Whenever I talk to people about the Yakuza series, it’s common to find that plenty of folks have heard of it, but not many have a good idea of what it really is. More often than not, they think it’s a Japanese-flavored Grand Theft Auto, or if I’m talking to someone old enough to have been around at the time, they assume it’s a slightly better version of Shenmue.
While those things may be true in the loosest sense, neither of those simplifications focuses on what Yakuza does best — first and foremost it’s a crime drama, and an exceedingly well-written one, to boot.
I don’t say this lightly. I’m someone who cares deeply about good story in games, and offering the typical revenge tale that so many other games are content with doesn’t cut it with me. No, the writing in Yakuza is something special… It’s one of the very few series in all of gaming where the characters truly grow and change with each new installment, and the creators care a great deal about development and depth.
It’s important to note that Yakuza is a very specific sort of story, though… as the title suggests, it’s entirely focused on showing the viewpoint of someone who’s a member of Japanese organized crime, and the themes and ideas that come along with it. It’s not just another average tale of thug life, though… it’s about personal relationships, family, honor, and duty. It’s an incredibly unique thing, because this series is like a snapshot into a subculture that most people outside of Japan have little familiarity with or knowledge of, and although there’s no doubt that Sega’s work is a videogame and not a documentary, there are a wealth of instances when players will get a rich look at what it must be like.
Of course, there’s a wonderfully-realized game underneath this one-of-a-kind story. The brawling is one testosterone-fueled explosion after another, and there’s almost no end to the number of diversions to take part in. Although much smaller in scale than the average open world which strives to grow ever-larger, the intensely urban environments of Yakuza are relatively small, but they are dense. Every street has something interesting, and there are surprises around every corner… nightlife, arcades, restaurants, karaoke… Those who take the time to explore the city will be richly rewarded with a micro-version of the Japanese areas the game is modeled after. It looks and feels unlike almost anything else out there.
In short, there’s a lot to love in Yakuza for those who crave something distinctly different from the usual open-world mundanity, but even though it’s had a presence in the West since debuting on the PS2 in 2006, there are still plenty of people who haven’t yet given it a try. Thankfully, Yakuza 0 is the perfect place to jump aboard as it represents the absolute beginning of this long-running crime drama, and I’m guessing that those who get in on the ground floor will be thirsty for more once this story is told.
Yakuza 0 is a PS4 exclusive, and will be available on January 24, 2017 for $59.99. Now… dance!