In my mental game catalog, Hitman and Yakuza share a similar space. Although their settings and gameplay mechanics are vastly different, each is a storied franchise that can be vaguely intimidating or impenetrable to an outsider. With last year's excellent, multi-chaptered Hitman and now Yakuza 0, both games should be poised for wider acceptance and a larger, more appreciative audience.
Comprising six main games and numerous spinoffs, the twelve-year-old Yakuza series stretches back to the dim days of the PS2. Telling a sprawling saga of one man's ascendant journey through Japanese organized crime, the original game begins with central character Kazuma Kiryu being released from a ten year stint in prision. Yakuza 0 is Kiryu's origin story, a dark, noirish tale of his beginnings as a low-level Yakuza and his early conflicts with the powerful crime family into which he has been recruited.
Voiced in Japanese with English subtitles, Yakuza 0's story takes its time but by the end of the long first chapter, it has developed into a compelling study of Kiryu's character and the powerful cultural and organization dynamics that have begun to shape it. Melodramatic, surprising and at times, overwrought, Yakuza 0's central story is excellently written and acted. Although some of the minor figures are less convincing, the main character models and faces are impressive and given the essentially stoic nature of their personalities, still manage to be expressive and convincing. It's an almost exclusively bro-centric story, but much more layered than expected.
Yakuza 0 is a huge game, though not necessarily in terms of geography. Set in 1980s Tokyo and Osaka, it is an open world game that is dense with things to do instead of spaces to explore. Aside from that in cut scenes, there is no driving in Yakuza 0, so everything is within walking distance. While the campaign is serious and weighted with incident, there are dozens and dozens of side missions and a seemingly endless number of minigames, all of which earn cash. From managing a restaurant to competing in karaoke, from racing slot cars to playing beautifully re-created arcade games, every garishly lit city block is an invitation to become happily distracted and a little bit richer by one activity or another. Completing the main story campaign is a 25+ hour commitment but there ample reason to linger in the world for much longer.
Of course, combat is the foundation on which Yakuza 0 is built, and here too, there is a lot of content to explore. Both Kiryu and his familiar compatriot Majima have a variety of specific fighting styles and combos that can be enhanced through purchasing upgrades on the skill tree. While combat is generally non-lethal, it is still teeth-shatteringly violent, with baseball bats and guns available if bare knuckles and punishing kicks to the head aren't doing the job. Whether dealing with random street thugs or the game's excellent and protracted boss battles, the core fighting mechanics of Yakuza 0 are immensely satisfying, more accessible and more refined that earlier entries in the series.
Thanks to its outstanding writing, acting, cinematography and animation, Yakuza 0 tells an effective and surprisingly nuanced story of one man and his early journey through the complex world of organized crime. Although it marginalizes women to the role of cliche props and some of the dialogue -- in translation, at least -- rings a little hollow, Yakuza 0 is still a great introduction to both the series and its long-running characters. With an almost impossibly large number of things to do and combat that is brutal and entertaining throughout, Yakuza 0 has to rank as one of the most memorable and successful entries in the franchise.