What’s it like to walk the dark alleys and neon-colored city streets of Japan, and to live or die by the power of a hard set of gangster knuckles? I have no idea. But the makers of the Yakuza games want you to think they understand that world very well. And they’ll give you all the details for a little over 50 bucks.
For some 12 years now, the Yakuza games have been telling the twisting tale of the Japanese underworld through the exploits of a tattooed and handsome heavy by the name of Kazuma Kiryu. Yakuza 0 jumps back to 1988 and offers gamers a prequel starting point to the whole soap opera-like narrative.
Part of the time, gamers play as the above-mentioned Kiryu, who’s nothing but a Yakuza pup at this point. He’s a cheap-suit twentysomething who knows his way around an alley fight, but who’s still a bit naive to the manipulative ways of mobster lieutenants. But when a simple debt collection goes sideways and Kiryu gets pinned with a murder he didn’t commit, he has to break ranks with the Dojima Clan and find a way to prove his innocence—while also saving face for his currently imprisoned benefactor, of course.
We also slip into the shoes of another hard-fighting hustler by the name of Goro Majima. He’s a guy who’s actually trying to get back into the mob rather than leave it. It seems Goro defied a boss’ orders at one point and is now making amends by running a popular hostess club and managing its cavalcade of young Asian beauties. As the price of reentry into mob life keeps going up, Goro realizes that he’ll have to take on a hit job that the bosses have been pushing in his direction. The problem is, the person he’s supposed to eliminate is a young innocent blind girl, and that’s a tough job to swallow, even for him.
Both tales center around a certain empty lot: A valuable piece of property that everyone in the Yakuza gang world wants for their own greedy reasons.
Gameplay wise, those storylines open the door to 40 or more hours of, well, a whole lot of possibilities. There are many, many lengthy conversations to be had with Japanese mob guys. And there are scores of battering brawls to make your way through, as well.
Yakuza 0 features several specialized fighting styles for both of your characters that keep your battles quick and cruelly brutal. Kiryu has a fast, mobile boxing style called Rush, for instance, and a slow heavy-weapons style dubbed Beast. Meanwhile, Goro is fond of battering his foes with a baseball bat, a weapons-focused style called Slugger, or flying into a few dance move pummels with Breaker.
Whatever approach you choose, you’re generally fighting off multiple foes with arcade-like street fighter moves and bombastic smackdown blows—with opponents spraying blood and dropping cash. Your collected battle cash can then be used to upgrade your skills and make you an even more brutal brain-basher.
On top of those basics, though, this open-world game offers an incredible amount of side mini-games to jump into. A number of those fill you in on the gamemaker’s view of city life in Japan. You can go drinking in a club and play a karaoke rhythm game all night, or go bowling, or swing at pitched balls in a batting cage.
Then there’s the steamier side of the street.
Kiryu can slip into a cabaret and bet on sparsely dressed wrestling girls. Or if he so desires, he can stop in at a telephone club and jauntily flirt with an unseen girl on the phone—the imagined bikini girl’s image getting ever clearer in his mind’s eye as they talk and the camera swoops in on key parts of her barely covered digital anatomy. Then, if gamers want something even more realistic, they can steer Kiryu to a video club where collected in-game items unlock videos of very real Asian glamour models who sigh into the camera as we closely examine their bikini-clad attributes.
There’s never any nudity in the mix, but female characters are manhandled and groped. And male intentions are never kept subtle or quiet. In fact, no matter what’s going on, the game’s crude language is never very subtle. Gangland characters demonstrate their fondness for every crudity and blaspheme that you might expect from that scarred and tattooed lot.
Whether this gaming world truly reflects the seductive streets and bruising gang life of Japan’s underbelly is anybody’s guess. But one thing’s for sure: Yakusa 0 packs in a whole lot of virtual experience into its sweaty clubs and grimy alleyways. You just have to pony up the price.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.