This was going to be a proper review of SEGA's Yakuza 0, but now that we've arrived at the fated deadline hour, I find myself loath to put a number at the end here. I haven't come close to finishing the game — even though, for the most part, I've really enjoyed it.
Yakuza 0 marks my introduction to the franchise, even though it's one of those series that everyone keeps telling me I should play and that I've intended to play for ages. I've picked up a handful of Yakuza games along the way, but you know how it goes with backlogs and being an adult; the desire to play a big, meaty, involved video game doesn't amount to much when you have rent to pay and mouths to feed. I suspect Yakuza 0 will be many people's introduction to the series, and I'll be curious to see how many of them have the same reaction to it as I do.
I've heard Yakuza described by many people over the years as "the Japanese answer to Grand Theft Auto." This is an easy, glib, and obvious comparison to make: You control a steely-eyed career criminal, take on missions that nudge your actions into varying shades of illegality, and dispense a criminal form of justice through violent means. On deeper examination, though, the "Japanese Grand Theft Auto" metaphor doesn't entirely hold up. The two series have radically different structures, emphasize completely different play mechanics, and present their respective criminal worlds in very different ways. But if you give this franchise comparison even deeper consideration, suddenly it starts to work again.
"Japanese Grand Theft Auto" doesn't simply mean Yakuza amounts to a Grand Theft Auto game that happens to take place in Japan. It means Yakuza — and definitely Yakuza 0 — resembles Grand Theft Auto if were to be approached from a Japanese game development mindset. So yes, that's going to result in something completely different from the Scots-American hybrid that is GTA. For example: Rather than giving players a huge, seamless, open world and letting you roam the entirety of Tokyo and Osaka, Yakuza 0 sets its action in individual wards of Tokyo. This makes for smaller, denser spaces to navigate, where every building feels individual and there's very little in the way of meaningless scenery. GTA impresses with its sense of scale; Yakuza 0 creates an impact by sealing you into a neighborhood and overloading your eyes and ears with grimy, loving detail.
And unlike GTA, Yakuza 0 is funny. Legitimately hilarious. Sometimes the humor is bawdy, sometimes it's ironic, and sometimes it's just plain weird. But the game script never seems afraid to lighten a very heavy and frequently grim narrative with levity. Sure, GTA tries for satire and knee-slapping comedy, but its jokes rarely land. They tend to come off as secondhand South Park gags. Humor in Yakuza 0 works because it constantly catches you off-guard; a seemingly serious side quest (and keep in mind the tone of this game's main story is dead serious, with portions of the plot playing out as a moody noir visual novel) can suddenly spiral wildly out of control into truly bizarre places.
This dissonance of tone helps define Yakuza, and in many ways it's what makes the game great. Here's a tale of political maneuvers, loyalty, and honor cast through the amplifying lens of Japanese crime families — a man who leaves behind his hard-earned privilege out of loyalty to his mentor, and countless others whose lives intersect with a complex real estate scheme and turf war. In his off hours, Kiryu goes to hostess clubs or sits alone in a bar, sips whisky, plays darts, and wages his fortune on pool shots. He also sings karaoke, disco dances, bowls, and cheerfully makes a fool of himself. He sets up a property business, and among his potential management hires he can recruit a chicken.
There's an easy, unselfconscious frankness about the game's more bizarre moments. Yakuza 0 doesn't make them feel forced or strained. For example, when your protagonists learn new fighting skills, their revelations take the form of a sudden, over-the-top mental reverie... regardless of the situation. And those fighting techniques can include breakdancing. Yakuza 0 descends in many ways from the walk-and-punch brawlers of the ’80s — Streets of Rage by way of Shenmue — and despite the modern trappings and high-definition visuals, the game isn't afraid to embrace the ridiculousness that came hand-in-hand with the pixellated abstraction of the classic era. We all chuckled when Mike Haggar restored his healthy by instantly consuming a whole roast turkey he found in a garbage bin, but we accepted it, because it was just a video game. Yakuza 0 presents Japan's bustling red-light districts in rain-soaked detail, with painstaking care given to the embers of a cigarette or the rough texture of an aging yakuza lieutenant's skin... but it never forgets that it's just a game, and it's never afraid to revel in the goofiness and illogic of the medium.
