Review: Yakuza 0

Set against the economic boom of 1980s Japan, Yakuza 0 is an over-the-top prequel to the long-standing Yakuza series, originally started on the PS2. Telling the tale of two rising members of the Yakuza crime syndicate, Zero ruminates on brotherhood, greed, excess, and masculinity, all with the glitzy sheen of that era. It feels like a slick Japanese soap opera, but with men in suits shouting at each other during street brawls.

Moving at a fast pace in spite of lengthy cutscenes, Yakuza 0 features exciting melee-based combat and light-hearted minigames that break up more dramatic character moments. Zero's two cities, though small, feel lived in and true to their real-life counterparts. However, some of the ways in which women factor into Yakuza 0's plot are shocking for a game in 2017, even if it mirrors shameful gender stereotypes of real Japanese culture.

Yakuza 0 (PS4 [reviewed])
Developer: Sega
Genre: Action/Brawler
Released: January 24, 2017
MSRP: $59.99
Played: Completed campaign in 35 hours

Yakuza 0 was reviewed using a final retail copy purchased by the reviewer.

Yakuza 0's story is structured into chapters averaging the length of a modern-day TV episode, splitting time between series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu and oddball Goro Majima. There's a lot of character development table setting for the later Yakuza games, but their backstories are interesting enough on their own without the added context. Kiryu is figuring out his life's purpose as he gets wrapped up in a gang business deal gone sour. Majima starts off managing a night club as he claws his way back into the Yakuza family after being exiled. Kiryu's sense of justice is Batman-esque, and while watching him evolve is cool, Majima's arc proves to be the better story. The narrative is accessible to newcomers and finds a way to intersect their stories in the end, even though the last third of the game seems rushed.

Gameplay-wise, Kiryu and Majima each have three different fighting stances: a balanced style, a defense-oriented style, and a more speed/dodge-focused style. Kiryu's default Brawler style will get you through most encounters, while Majima's Slugger style is unstoppable as he wields a baseball bat like nunchucks. Building up an adrenaline-like Heat meter to unleash powerful special moves, I never stopped enjoying the combat in this game. Boss battles feel appropriately challenging and there's a good sense of escalation when the game throws weapons and mobs of brawlers at you. Since one of this game's main themes is the criminal free-flow of cash, upgrading Kiryu's and Majima's combat prowess is as easy as "investing" in health and skill upgrades along a spherical grid.

Winning street fights isn't the only way to gain cash, as Kiryu gets a real estate side gig midway through the game and Majima finds himself micromanaging a cabaret club, both of which pay lucrative dividends if you decide to spend time there. If you get tired of fighting your way through Tokyo's Kamurocho and Osaka's Sotenbori neighborhoods, there are plenty of diversions, including batting cages, karaoke, and even Sega arcade classics Space Harrier and Outrun. These minigames and side stories can help bank larger cash reserves and earn progressively better unlocks. Even if you decide to not engage with any of the side stuff, the cash bonuses you're awarded after every chapter are enough to keep the heroes in fighting shape.

Yakuza 0's colorful cast shines in the side quests. You'll find yourself helping a dominatrix learning her trade, influencing Japanese tax policy over sushi, and substituting as a TV producer, among other memorable detours. These side missions are wacky without falling into the over-the-top satire or checkpoint race traps that other open world games rely on.

For all of its highlights though, Yakuza 0 debases women at every turn. One minigame involves betting on "catfighting," a simple rock-paper-scissors wrestling game that features women of various professions in skimpy outfits. Collectible telephone cards unlock softcore pornographic videos that Kiryu or Majima can masturbate to (the camera actually pans from the video to a box of tissues; a trophy cheekily unlocks - "...I did it for the trophy").

One of Majima's major plot points revolves around a blind woman he rescues, who is not much more than a weak MacGuffin for most of the game. Besides her, I encountered exactly one other woman across both stories that wasn't portrayed as completely helpless or frail. I get that this game is a period piece and this portrayal is roughly apt of the way many minorities (including women) were treated, but in a game where men are shown with a range of emotions and allowed to have nuance, this seems like a thoughtless oversight.

It's especially terrible because Yakuza 0's men are incredibly relatable in their biggest moments, even when they're at their lowest personal points. Kiryu's and Majima's sensitivity are treated as assets, not weaknesses, and the chauvinist bravado at the core of the Japanese mafia is always painted as an evil, not a strength. Yakuza 0's heroes are at their best when they fight with as much enthusiasm as when they slurp ramen, play chess with the elderly in between personal errands, and stop to ponder their own futures before big decisions. The game celebrates the pursuit of your main quest as much as the quiet moments that punctuate its louder struggles.

Not all of the punches land, but when Yakuza 0 hits, it's spectacular. I found myself charmed by its quirks night-after-night and intrigued by the drama and gameplay enough to follow this series further. If Sega fixes this series' depiction of women in future entries and keeps its great pace between story and side content, I could see Yakuza flourishing in the West. As it is, Yakuza 0 is a more-than-adequate introduction into the seedy underworld of the Japanese crime life and I'd recommend it to anyone mildly curious.

GOOD: Incredible human drama punctuated by fun side quests. Combat is fluid and enjoyable. Thematically consistent across mechanics.

BAD: Last few story chapters pale in comparison to beginning and middle of game. Women in the game have no agency compared to the men.