The Yakuza franchise is often called the Grand Theft Auto of Japan, but frankly, that’s a downright disingenuous statement and a total false equivalency.
The Yakuza series is easily one of gaming’s best. Very few franchises manage to take criticisms to heart and consistently ramp up improvements with every new entry. On top of that, very few open-world titles manage to faithfully recreate their settings in a way that feels real, tangible, and immersive. Yet since around 2005 or so, Sega’s mob-based brawler has done all of those things and so much more. They’re not slowing down any time soon, either, if Yakuza Zero is any indication.
My time with Yakuza Zero, which was pretty gracious and open, gave me the choice of two locales. I could either wander Kamurocho as series stalwart Kiryu, or tramp around Sotenbori as fan favourite Majima. Choosing the latter option, I was thrown right into the game. Immediately, something stood out: the framerate. This series has always been graphically astonishing, and this one is no exception. But with the dense population and blistering action associated with Yakuza, one would expect a framerate of around 30 or so. Yet, as the eager Sega attendant gushed, Yakuza Zero runs at a consistent 60 FPS. During my lengthy demo, I didn’t experience any dips in that. From brushing through crowds to taking on whole gangs at once, the game kept up a consistently admirable fast and furious pace.
That was a nice cherry on top of what ended up being a stellar experience across the board. At the start, I wandered around Sotenbori looking for a fight. Boy, did I ever find one. Loitering in front of a building was a gang of street punks who were quick to jump down my throat. The game seamlessly transitioned to a fight, and I was swinging punches and throwing kicks in seconds. With the directional pad, I was able to shift between fighting styles at a moment’s notice. I smashed faces in with the default fighting style, busted kneecaps with a pair of nunchucks, and did my best Bruce Lee impersonation with a mock Jeet Kun Do style. I even grabbed a salt shaker and shook it into a thug’s eyes, causing him to recoil and fall down in pain. Switching between styles mid-combo seemed to dish out some punishing transitional moves as well. Everything about the fighting mechanics in Yakuza Zero felt pitch-perfect, perhaps more than any prior entry.
One thing in Yakuza Zero that stood out to me was how much money each thug dropped. The representative told me that has to do with a new mechanic that replaces the traditional levelling system. Instead of gaining experience, players have to earn money and use it build up both Kiryu and Majima. It’s quite the radical departure, but I kind of love it. After all, this being a prequel set in 1988, we’re supposed to see how both characters build up their Mob Empire and status. By shifting the focus to cash, players get to feel a sense of urgency to earn as much as possible in order to build up both characters.
Wandering around Sotenbori even further, I happened upon a statue leaning against a bridge. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was just a random dude, painted gray and posing like a statue. When I came back to him later, this street performer had started to build a crowd, and he gestured for me to come closer. He really had to hit the nearest commode, but didn’t want kids to see him become mobile and shatter their dreams. No, really, he has a whole monologue about not wanting to let kids down, with the dialogue an oddball mix of po-faced melodrama and tongue-in-cheek humour.
What followed next was nothing short of sheer lunacy. Majima decides to help out the performer by distracting them. The player can accomplish this through a variety of increasingly absurd ways, and I went down both lists of activities. I burst into song. I insulted them. I did my best Michael Jackson impersonation. Eventually, pretending to see a UFO and getting into a fight was the ticket, and the street performer was free to run away and relieve himself.
That’s Yakuza Zero in a nutshell. As absurd yet deeply dramatic as ever, and with the most polished gameplay to date. The Sega representative assured me that no content would be cut from the Japanese release, referring to the truncated release of Yakuza 3 as “a dark time for us all.” With a deep, immersive story practically a given, I really can’t wait to sink my teeth into Kiryu and Majima’s latest misadventure next January.