‘Yakuza 0’ (PS4) review: Investing in yourself

‘Yazuka’ prequel a fantastic place to jump into long-running series

Winning toy car races against children. Training hostess club staff. Talking to a psychic. Playing (and losing) crane games for hours. Investing billions of yen in Japanese real estate. Saving a girl from a brainwashing cult. Re-creating the “Face/Off” film and the “Thriller” music video.

“Yazuka 0” has all of that, and so much more, and I haven’t even gotten to the main plot, which involves crushing betrayals, shocking revelations, surprising twists and enough engrossing drama to be its own soap opera. Oh, and lots and lots of fist fights with yakuza.

During my 75 hours in “Yakuza 0,” I found myself having the most absolute fun I’ve had in a game in long time. That’s not to disparage other amazing games, but rather to impress just how equally ridiculous and gripping this game can be. As the hours ticked by, I found myself wanting to complete more side quests, to play more mini-games, to level up my primary characters as much as I could because what the game offers is unlike anything else I’ve ever played. (Disclaimer: This is my “Yakuza 0” game. “Yakuza 7” is in production.) Somehow, the game marries total nonsense (Did I mention I got to sing full-length karaoke songs and dance at the disco?) with an origin story that has me fighting-ready to play both remastered and new games in the series.

“Yakuza 0,” a prequel to the long-running Japanese crime drama, re-introduces players to Kazama Kiryu, basically the most honorable man to ever grace the criminal world, and Goro Majima, his slightly crazed, one-eye rival (kind of). The story, set in the fictional cities of Kamurocho (a red-light district in Tokyo) and Sotenbori (a metro area in Osaka), centers around a land deal in 1988 that has the power to make or break whatever yakuza faction (or anyone else, for that matter) happens to secure it first. It’s over the top and nonsensical more than once, long a trope in the “Yakuza” series, but with an intense focus on two of the franchise’s most important characters, it sets up a compelling narrative that will take you into the depths of the criminal underground (and maybe completing dozens of side quests).

As with any prequel, there’s a certain level of knowledge that the game expects you to have. There are inside jokes, revelations that only seem to make sense if you’ve played the other games, etc. But as a neophyte to the series, with only the most surface-level understanding of the franchise in general, I was able to find my way through. The other part of being a sequel is that you know who lives to see future titles, who doesn’t and who players meet for the first time and could live or die. So it’s no surprise that Kiryu, the star of every other “Yakuza” game, survives “0’s” machinations. But many others, including a blind woman and several high-level yakuza, find themselves in that middle ground where, since they don’t show up in other games, we don’t know what happens to them here.

Kiryu and Majima, the game’s protagonists, share a common thread in that they’re both shunned from their respective yakuza families, but what follows shows how different the two men are from each other. Yeah, they both have to contend with mob bosses, blackmail and seemingly limitless yakuza wanting to fight you, but where Kiryu generally takes the high road, the epitome of yakuza honor, Majima isn’t afraid to brandish a knife to get what he wants. To say too much more about the plot would ruin what few surprises it has, especially if you’ve played later games, but it’s safe to say that their fates are intertwined with what’s called the Empty Lot.

But enough of the story stuff. We all came here for the fist fights. And there’s plenty of fighting to go around. No matter the game difficulty, you’re going to be in constant fights as you explore the cities or engage in the main story. You can’t do much at first other than throw your fists around, but as you make your way through the game, you unlock new fighting styles that specialize in ways to beat down your opponents. Both Kiryu and Majima get modes that highlight speed, brute strength and a combination of the two. And then’s there special “heat” moves you can use, as long as you have the required heat to do so. Most of them are super brutal, like kicking enemies off bridges, curb-stomping a baddie’s face, beating them with random objects found on the ground and more. But almost all of those abilities and heat moves are locked until you gain “experience,” which in this game is money.

At the beginning of the game, the quickest way to earn some yen is to beat it out of people. But as you progress, you’re introduced to two of the game’s main money-making methods: investing in real estate and building a cabaret club. They both take time and some strategy to progress, but once you do, you’ll be rolling in the cash. And I mean you actually can roll in the cash. By the game’s end, I was making more than a billion yen every few minutes. The reason I bring this up is because you need cash to level up your characters. Rather than experience, you literally invest earned money into new moves and stats with both characters. Certain moves only can be unlocked after certain missions, but most are locked simply because you don’t have enough cash to spend on yourself.

For those who need to be in constant control of their game play, a warning: “Yakuza 0” will happily take that control away from you. The game, true to its crime drama roots, has a lot to say, and it isn’t shy to present you with extended cutscenes at various (and multiple) times throughout. The scenes tend to provide backstory and character development, and though some may be bored at the sheer length of them, they’re integral to the story and worth just about every minute. (I’ll admit there’s more than a few times where I was smashing my control trying to move the scenes forward as the game has a tendency to repeat itself.)

Graphically, “Yakuza 0” is fantastic, which is shocking considering that it released in Japan in 2015 for both the PlayStation 3 and 4 (this Sega franchise is exclusive to the Sony consoles). But whatever I thought I was going to get, it wasn’t what I got. The visuals are lush and in-depth, creating a life-like cityscape that’s simply packed with detail.

While the maps themselves aren’t huge (it doesn’t take long to run from one end of either city to the other), each block has multiple reasons for you to explore. It takes hours to just explore the main thoroughfares, much less the side streets and special areas. There’s even fully realized Don Quijote stores (think Walmart for Japan) for you to buy from, one of the many, many asides to real-life stores, vendors, products or people.

Plus, the game has way too much reveling in its ’80s retro aesthetic, what with the pagers, cellphone prototypes, Walkmans and massive arcades. Speaking of arcade games, the mini-games include fully realized Sega arcade games including “Out Run” and Space Harrier.” It’s astounding how realistic these in-game creations are; I’m actually convinced they’re emulators running the original Sega games from the ’80s.

Speaking of extras, the game offers 100-some side quests (called substories) that you can partake in. I suggest you do so. While most of them don’t offer much more than some yen or an item, some of the best dialogue and characters can only be found while doing them. Most are complete nonsense, which adds a nice touch of the silly to counter the game’s grim overtones. I mean, you even meet a character called Mr. Libido. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what his gimmick is.

In the end, “Yakuza 0” is just amazing. From its quirky side quests to its crime drama plot that has more twists than a bendy straw, you’re in for a world of engrossing and nonsensical yakuza shenanigans. It took me 75 hours to explore to my heart’s content and to the complete the main story, and I only completed 52 percent of what the game has to offer. I don’t remember having so much fun while doing so little to advance the plot while simultaneously wanting to get back to the plot so I can figure out who was going to be betrayed next. (Spoiler: Everyone gets betrayed.) I really can’t recommend this game enough, even if you haven’t played any of the other “Yakuza” games. But I’ve said enough; if you’ll excuse me, I have to go buy a hobo some Champagne.

Five “What a twist!” stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.

First Impressions review

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