YAKUZA 0 Review
YAKUZA 0 comes as close to collapsing under its excess as the cultural moment it depicts. But, unlike the real Japan in 1988, going big is all boom and no bust. The latest installment of the open-world action brawler series is fun, affecting, and smart. A prequel with series familiars Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, it’s as good as a blank slate for newcomers. We first find Kazuma in Tokyo as a low-level shakedown artist, pulled into a tangled bid for hegemony-by-real-estate thanks to an inconvenient murder and a profound loyalty to his foster father, an imprisoned yakuza captain. Goro, on the other hand, is holding court in Osaka as manager of a cabaret club, stuck doing his due diligence after a botched hit until the day he earns enough to be reinstated fully to the yakuza. His last act of penance, unfortunately, does not go as planned.
If you have a sense for genre, you’re likely recognizing some familiar scenes: wrong places, wrong times; Humphrey Bogart in his cafe; Jack Nicholson in a dried-up riverbed. One of the joys of YAKUZA 0 is seeing these old crime tropes super-charged with melodrama and filtered through a unique time and place. It’s an altogether engrossing and emotional tale, novel-like in its fullness, soap-operatic in its plotting.
There’s betrayal, love, and cool strong action boys crying — what more could you want?
At its most basic, this is a game about punching and kicking good, and so we must know if the punching and the kicking is good; let me tell you, the punching and the kicking is quite good. Goro and Kazuma have three unique fighting styles, each requiring a different approach to play. There’s no easy counter system like in the ARKHAM or ASSASSIN’S CREED series, so fights feel scrappy and victories well-earned. In general, YAKUZA 0 is unashamedly game-y — and very fun because of it.
At first, I found the tightly-controlled camera obtrusive, the clunky transitions to combat frustrating, and the crazy amount of mini-games pointless, but after considering the game’s themes and perspective on the era, all that clunk became meaningful, and even refreshing. The break from third person action gaming’s current trend for “immersive” and “seamless” design is ultimately not a deterrent from the greater story or play experience (and even then, there’s still a few exciting Nathan Drake-ish transitions from set-piece to play). In a lot of ways, YAKUZA 0 feels like an older game, and enjoying it means embracing that fact.
Fingers crossed video game preservation won’t just be ersatz arcades in AAA titles
Shrugging its shoulders at immersiveness lends a self-awareness to YAKUZA 0 as a game. This, the genre, and sense of humor have earned the series GRAND THEFT AUTO comparisons, but that’s mostly superficial — YAKUZA 0 traffics in absurdity, sure, especially for its side-missions, but differs in the ways it mediates satire with sincerity. This sincerity pervades everything in the game. It’s evident in the details of a the mini-games, the original karaoke songs, and the vibrancy of the environment, which is much smaller than most open-world games and favors density over expansiveness. One telling example of this, for me: when I check out a magazine rack at a convenience store, I have 14 different publications from the ‘80s I can interact with, which amounts to viewing their covers and reading a blurb about their history. There’s nothing else to do, just learn some history. YAKUZA 0’s awareness and affection for the time is expansive and, at times, can seem like a friend telling you a random “fun” fact that’s not particularly fun. But their enthusiasm always manages to win you over.
Basically, the same way Karaoke works
But 1988 wasn’t all fun and games. YAKUZA 0 knows this. Greed is the engine of its story and gameplay. Money motivates everything in the game: managing your club, purchasing property, beating goons, even upgrading your skills requires you to, as one character puts it, “invest in yourself.” By replacing skill points with yen, YAKUZA 0 recognizes the uncomfortably deep connections between capitalism and video games, how exploitation seems baked into the medium. Every video game is a kind of economy because of the labor of the player that has to be exchanged to completely experience it, and while this seems obvious in open-world games which actually simulate stores and products and currency, it’s much more subtle and pervasive. Systems of exchange dominate everything from POKEMON to SOLITAIRE.
Like the war economy in METAL GEAR SOLID V, cash has the possibility to unravel the game. Once the player reaches the moment where they must spend money to make money, enough flows in that they could conceivably grow overleveled. Also like that game, it’s inexplicably horny and misses the mark with its treatment of female characters. I give YAKUZA 0 a softer time though, considering how objectification factors in its critique of 1988, and how these misses are slightly more on the edges of the game experience. Anything’s better than “breathing through your skin,” but I digress.
Tip: The Neoliberal Fighting Stance actually gives you 5x more cash if you kick a poor person when they’re down
Much has been said about how the story critiques the greed of the era, and I’d add this: the struggles of our heroes concern the need for justice within the strict hierarchy and honor codes of the yakuza, and their shock at finding those codes twisted, subverted, and abandoned when convenient. The same is true of transnational corporations and the laws of government. For YAKUZA 0, the criminal is corporate and the corporate is criminal, and in a world with only one economy, the ethics of playing a $65 video game on a $270 console is as muddy as the ethics of the yakuza itself. But, hey, in the end, it’s all just a game. Right?
Reviewed on Playstation 4