatively small. The imagination isn’t stretched here in the same way as, say, Horizon: Zero Dawn. But this is what makes it so great: its densely packed hubs enable a real sense of community and life. Just as you ought to as members of the Yakuza, you feel as though you own the streets.
It’s also a game with an abundance of charm. The subtleties of emotion conveyed across the faces of its, granted, largely testosterone-fuelled male cast is still something that most games struggle with. When Goro Majima gives one of his long monologues with tears rolling down his cheeks, you care. In fact, it’s in these moments, amongst all of the bravado, when you realise that we have two flawed, supremely convincing and loveable protagonists – and all in spite of them forever needing to fall back on their own sense of masculinity in a world that consistently thrusts them from one bizarre situation to another.
With exquisite self-confidence, Yakuza 0 doesn’t take itself too seriously; it allows for moments of self-reflection, but doesn’t get overly bogged down in dramatics. It’s violent, sure, but it’s also subtle and playful. Look no further than the game’s medley of ludicrous side stories which are loaded with imagination; that having Kazuma Kiryu teach a dominatrix how to be more extroverted is one of the more sedate side-quests speaks volumes.
Among all of its most brutal and tender moments, then, the game manages to wear its heart on its sleeve. Amid a banner year for Japanese games, Yakuza 0 symbolises much of what we love from the Land of the Rising Sun: story, character, a flare for theatrics, and a wealth of charisma. But above all, it shows enterprise and a willingness to take inspiration from elsewhere without ever compromising its own identity. Bravo, SEGA. Bravo!
Did the Yakuza 0’s excellent ‘80s adventure resonate with you? Did Kiryu and crew appeal enough to punch a place in your personal top ten? Drop by Club SEGA in the comments section below.