I’m walking down the steamy, seedy streets of Tokyo on a hot summer’s night in the 1980s. My goal? Panties. I’m tracking down the head of a used underpants (or “burusera”) operation, who happens to be a teenage girl. To find her I must approach random adolescent schoolgirls and ask them about their smalls. Even in a virtual environment, it’s… awkward. It’s at this point I raise an eyebrow and say, “Yakuza 0, you’re not like other games, are you?”
Indeed not. Yakuza 0 is the latest in the increasingly convoluted cult Yakuza series but takes place before the later entries, acting as a prequel. The story revolves around the entwined fates of Kazuma Kiryu, a yakuza on the outs with his crew and Goro Majima, the exiled owner of a cabaret club. The pair find themselves involved with a bloody mystery that concerns an area known as the “vacant lot” which seems to be attracting an undue amount of trouble, including murder.
In practical terms Yakuza 0 is an open(ish) world brawler in which you travel around various fictionalised versions of locales in Japan, brawling with punks and ne’er-do-wells and taking on side quests, main quests, and fun diversions. These diversions should not be underestimated as you’ll literally be able to play pixel-perfect recreations of era-appropriate arcade games (Outrun anyone?), sing your little lungs out in karaoke sessions and dance up a storm in clubs.
The slavish devotion to recreating a specific place and era is commendable, however, one can’t help but wish more attention was paid to the gameplay in general, specifically the combat. Yakuza 0 is a couple of years old, which is an eternity in video game time. The combat would have felt clunky in 2015’s original Japanese release but in 2017 it seems practically ancient. That’s not to say it’s a total loss, switching combat modes on the fly and cracking opponent’s skulls on the ground is a hoot – but it lacks the fine polish of recent games like Nioh or the Batman Arkham titles.
The storytelling also feels a little dated, with lengthy, often unskippable cutscenes with subtitles (because there is no English voice track) and occasionally baffling acting choices. But here’s the thing: Yakuza 0 isn’t like other games and it quite honestly doesn’t give a shit if you don’t like that. Feeling like a mishmash of Takashi Miike-style ultra violence, mixed with absurdist comedy and over-the-top characters, Yakuza 0 is here to tell its story the way it damn well wishes to. It doesn’t care about your delicate sensibilities and really would be entirely okay if you buggered off.
The thing is, beneath the slightly impenetrable, slow first hour there is a really compelling, weird and engaging story to be enjoyed. If you’re a fan of crime yarns, and you’re willing to deal with inconsistent game mechanics and occasionally wonky graphics, Yakuza 0 might just hit the spot. Much like buying used underwear – it’s a niche proposition. It’s not for everyone, but for those who appreciate it – it’s a weird delight.