The Neon Streets of Sega's 'Yakuza 0' Are A Great Place to Get Lost

The Neon Streets of Sega's 'Yakuza 0' Are A Great Place to Get Lost

Almost every story beat ends in a fight, but the city streets are where the real action is Sega

Like the beloved Dreamcast adventure, 'Shenmue', the real fun lies beyond the relentless fisticuffs in a city begging to be explored

Like the beloved Dreamcast adventure, 'Shenmue', the real fun lies beyond the relentless fisticuffs in a city begging to be explored

Say what you will, but no one can accuse Sega's Yakuza 0 of neglecting its action-brawler roots; true to its pedigree, a simple jab to the face of one of the game’s innumerable goons will cause him to cough up a whirlwind of money, pale bills and coins as you continue to bash the unlucky sod’s face into the curb. It might sound vicious, but it’s par for the course in Yakuza’s Kamurocho – the thinly-veiled version of Tokyo’s real-life red light district that serves as a rough-and-tumble Zion of grime that aging longtime series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu somehow keeps finding fresh reasons to return to.

This fifth entry manages to avoid that particular contrivance by simple chronology – as the zero in its name implies, this is a prequel set before Kiryu’s many improbable climbs to the top of the criminal underworld, an unapologetic period piece steeped in the neon-lit texture of Japan’s rollicking ‘80s, complete with playable Out Run and Hang-On arcade machines, baroque power ballads, and fashion ensembles that would make Nikki Sixx blush. But unlike most depictions of the decadent decade, the flash and glitz aren’t just there for the sake of naked nostalgia; they instead hint at the looming emptiness that lurks beneath the most explosive forms of success, the inevitable whiplash of the bubble finally giving way. 

Here, future reluctant-kingpin Kiryu merely aspires to the level of scoundrel, beating up marks for his local loan shark and drinking with his friends all night. When one of his targets ends up dead on a strip of land contested by the yakuza families and a ruthless real estate firm, our terse hero finds himself wanted for murder by the law and marked for death by the lieutenants of his clan. Meanwhile, in Osaka, the man who will later become Kiryu’s chief frenemy, Goro Majima, struggles valiantly to get back into Tojo Clan himself. But when he’s offered a contract killing as his only shot, he can’t quite bring himself to do the deed, instead protecting his quarry – a blind woman – from other hitmen as he tries to decide what to do.

If this all sounds exceedingly melodramatic, that's because it is. As with many games that feature fully-realized worlds to explore and plunder, the core plot of Yakuza 0 pales in comparison to the sum of its parts. While it certainly displays more narrative acumen than, say, Grand Theft Auto, it pursues the model of traditional Japanese gangster movies like Sympathy for the Underdog to a relentless degree – characters communicate exclusively through hyper-masculine grunting or cloying, tearful monologues, and nearly every scene is required to end in another needless scrap that resolves little. Most annoying of all, since characters rarely die, you’ll find yourself fighting the same figures three or four times, with only minor changes – you’d figure that the first time you kick Lieutenant Kuze’s head in, he’d learn his lesson, but apparently not.

As with the rest of the series, Yakuza 0 comes into its own when you’re walking its streets freely, unshackled by the pink blips and corridor-to-corridor pacing of its main plot. Unlike most of its Western equivalents – which generally depend upon the limitless scale of their virtual lands to impress you – Sega takes a more dense, layered approach to world design. The series is often compared to Sega’s ill-fated 1999 white elephant, Shenmue, and for good reason – with few exceptions, the vast majority of the events in the series take place in a ten-block radius, with the final battles even occurring on the same damn skyscraper. While this might sound like a downside, it lends each game a sense of familiarity and history that is rarely found in games at all, let alone this genre. While Kamurocho might lack the clockwork magnificence of other open-worlds, it more than makes up for it with imagination and grace.

Yes, Yakuza 0 is a game where you will bruise, batter, and bash so many “hooligans” – the game’s term, not mine – that your own real fists may start to ache, but it’s also a game where you can help produce a cooking show, start a romance through bathroom graffiti, and compete to run the best “cabaret club” (read: one step above a strip joint) in Osaka. The combat itself is vigorous, but only haltingly great, held back by hoards of enemies that are too apt to simply crowd you into submission by sheer force of numbers, and protracted boss battles that seem to take just one stage too long to come to the final blow. But when the excessive volume of these fights has you on the verge of turning it off for the day, Yakuza 0 plays its trump card – genuinely enjoyable minigames, like RC racing, mahjong, and two entirely separate management simulations, that will suck up so many of your waking hours that your loved ones might begin to worry about your newfound ardor for Japanese media.

Such is the strange appeal of Yakuza: beneath all the bizarre Japanisms and po-faced sentimentality lies an almost-bottomless reservoir of charm. Here is a franchise that, intentional or not, teeters on a knife-edge between camp and melodrama, never quite committing to either, but never losing its poise in the process. With Yakuza 0, there’s never been a better time to lose yourself in the wild streets of Kamurocho, where anything can happen. Don’t expect to find yourself for a while, though – nowhere are the nights longer.