It’s late 1988 and Japan is right in the middle of an economic bubble; real estate and stock market prices are inflating at a rapid rate. Sure, it will burst at some point, but for the time being why not enjoy it? How about a trip to Kamurocho, the red-light and entertainment district of Tokyo where the limit to what you can do isn’t necessarily your imagination, but simply linked to the amount of money in your wallet? Or how about Sōtenbori, another entertainment district but set against the canal that runs through Osaka?
These two cities are brimming with life and things to do. In the years to come they will see plenty of rejuvenation and changes, with real estate popping up everywhere and the celebration of the new millennium by building a huge skyscraper, a massive showdown between two rival Yakuza dragons, a zombie infestation and so many murders and betrayals that it puts Eastenders to shame. For now though, the criminal underworld of these cities is focused on a small plot of land in Kamurocho: “The Empty Lot”. Whoever has the key information as to who the owner of this seemingly insignificant area in the heart of Kamurocho holds all the cards to becoming the next captain of the Dojima Family yakuza clan.
Welcome to the world of Yakuza 0.
The ‘0’ in the title symbolises that this is a prequel to the series that originally started life in 2005 on the PlayStation 2. Yakuza 0 represents the series’ first foray onto Xbox consoles, having released in 2017 in the West on PlayStation 4. For Xbox owners new to the series, this is the perfect place to start.
Set during that aforementioned economic bubble, you play as both Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima: two protagonists that on the surface will never cross paths with one another. Kiryu is a member of the Dojima Family, but not for very long. A routine debt collection turns sour for Kiryu when the person he is collecting money from winds up dead in “The Empty Lot”. Kiryu must then clear his name whilst hunting for the person that holds the deed to this lot.
Meanwhile, Majima is laying low in Sōtenbori as the manager of the Grand Cabaret Club, the top hostess bar in the area, after messing up the hit on rival yakuza clan Ueno-Seiwa a few years prior (details of which are actually heavily referenced in Yakuza 4, should this make its way to the Xbox). Realising though he is more like a prisoner within the city limits, he is given a chance of freedom. All he needs to do is assassinate a target named Makoto Makimura, who is described as a predator preying on young girls. Should be a simple hit…
Within the first few hours you will quickly learn that twists and turns are all par for the course in a Yakuza story, and 0 is no exception. The game switches between the two characters every couple of chapters, keeping things fresh and making sure neither Kiryu or Majima gets neglected.
When wandering through these neon-soaked streets, both protagonists will be stopped at regular intervals by all manner of degenerates. At its core, Yakuza 0 is an open world fighting game, and there are a lot of opportunities to flex your muscles. Each main man has three various fighting styles unlocked at various stages in the game, and each style has an appropriate situation it works best in. These can be upgraded either through meeting up with the relevant master or you can use money directly earned from the fights – as well as hundreds of other methods to make a quick buck – to upgrade your abilities.
Whilst the cities of Kamurocho and Sōtenbori aren’t the biggest in terms of open worlds, they are densely packed with things to do. Once the game opens up a bit more in Chapter 2 or 4 – depending on which character you are playing as – there are distractions aplenty as you wander round these maps. Whether it’s arcades, bars, restaurants, casinos, pocket circuit racing, karaoke, mah-jong parlours or just an old man sat on his own wanting to play a game of shogi, you are guaranteed to find a distraction. And this could divert your attention away from the main story for many hours at a time, because just like the worlds or the story itself, each ‘mini’ game is fully formed and full of heart.
Later on, you will also unlock telephone clubs where you can talk to girls and take them on dates, take part in coliseum fighting where you must fight your way to the top, become a real estate mogul and save the city, and even manage your own hostess club – a minigame so successful and loved in its first iteration it was added in again in Yakuza Kiwami 2 – a game that is also coming soon to Xbox Game Pass.
And these distractions aren’t including the substories that are also such a key feature of Yakuza games. In 0, there are 100 to find and complete. Most will require Kiryu and Majima using their fists to resolve conflict, but others are far more in depth as you try and rescue a girl from a cult or help reunite a boy with his stolen videogame. At certain points in both these side missions my fists were still utilised, but that isn’t the point; even in these self-contained stories there is so much humour, sadness, anger and ultimately happiness that I’d argue these will be what are remembered most from Yakuza 0.
If you need a comparison for just how out there and irreverent these substories can be, think of them as Vic and Bob – ask your parents – writing 100 short stories involving knickers, religious cults, six-foot schoolchildren, catfights, mushrooms, statue performers and bathroom graffiti to name but a few. That should give some indication.
And if all that wasn’t enough, some of these minigames are playable in local multiplayer. Darts, bowling, pool and even disco can all be done locally. Sadly, the online multiplayer component from the PlayStation 4 version that included mah-jong, cee-lo and poker has been cut. However, the free DLC packs that contained various helpful items distributed in the weeks following the initial release have been included from the very start on the Xbox One version.
Climax battles have also been left in for those looking for an extra challenge when fighting opponents. These unlock as you progress through the story.
For the most part, Yakuza 0 is a gorgeous game to look at. Looking at it, it is hard to imagine this game originally released simultaneously on PlayStation 3 and 4 in Japan back in 2015. The environments – especially on an evening – feel awash with colour and detail. Some character models are a bit underwhelming to the point where you can easily distinguish between major and minor NPCs just from their level of detail, but that is honestly my one tiny criticism of this masterpiece.
Yakuza 0 has 55 achievements in total but right from the start it needs mentioning that this isn’t a quick completion. For the full 1000G you are required to complete two playthroughs – one on Legend difficulty which only unlocks after a complete playthrough – and one of those playthroughs need to be to 100% which will easily take upwards of 100 hours. Even then there are missable achievements that can derail a completion, so it is worthwhile having numerous save files on the go just in case.
But Yakuza 0 on the Xbox One isn’t a game for everyone – primarily because it isn’t in English; it is Japanese with English subtitles. And for many on the localisation team, Yakuza 0 was their first Yakuza game they worked on. But their work is one of the main reasons the series has started receiving such plaudits in the West now; rather than simply translate and remove things considered ‘too Japanese’ as was the case previously, the team have gone above and beyond in helping Western players understand things. From just playing these games I have learnt the odd word in Japanese, how to play mah-jong (badly), a little bit of history about the country, some greetings and social standings and much more. This is by far an educational tool – I write as I run past the place where you can watch softcore videos of women in bikinis and bubble baths – but it has made me appreciate nuances between different cultures in a way I was not expecting.
The Yakuza series was certainly a better fit on PlayStation consoles rather than Xbox originally, but this initial release – with HD remakes of the first and second games in the series on their way to Game Pass – should hopefully bring in a new wave of players to experience something a little bit different. It may take a while to get going at first for new players, but get over that first hour of pretty much just cutscenes and the game completely opens up into one of the finest examples of storytelling in gaming. This, along with the sheer abundance of side activities and people asking for a punch, makes Yakuza 0 an exquisite game, and a perfect benchmark for newcomers to dive straight into.