Breaking the Law (Breaking the World)
For me, the Yakuza series is like playing an instrument or working out - I've been meaning to get around to it, but it keeps getting pushed aside by other things, and eventually I'm so far away from the wagon that I don't see any reason to get back on it.
With five games released across three systems and more spinoffs than you can shake a stick at, Yakuza can be a tough nut to crack for newcomers. Thankfully, Yakuza 0 solves this issue as a prequel game that reveals the backstories of the series' most important characters. It's also a shining example of what makes the Yakuza series so beloved by fans.
Yakuza 0 has you playing as Kazuma Kiryu and Majima Goro in two different cities. Kiryu is framed for a murder at the beginning of the game, which sets off an intense plot between warring Yakuza clans. If that sounds like the line you'd read off the back of the game's box, it's purposeful. I don't want to reveal too much about Yakuza 0's plot because of how surprisingly engaging it is. Toshihiro Nagoshi, Yakuza's creator, strikes me as the type of person who uses video games to sell his elaborate stories, much like Hideo Kojima. The cutscene work and character dialogue had me glued to the screen as the game went from one twist to the next.
One thing I wasn't impressed with at all was the way the game handles its portrayal of women. What? A video game that treats women as objects, obstacles, or dead weight? Shocking, I know. You can call it a product of the time the game was released, or the 1980s time period it takes place in, but that doesn't make it any less disappointing for me. By the time the credits rolled, I was more than a little miffed with the way various women in the game were given little to no agency. So there's a warning for you.
Before you get to that credits scene, however, you'll be punching people. A lot. The combat in Yakuza 0 is as brutal as it is stylish. Both Kiryu and Majima have three different fighting styles to beat down on a variety of thugs during their quests, and each one is more different from the last. My favorite was Kiryu's "Beast" style, which has you swinging objects from the environment to knock foes down, or picking them up throwing them across the room. You'll also be scratching them, breakdancing on them, slamming their heads into cars, participating in dangerous knife fights...fights in Yakuza are very contextual and can get rough without feeling exploitative in its violence, which I appreciated. The fights also get seriously epic near the game's end, sometimes causing me to shout in excitement - something I rarely do when playing video games.
Beating on losers causes money to pop out of them like candy in a piñata, which you can use to upgrade your various fighting styles. I found this to be a great system because it connects combat - the game's primary form of interaction with the game world - to all of the game's other sub-systems.
To put it another way - there is a lot to do in Yakuza 0. As you explore the two cities in the game, you'll find yourself singing karaoke, disco dancing, playing classic SEGA games at an arcade, participating in 100 side quests that have way better storylines than I was expecting, and manage a real-estate agency or hostess club, dependent on the character you're using. All of these things both give and take away money, which makes the world feel interconnected with the improvement of your two characters and gives you a reason to try out all of the activities that the game has to offer.
And I think that sums up Yakuza 0 nicely: it's a game with a multitude of disparate elements that form to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It took me to a more nostalgic time, where mid-budget PS2 games offered quality experiences that are hard to forget. Yakuza 0, however, is no mid-budget experience - it's as high quality as a game can get, a great entry point for newcomers to the Yakuza series, and already one of the best games to come out this year.