When Sega quietly put the Shenmue franchise in mothballs about 15 years ago, they even more quietly transplanted its core concept to “Project J,” which would later be given the name Ryu ga Gotoku (lit: Like a Dragon) upon its 2005 release, then go on to simply be called Yakuza in the west, befitting its core theme. Ryu ga Gotoku was similarly ambitious to its spiritual parent, but with a budget consciousness that would see the series survive five installments and several spinoffs. The series was also immediately unique in its commitment to authenticity, often courting controversy in the process by serving as a legitimate celebration of Japanese mafioso culture and all that it entails, and by hiring adult film stars to depict sex workers and other characters. Edgier than Shenmue, to be sure, but it has certainly stood the test of time.
What Is It?
In celebrating the tenth anniversary of the franchise – yes, we’re a little late to the party on this one – series producer Toshihiro Nagoshi chose to provide a throwback, a mentality something akin to “On the eve of the ending, take a moment to witness the beginning.” That is the idea behind Sega’s latest adventure offering, Yakuza 0. With the announcement that next year’s Yakuza 6 would be, if not the final game in the series, then at least the conclusion to the story of main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, it’s very fitting that the intervening months bring us an origin story for both Kiryu himself and for fan-favorite supporting character Goro Majima.
In addition to being unique as a backstory, Yakuza 0 also serves as a compelling snapshot of urban Japan during the country’s financial bubble of the 1980s. Money might as well have grown on trees, and the nightlife districts such as the ones depicted in-game were brimming with excess. Nagoshi and his team have done a masterful job of bringing the era back to life here, even acknowledging certain cultural touchstones such as telephone clubs, which served as the speed dating medium of the era.
Why Should I Care?
This is, of course, all simply a deeply fascinating backdrop to an equally fascinating pair of stories that give two of the Yakuza franchise’s main characters additional depth. Main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, at this point a newly-minted yakuza in Tokyo’s fictional Kamurocho district (Sega’s long-running parody of the real-life Kabukicho), finds himself framed for murder when he roughs up a collections target who turns up dead hours later on a key piece of land, dragging him into the midst of an impending turf war between his mafia family, the Tojo Clan, and an encroaching real estate agency. Meanwhile, in Osaka, exiled Tojo man Goro Majima is relegated to operating the Grand Cabaret to get back into the clan’s good graces after running afoul of his immediate leadership back in Tokyo. An opportunity emerges in the form of a hit that would singlehandedly propel him back to good standing with Tojo brass, and Majima takes the job, to quickly find that not all is as it seems.
The two stories inevitably twist into one, and watching the beginnings of the franchise emerge from the chaos is truly a sight to behold, although it does leave Yakuza 0’s status as a good jumping-on point open for debate. This is because many of the game’s scenes rely heavily on, at the very least, the events of the first game (or presumably its impending remake, Yakuza Kiwami) in order to swing with their full force. That isn’t to call Yakuza 0 ineffective as a standalone piece, only to say that it gains so much more in the context of the next game on the timeline.
Of course, having Shenmue as an ancestor leaves Yakuza 0 with plenty to do off of the beaten path, arcades and other minigames abound, sidequests are everywhere, and you will inevitably find yourself spending plenty of time building Kiryu’s real estate empire or managing Majima’s cabaret club interests. The game’s content really feels well-balanced, giving you something completely different to do, seemingly the instant you run the risk of ever getting burnt out on any given aspect.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
All novelty aside, Yakuza 0 is a quality testament to the fact that Nagoshi and his team have put in the time to learn from both their past games and the Shenmue series before them, precisely how games of this type are best crafted. The seamless blend of gameplay and storytelling may be stronger here than it has ever been, proving that Sega’s brand of action adventure gaming still has a very long life ahead of it, even if they haven’t yet found the cure for QTEs. If you’re already a fan, Yakuza 0 is one you can’t miss. If you’re not, it may yet be the one to win you over, especially if you just can’t wait for Shenmue III.