Yakuza 0 exists under the neon glow of an economy that has just come into its own. The gilded excess of ‘80s culture permeates throughout the game. Though it’s a prequel to the entire series, Yakuza 0 carries itself with a cool confidence; all style and swagger that elevates it well above previous titles.
Everyone wants something in this game. Yakuza 0’s characters are a mix of tough-as-nails gangsters, men with shady pasts, and outsiders looking for a second chance. They all seek to grow, be it from monetary gains, the accumulation of power, or personal success. It’s fitting, then, that the game takes place in the booming urban cities of 1980’s Japan. Yakuza 0’s backdrop is one where money flows. Every street and alleyway show signs of an economic upswing. Anything, if you’re willing to work and get your hands dirty, is possible. And if you’re familiar with the Yakuza franchise, it is no surprise that where there’s money to be made, sex, violence, and power struggles follow.
Yakuza 0’s basic premise doesn’t differ much from the other mainline games. You still roam around a well-manicured slice of a city, engage in brutal combat, and navigate story beats that are awash with melodrama at every turn. Unlike others, however, Yakuza 0 seems intent on saying something about life in a culture where egos and ambition are encouraged to be left unchecked. Even one of the game’s first cutscenes, informs players that making money and a name for oneself has never been easier. Nishikiyama, the man speaking, accentuates his point by telling Yakuza posterboy Kiryu Kazama to “look at the times we’re living in.”
Nishikiyama’s observation hangs in the air for a moment before the camera pans down. The cacophonous din of commerce is heard as the camera lingers on an otherwise forgettable heap of trash. All that glitters is not gold.
The two playable characters reinforce Yakuza 0’s more honed focus. Compared to its immediate predecessor Yakuza 5, with its five rotating protagonists and their marathon length story segments, the decision to focus solely on Kiryu and Goro Majima makes the game much more palatable. Players occupy either Kiryu or Majima’s shoes for two consecutive chapters before switching roles, which in turn makes keeping up with the overarching narrative more manageable than ever. Yakuza games have always required players to possess patience for the story of each character to hit its stride, but the more relaxed nature of Yakuza 0’s chapter structure allows for brisk – and often dramatic – payoffs at a much quicker rate.
Kiryu’s story revolves around a bid for power in the tightly packed district of Kamurocho. The location has long been a staple of Yakuza games, but in 0, Kamurocho’s rise as the de facto hub of pleasure, power, and money is detailed like never before. Kiryu, as he is wont to do, gets trapped between parties all vying for an empty back alley lot. As the sole undeveloped piece of land left in Kamurocho, the Empty Lot draws the attention of a real estate magnate and yakuza groups.
The notion that a protagonist’s troubles stem from a seemingly useless tract of urban land would be absurd, even within the over-the-top world of video games. In the context of a Yakuza game – especially one that is intent on commenting on the nature of power and greed – it works surprisingly well. The violence caused by men seeking to secure the Empty Lot as well as the untold fortunes expended in the process seem to be a sly nod to the often-senseless posturing of the rich and wealthy. Tachibana, a real estate juggernaut, comments to Kiryu that “money is power,” during one of their first discussions, before cutting off power across Kamurocho. But for all his power, and all his money, the only thing he wants is a piece of land that the city’s civilians never even notice. Yakuza 0 slowly reveals the motivations behind men like Tachibana, but never shies away from drawing attention to how corrupt and abusive they are in the process.
The other half of the game focuses on Majima’s wild adventures in Osaka. As the manager of the city’s most successful Cabaret, Majima seems to have it all. The irony, however, is that for all his fame and fortune, he remains trapped in a world that he wants nothing to do with. Osaka is not his playground; it is his prison. His job, despite appearing glamorous, is a punishment handed down by the high-ranking members of his crime family for a past indiscretion.
Majima’s chapters find the one-eyed captive navigating the murky waters of penance and retribution. He struggles to do everything in his power to return to his yakuza clan without a second thought for his well being. But his dedication to such a cause is not without pitfalls, as he quickly finds himself in the middle of an all-out manhunt where he is torn between ambition and morality.
As wild as both stories might sound, they mesh and intertwine at times admirably. Longtime Yakuza fans will appreciate the efforts that have gone into making a cohesive prequel chapter to a series that has more twists than a Japanese dragon’s body. Newcomers would be wise to start here, too, because of its semi-origin story structure.
Of course, there’s more to Yakuza 0 than drama and betrayal. Yakuza 0, perhaps better than most other open-world action games, makes its setting feel alive. Osaka and Kamurocho are dazzling, full of diversions and enemies to battle. One of the game’s greatest strengths is that it encourages players to take a break from the action by presenting them with quirky side missions and enjoyable minigames at almost every turn. Moments such as Kiryu’s attempt to make a punk rock band seem edgy during a Q&A session despite their soft real-world personalities are campy and silly compared to the self-serious tone of the main story, but they add an intangible quality to the game’s worldbuilding that deserves serious praise.
The fact that Yakuza 0 can devote time to power struggles and warring crime factions at one moment and then have players leap into a side mission that involves stopping a ring of high school girls selling their panties without losing the player’s interest is commendable. Yakuza 0 and its glittering vision of Japan in the ‘80s, is weird and enjoyable for all the right reasons. Again, it’s a world where anything feels possible.
Much like the narrative direction, Yakuza 0’s combat reinforces themes of money and power. Both Kiryu and Majima know their way around a fight. Landing moves and unleashing special “heat” skills earns them money, which in turn can be “invested” in their fighting skills. It’s a smart touch is effective in tying both the game’s myriad battles together with the key themes of the story.
Yakuza 0 can be exhausting. There’s always something new to do and someone’s ass who needs a whooping. What could have been just another chapter in a series defined by its overwhelming structure is instead a thoughtful exploration of urban life during an economic and cultural crossroad. Just about every element of Yakuza 0 examines what it means to thrive under the constant hum of neon and gold. Money and power are as alluring as they are dangerous, sure, but they’ve never been more entertaining than in Yakuza 0.