All of this is great, good, wonderful. Yakuza 0 spends hours on its gripping tale of hard-boiled underworld crime and relationships, spooling out its tale through a variety of cutscene styles that all share a common solemnity. Then it abruptly shifts gears into left-field wackiness, yet these tonal changes never feel like a betrayal of the underlying game.
Unfortunately, where the game feels less seamless in its dissonance comes in its mechanics. As I said, Yakuza 0 descends from a long line of brawlers dating back nearly 30 years. SEGA has had a sort of fixation on marrying story-driven adventure gaming with brawlers; I mentioned Shenmue, a game that evolved out of the concept of a Virtual Fighter RPG. Yakuza 0 feels like the natural culmination of those efforts and ambitions, but they don't quite mesh together as well as I would have hoped. The game consists of equal parts story, minigames, and brawling; but while minigames are almost entirely optional and you can choose how deeply you want to become involved in the story to a certain degree, brawling is constant, demanding, and unavoidable.
The compulsory, story-based fights are to be expected; this is, after all, a game about conflict. And here again we see what it means to be "the Japanese GTA": Rather than resolving your problems with loose melee attacks and third-person shooting, you instead arbitrate with your fists. Yakuza 0's fighting engine offers impressive versatility: You can downshift from battling a room full of goons to a one-on-one faceoff against a single powerful opponent, and you have enough moves to make either one work. Each of the game's two protagonists can customize their skills within several different fighting styles, all of which offer a distinct balance of speed, power, and combo chains. And all of your upgrades are unlocked with the cash you earn from beating down bad guys; Yakuza 0 is a game about the illicit pursuit of wealth, after all, so it somehow seems only fitting that it would do away with the abstraction of "experience points" and simply bundle that element of the game into your material earnings.
My complaint about combat, however, is that it's absolutely unavoidable. Everywhere you go, you constantly find yourself dragged into RPG-like random battles with knots of thugs. These are difficult to dodge and require you to power through to completion; while the fights aren't usually too difficult unless your hero has just gotten his drunk on, they greatly impede the flow of the game. Sometimes you just want to walk around and drink in the sights, or simply move quickly from one mission point to another, but Yakuza 0 seems determined to make this impossible. And while you sometimes can dodge these random battles, the game's design makes this unadvisable. You really need the cash you earn from pummeling the bad guys to level up and deal with occasional mission-critical expenses, at least until you begin to build your own business empire. And then there are the random guys who will take all your money if you lose to them in a fight. Granted, if you manage to beat them, you'll potentially earn tens of millions of yen — but that's no easy task, and it comes as a huge everything-or-nothing risk that you really don't want to stumble into by mistake while engaged in other business.
I'll cop to it: This is really more of a problem with me than with the game. Yakuza 0 is a brawler, despite its RPG elements, and it offers a deep, customizable, and highly expansive combat system — its fighting mechanic skill trees put many RPGs to shame. For what it's worth, it's a role-playing game in every real sense of the word; it simply eschews traditional RPG combat in favor of fisticuffs. My problem, I'm afraid, is that I don't particularly enjoy brawlers and combo-centric fighting.
I find everything else about Yakuza 0 absolutely engrossing. I love its incredibly detailed view of Japan at the tail end of the ’80s "economic miracle." I love its ridiculous sense of humor. I love the way detailed real-time cutscenes sometimes dissolve into largely static visual novel sequences. I love the dumb mini games. I love that I can sit at a bar and read a description of my favorite brand of scotch (Laphroaig, lovingly rendered!) that was clearly written by someone who shares my taste in drinks. I love the intricate storyline, full of internal politics and a stubborn sense of honor. And I really wish I could experience it all without having to beat up generic goons every 30 feet.
There's a lot to love about Yakuza 0, but it's going to take me a while to work my way to the story's finale. The endless brawling turns the whole thing into a real chore, I'm afraid. But I will say that as tired as I've already become of the constant beatdowns, the story and general self-confidence of the game makes me want to power through. And for anyone who doesn't share my disinterest in punch-ups — well, there's literally no reason for you not to give Yakuza 0 a try. It really is like no other game I've ever played. Because it's the Japanese version of Grand Theft Auto, and that means something weird, wonderful, and decidedly not at all like Grand Theft Auto.