Despite a feisty flu, I’ve managed to get Yakuza 0 at least started. For veterans of the series, the seedy streets and back alleys of Kamurocho are probably more than familiar by now, but the year 1988 adds a welcome tinge of excitement. In other words, the game takes place at the height of Japan’s bubble economy. Money flows like water, real estate prices skyrocket, and Kazuma Kiryu is still but a young whelp. Having served three years as a yakuza in the Dojima Family of the Tojo clan, he’s still but a collector, beating the money out of negligent debtors, if need be. Then, one morning, someone he roughed up just the night before is found with a bullet in his head. In the world of yakuza, killing civilians is understandably contemptible. What’s worse, the body is found on a lot that the Tojo clan shows great interest in, yet which is now the center of unwanted attention. Preferring to work from the shadows, the organization is obviously enraged. When Kiryu is to take all blame, he has no choice but to expel himself from the yakuza and get to the bottom of things as a mere civilian.
That’s the setup for yet another dramatic story, but as it always happens with these games, I’m already blissfully lost in Kamurocho, just soaking it all in and having the time of my life. Debuting on PS4, the evenings in the game are particularly wonderful. It’s almost like you could drown in the neon sea that is Kamurocho, and the continuous hustle and bustle of a metropolis, the shouts of staff members luring in customers, the hellish racket of pachinko parlors, and the catchy theme songs of convenient stores all make up for what might be the most authentic Tokyo game experience ever. There’s lots to do, too. As well as dining and boozing, you can once again take part in such familiar activities as bowling, billiards, darts, karaoke, or why not pay a visit to the nearest Sega arcade to try your luck with crane games? There, you can also play such state-of-the-art arcades as Out Run and Space Harrier. Since this is the Golden Eighties, the city also has a disco that serves as a venue for a swift rhythm game, as well as an indoor track, where people race customizable miniature pocket cars.
As before, the streets aren’t really that safe. Despite exuding an aura of danger, Kiryu is constantly challenged by all sorts of troublemakers who then get the beating of their lifetime. A new feature of sorts are Kiryu’s different battle stances which he can switch between with just the click of the d-pad. In practice, all this means that Kiryu can now use the various fighting styles of the other heroes of the earlier games. His standard brawling style is good enough for pretty much any encounter but should you prefer, you can also switch to a stances that have more focus on, say, speed or power. Each of these stances has its own skill tree full of new moves and generic bonuses to be learned. This time, however, you don’t level up by collecting experience points but instead invest on yourself with cold, hard cash. Since the economy of the 80’s was in overdrive, so is the game’s monetary system. You don’t just beat the bluster out of bad guys but their money, too. Even the most basic of encounters often earns you more than half a million yen. Although this makes financing the nightlife of Kamurocho a breeze, it’s not so great when the price tag of new skills is often in the millions. By a quick glance, it seems like the most expensive ones are up to a billion yen…
As always, the best part of Yakuza 0 are the dozens of hilarious and touching substories. As well as brawls, Kiryu frequently bumps into citizens having all sorts of weird troubles that he, more or less willingly, ends up sorting out. These cases – just to name a few – include a rowdy punk band whose members aren’t quite as delinquent as they lead to expect, a teenager who is hopelessly in love with a gravure idol, high school girls bartering their used underwear, and even a domina who’s too kind for her work. Some of these problems are resolved by talking, others by fighting, but they’re all remarkably funny and compassionate. Yakuza 0 doesn’t shy away from sensitive or controversial issues, and even if Kiryu is essentially a sullen criminal, he’s also a noble and responsible father figure, who steers people towards a better life. That’s the true charm of the series!
Sega is also to be commended on its brilliant release strategy. From what I’ve read here and there on the internet, the success of PS4 also means there are many gamers for whom Yakuza 0 is their very first Yakuza experience (and apparently often a positive one at that). Since the game is a prequel to the entire saga, it’s the perfect time to hop on board. Furthermore, since Yakuza Kiwami, the remastered version of the first Yakuza, is released this summer, the entire series has a new chance to bask in the spotlight. Deservedly so!