I've written a few reviews for the Yakuza series at this point, and I still find it difficult to figure out how to start them. See, there's really not much else like Yakuza out there. Despite its connections to a number of genre-defining titles such as Grand Theft Auto or Streets of Rage, Yakuza doesn't really take from any of them as much as it walks its own path. If you were to walk in on someone playing Yakuza 0, for example, there's a pretty equal chance that you'd see them staring down a hardened crime boss as much as you'd see them racing toy cars. Or beating up zombies next to a Michael Jackson look-alike. Or managing real-estate properties. It's a bizarre mash of different themes and gameplay mechanics, and...well, it works. Really well.
Yakuza 0, as the name implies, takes place before the first Yakuza game - you take the role of Kiryu Kazuma, not yet the aged, hardened badass of the later titles, but still a tough guy worthy of some respect, as he gets embroiled in a large plot involving a singular piece of land buried deep inside the red-light district known as Kamurocho. The story also involves Goro Majima, another recurring character from the series, before he makes a name from himself. But then you also manage real estate, a cabaret club, and play mahjong...among other things.
If you're not familiar, Yakuza is a brawler in which you go around beating the absolute snot out of anyone foolish enough to pick a fight with you. Yakuza 0 in itself greatly improves fighting mechanics from previous games in the series, adding multiple styles that you can switch between to vary up your movements and attacks to suit your mood. And fighting permeates almost all of the game, whether you're making your way through the main plot, finishing up a substory (the game's name for side-quests), or venturing down to the local coliseum. Even completing certain objectives, such as beating up X amount of guys or earning enough money in a particular mini-game, will earn you Completion Points that can be spent on game-wide boosts. But to say that's all there is in the game would be flat out wrong.
There's a ton of things to do in Kamurocho and Sotenbori, Goro Majima's district of residence. Aside from the numerous substories to find, some of which are absolutely ludicrous in nature, you can gamble in a number of western and Japanese games, play mahjong, visit the batting cage, race toy cars, engage in a bit of phone foreplay, sing karaoke, play darts, check out classic Sega arcade titles like OutRun and Space Harrier, and probably a few more things I'm forgetting. The amount of extra content in the game is sure to eat up just as much, if not more, time than the actual story itself. And that's not even getting into the management side of things.
See, this game takes place in the late 80s, a time of economic boom in Japan (right before a big economic crash, incidentally). Money is being flung around, the cities are painted with gold, and everyone wants a cut of the action. As Kiryu, you do this by getting into the real estate market and buying properties while assigning managers to collect cash from them, and as Goro you participate in a more in-depth game of club management where you must keep clients happy, train hostesses, and take down the local cabarets of Sotenbori while making a ton of money in the process.
Money, speaking of which, is a lot more prominent in this game for more reasons than just the time period. Yakuza 0, unlike the others in its series, runs entirely on money, not experience points. It's now pure yen that you inject into your various fighting styles to power them up, spending millions and millions of the hard-won currency to gain new skills and become stronger. Though this has a bizarre effect on the rest of the game's economy - where before certain weapons, items, and equipment were things to work towards, to save and manage your finances for, in Yakuza 0 it's rarely an issue to buy some of the most expensive things in the game. Suddenly you're rolling in cash, allowing you to buy pretty much anything, which seems fitting given the time period, but strangely unbalanced in the context of the game.
And if there's another gripe I need to throw into the mix, it's the game's bizarre approach to sexuality that, again, is probably fitting for the time, but feels strange nonetheless. I'm going to name three examples: the first is an erotic video parlor in which you can watch videos containing Japanese women in bathing suits (mind you, these are not in-game models or anything, they're actual real Japanese gravure models). This place serves no purpose except for a side-quest or two. You pay money, watch a video, and leave. The second is a phone parlor where you chat with women, asking them questions about their body while they gyrate in the background. The third is the catfighting, a place where you can watch busty, half-naked women fight for the amusement of bystanders. You can mildly affect the results using a very basic and random rock-paper-scissors mechanic, but for the most part you bet on a contestant and watch the show.
The series in the past has had certain minigames that have sort of skirted this kind of theme before, certainly, but it's never felt quite this apparent. It's just...weird. Certainly not something I'd want to play when someone walked into the room.
However, much of the game is improved, it's hard not to say that this is probably one of the best, if not the best, Yakuza games out right now. Not only does it run silky-smooth on the Playstation 4, but there are a number of quality-of-life improvements to the formula that, as a whole, just make it as a whole a better experience. Thanks to its status as a prequel, it also makes it one of the best entry points for the series, though references to later games, whether through characters that show up later in the series, or references to events yet to occur, might be lost on new players.
Regardless, as a game on its own, Yakuza 0 is certainly one of the best open-world-Japanese-gangster-beat-em-up-slash-real-estate-manager titles out...or something...and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone looking to crack their knuckles and jump into a fight.