Sega’s Yakuza series of open-world brawlers first the graced the PS2 back in 2005, quickly spawning a dizzying number of sequels and spin-offs. But until now, it’s been strictly a console affair.
Imagine my delight, then, when a PC port of 2015’s Yakuza 0 was announced at this year’s E3. I’d read all about this modern classic: its small-scale but detailed open world, brutal third-person brawling and huge range of minigames and novelties.
I was hyped to give it a shot, and it immediately became my most eagerly awaited game of the year. But now that it’s here, has it lived up to expectations?
In a word: yes. Yakuza 0 is not a perfect game, but it might be a perfect open world game. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that goes to such incredible lengths to provide diversions and entertainment of all sorts alongside its main story arc.
In fact, it feels like two different games entirely. Alternating between protagonists Kiryu Kazuma and Goro Majima, the storyline sees you navigating a gritty, cinematic tale of violence and revenge in the Japanese criminal underworld of the 1980s. It’s dark, even grim, and largely consists of lengthy cutscenes followed by gruelling gauntlets of hand-to-hand combat.
But outside of the missions, exploring fictionalised slices of Tokyo and Osaka, you’ll find a neon-lit playground of activities and opportunities. The world is studded with shops, arcades and all kinds of bystanders to meet, befriend – and inevitably do side quests for. Its streets are caked with lived-in grit and lit with neon splendour, the night-time crowds swaying with drunks, hawkers and adventurous couples.
You can meddle in strangers’ love lives, belt out drunken karaoke and waste endless hours in the Mahjong parlour. Or spend hours tweaking your slot-car racer to beat literal children down at the track. Or obsessively sample every ramen joint in town, making sure you’re well fed before heading down to the disco for some intricate (and joyously camp) dancing.
For me, this other game – with its bizarre shifts in tone and breathtaking range of spectacles and delights – is the real heart of Yakuza 0. The storyline is engaging enough, but I found myself ignoring it for days at a time to follow my own tipsy path down Kamurocho’s neon-lit streets.
I’d go in fully intending to move the storyline along, only to find myself spending all night diving deep into the detailed real estate subgame: shaking down unusually muscular landlords and shuffling my security staff and management advisers around for maximum efficiency.
Or else I’d find myself obsessed by the equally involved cabaret club management sim: pairing guests with just the right hostesses and rushing round replacing ashtrays to rake in the megabucks. Even after dozens of hours, the game is constantly throwing you new and ever-deeper diversions.
The depth of some of these is simply staggering. As a fan of traditional card, dice and board games, I was astounded by the complexity and sheer smart design that went into so many of the minigames. If there’s been a better Mahjong game in the last decade, I’ll be astounded. Everywhere you turn there’s another rabbit hole to vanish down.
But like I said: Yakuza 0 isn’t a perfect game.
While the combat is great fun, there’s a lot of it, and the interface for upgrading your abilities is unreasonably fiddly. The frequent exposition-heavy cutscenes can be a bit of a drag. And of course, largely as a consequence of the incredible range of things to do, the game’s tone is all over the place.
Outside of the incredibly serious storyline, it’s quite lighthearted – even frivolous. But in its world of hostess bars and telephone clubs, this is often expressed as a kind of casual sexism.
Now, Kamurocho is, among other things, a red-light district: a world of seedy characters and marginalised people. But was it really necessary to include, for example, softcore erotic videos of the storyline’s female characters in an in-game peepshow?
Fortunately, though, most such truly cringeworthy content is easily avoided – and is easily outweighed by the charming, oddly naive tone of most of the incidental content.
A few missteps aside, then, the game’s side missions more often than not left me with a smile on my face. The protagonists are typically cast as agony-uncle figures, righting wrongs and gazing wistfully into the sunset as the sappy piano music kicks in and things work themselves out once again.
There’s just so much you could say about it. We’ve got this far, and we haven’t even talked about the crafting, the day/night system, the original 80s Sega games you can play in the arcades, or the fishing. The fishing!
So I’ll conclude by saying one thing: Yakuza 0 is a constantly surprising triumph. It’s at once beautifully atmospheric and playfully silly. Yes, it has some rough edges, and it’s far from getting everything right – but for me, it’s the most inviting open world I’ve explored in a game.
I’m 70 hours in, with the storyline complete, and there’s still so much more left to see and do. This is a game you can lose yourself in, and I’ll be haunting Kamurocho for years to come.