Sega’s Yakuza 0 opens with Kazama Kiryu walking down neon-lit Tokyo streets, dragging on a cigarette. There’s blood on his face. It’s not his.
Kiryu, the main protagonist of Sega’s long-running Yakuza series, exudes an embittered, stoic swagger, like a young Clint Eastwood with tattoos streaming down his shoulder blades. One of the main attractions of Yakuza 0, like the games it serves as a prequel to, is the opportunity to linger with Kiryu. Where most open-world games offer blank slates or a-charismatic bad dudes, Kiryu is an increasingly reluctant criminal with interests and motives entirely distinct from the player, who gets to luxuriate in watching him tick.
Like Kiryu himself, Yakuza 0, out this week on PlayStation 4, is an atypical crime game. Set aside its Western counterparts like Grand Theft Auto, which use criminal drama to build out anarchic scofflaw fantasies, Yakuza 0 comes off looking both restrained and absurd, simultaneously ploddingly slow and rife with daring choices. It’s these contrasts, though, that make it so noteworthy. And so brilliant.
Yakuza 0?s singular identity largely emerges from how distinctly Japanese it is. Set in the late ’80s, following two young criminals–the stoic Kiryu and the eccentric Majima Goro–it builds a setting and a story based in a particular historical time and genre context. Its narrative is deeply informed by the Japanese real estate bubble of the late 1980s, which saw over-investment and bad loans inflate the market to unsustainable levels. The story is obsessed with this newfound wealth and the market’s impending collapse, centering on the struggle of Tokyo’s yakuza families to control the flow of land and money in Kamurocho, a fictionalized version of the city’s red light district. Compared to Western crime games, it is slow and serious, a prestige drama told in hushed, angry dialogue over cigarettes and the stately politeness of ceremony. It draws on the Japanese mythos of the yakuza, pulled from film and fiction as much or moreso than real life, to tell a story about prestige and power, the achievements of honorable men and the might of organizations that allow the worst among them to rise to the top.
Style and Substance
Every inch of the storytelling here pushes against dominant Western trends. The lengthy, dialogue-heavy cutscenes and tight focus on tone and staging would feel out of place in any open-world game from EA, Ubisoft, or Rockstar. Those games tend to prize color and energy over substance, and use the narrative as a vessel to motivate play. Not to say those games don’t sometimes tell interesting stories, but they do tend to have different artistic priorities. Western open-world games want to impart narrative through the control given to the player, using the character and their setting as a means to achieving that response. They aim for a type of spatial and experiential continuity, one where you occupy a character’s perspective through location and time.
Instead, Yakuza 0 centers its story as an end unto itself, bending the gameplay around communicating place and mood. Kamurocho is a small, dense open world, with no cars or guns to disrupt the ambiance. If you want to travel to another district of the city, you go find a taxi and a cutscene plays as you move from one location to another. Control isn’t the point here, and freedom is second to the demands of the story. If you resent games walling the player off or insisting on where they go next, you will hate Yakuza 0. But it uses its distinctly un-Western sense of constraint and mise-en-scene to tell a story more intelligent and subtle than anything you’d find in its foreign counterparts. Kiryu and Majima are fascinating, layered heroes and their respective journeys into the torrid affairs of the yakuza are gripping and singular. They’re characters you follow, not because you want to direct their paths, but because you’re eager to see where their own choices lead them.
…And Silliness, Too
But the Yakuza series is not quite as serious as I’ve made it out to be. This is another way it diverges from its Western crime games. It is completely, joyfully aware of itself as a game–as in, an object of play. It makes no effort to try to hide its artificiality or to make it fit within its narrative. Yakuza 0 has the backbone of an old-school brawler, where the hero moves from one side of the screen to another and beats up enemies in hand-to-hand combat, built into the body of an open-world game. Its narrative moments are broken up by pitched battles of absurd, anime-esque brawling that exists completely apart from the dead-serious posturing of the main plot. Whereas the plot communicates its ideas on toxic masculinity, crime, and power through language, the brawling communicates those same ideas through bombastic cartoon violence, as if Street Fighter matches exploded to life in the middle of The Sopranos.
On top of that, the game is chock full of silly minigames, diversions, and eccentricities. This is a game where you will have very serious conversations about loyalty and honor in crime before jump-kicking your fellow interlocutor out of a frickin’ window, where you will wage economic warfare against predatory yakuza realtors before getting assaulted by an eight-foot-tall man named Mr. Shakedown who seems to exist solely to follow you around and steal your money.
Most Western games wouldn’t even try to contort themselves this way, juxtaposing camp and high drama the way Yakuza 0 does. Yet it decisively works. Rather than breaking tone, it somehow reinforces it; Yakuza 0 tells a serious story and is overjoyed at telling it, playfully filling its dull moments with the silliest stuff it can think of. It’s self-reinforcing, all of it creating a sense of history, locality, and character. As an introduction to a long-running series that’s often struggled in the American market, Yakuza 0 is a veteran effort. As a game in its own right, designed by Sega in a way wholly within the traditions of Japanese videogame development, it’s like its central hero, Kiryu: confident in movement, deliberate in action, and wholly itself.