Yakuza 0 puts a fist to the face of nearly everything I thought I thunk about open-world games. It confidently curb stomps things its open-world family members wear as a badge of honour – a game that merrily body-bags the habits of its relatives in its single-minded pursuit of showing you a bloody good time.
And it’s actually kind of brilliant – at least in the half-a-dozen hours I’ve played.
Swap ‘single-minded’ with simple, but not simplistic. Or swap it with streamlined, focused, lean, efficient – whatever. Nearly everything about it screams confidence, as it strikes through the typical open-world bucket list. Vehicles? Got legs, thanks. Guns? Just the ones on my arms. A map spammed with alerts, icons and meters? A couple of city blocks will do, cheers.
If Yakuza’s surrendered its place in the open-world family, then it’s cut off most of its fingers doing so.
These pockets of city do away with much of the square-mileage you’d expect, instead filling its limited real estate with smaller, more intimate stories. These side quests seemingly appear from nowhere, making these micro-worlds seem large and uniquely alive. One street might become host to a series of objectives, each with characters that carry a distinctive charm.
It means you aren’t arbitrarily traversing a sprawling map to complete an objective. Fetch quests are literally about nipping to the corner shop for a couple of beers – not flying or horse-backing to the next city to do that thing for that guy. I’m able to put my mark on this small patch of land, which quickly becomes familiar despite frequent fisticuffs with Yakuza, drunkards and mysterious ‘men in black’.
This focused, self-contained world translate into its story, too. Yakuza brings that same clarity and focus, telling the tale of a man framed and betrayed by those he ought to trust. It feels clear, well-paced – and never overly complicated. For a game about politics and numerous figures, it introduces them cautiously. Each actor bows out of their act memorably and you’re never quite sure if they’re to return – but you always hope they do.
The combat, then. So far, it’s fine as a stance-based brawler that invokes a bit of Tekken and a bit of Streets of Rage. You punch, kick grab, counter and wield objects from the environment. Bikes, bollards, boxes of nails – almost everything is a companion in combat, or something on which you can smash someone’s face in a brutal finishing move. Even with ability unlocks and stat upgrades, Yakuza’s combat is simple, not simplistic. Accessible, not stupid.
Yakuza’s combat is solid, but its combo-filled, colour-coded mechanics and money-based EXP system feels a little at odds with its harder hitting narrative, never quite packing the same punch. It’s perhaps the sole aspect of the game that suffers from being almost too straightforward. Rarely in these six hours have I felt the need to really embrace mechanics or any kind of nuance – because I can just tank and spank my way through the average encounter. It feels like a story-driven game that happens to have combat.
Yakuza 0 also feels like a sitcom – so far – as you revisit the cast and sets you know time and time again. There’s a warmth there, fueled by its decision to focus on a few people and a few places. But its combat often feels like an impediment to that story line – I don’t know if Ross and Rachel have gotten together because I’m too busy mindlessly taking names in brawls on the street. In a world where so much is excellent, ‘decent’ combat stands out like a sore thumb just waiting to be chopped off.
And the so source of that excellence, simplicity, is sometimes Yazkua’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. It has a dedication to telling a story about a few people in a few places with little concern for modern trends, genre check lists and focused-tested ‘products’. Yakuza so far, then, is a game unto itself – and does more with less in a way few other games have, and it’s kind of brilliant because of it.