Ten minutes in, we finally get to press a button, and it’s to skip a line of dialogue. Soon afterward, we’re strolling through the streets of ’80s Kamurocho, with red no-entry signs forbidding us from exploring any side alleys. As we push through a group of pedestrians, one glides sideways out of Kazuma Kiryu’s path. Moments later, we retire to a bar for some whisky and all-night karaoke. Venturing out into the Tokyo sun, half-cut, we walk towards a pink objective marker and another cutscene lasting several minutes. If you were expecting Yakuza 0 to shed two generations of baggage, you’re in for a disappointment.
Not that those who petitioned hard for a belated PS3 localisation for Yakuza 5 – or who greeted with excitement Gio Corsi’s announcement at December’s PlayStation Experience that 0, too, was westward bound – will mind. Expecting a wholesale overhaul of a series that continues to be a silver lining for Sega’s accountants is foolhardy. And to bemoan its lingering bad habits would be to ignore the many subtle refinements that cumulatively ensure that Yakuza 0 feels like a step forward from its predecessors.
For starters, this is a more reactive, animated world, one that draws clear influence from western open-world games, which tend to have a stronger sense of physicality than their Japanese counterparts. It turns out that our sliding friend earlier was the exception: vendors and revellers respond to Kiryu’s presence in more tangible, varied ways, with drunken salarymen pawing at his lapels should they stumble into him, and audibly flustered young couples quickly sidestepping this imposing figure as he strides by.
Meanwhile, Yakuza 5’s most glaring presentational weaknesses have been addressed, if not entirely eradicated: a far superior draw distance and subtle depth-offield effects mean instances of pop-in are minor and infrequent, and even in crowded areas the framerate remains solid. Segues into random battles with braying thugs have been streamlined, and the combat benefits from a host of refinements, with a superior soft-lock making strafing and dodging easier. Charge attacks can be worked into combos, throws feel a shade more responsive, and Kiryu can now launch counter-attacks by pressing a button as soon as he’s struck.
There’s something else that’s hard to miss. We’re accustomed to numbers flying out of enemies in JRPG combat, but here it’s money, with notes cascading from suit jackets and jeans pockets with every punch and kick Kiryu lands. You’ll spend plenty of it on gear, weapons and Staminan Royale, but it’s also invested in developing three distinct fighting styles, which you can switch between by tapping the D-pad. The thug style you first learn offers fairly conventional moves, but the rush style is soon unlocked, allowing Kiryu to repeatedly dash to evade blows and mash the square button to stun opponents.
Kamurocho is different, too. Sure, the layout hasn’t changed much in almost three decades, but series veterans can’t fail to spot the differences. There’s rich period detail, from the outlandish fashions to the bags of rubbish littering the streets, and the markedly different building exteriors. One of our first ports of call when we’re finally given free rein is Club Sega, and we’re perturbed to witness the rather grotty sign for Sega Hi-Tech Land. Otherwise, it’s a return to a time that feels like Kamurocho’s heyday. In truth, it’s always been something of a throwback to a bygone era: not exactly lawless, but bound to a different set of rules and values from the rest of contemporary Tokyo. It’s a place away from the rat race, a place to indulge. And Yakuza is, and has always been, indulgent: it’s rarely a series that does anything by halves.
The ’80s, in other words, are a particularly comfortable fit for the series’ sillier elements – like the moment when Kiryu reaches the chorus of his first karaoke song and we segue into a fantasy sequence where he’s dressed as a rock star, replete with red headband, leather jacket and jet-black guitar, grabbing the air as he sings “breaking the law… breaking the world” in clumsy English. That’s just in the first hour or so. Later, we’ve got the pleasure of spending half the campaign with one-man wrecking ball Goro Majima, the chance to build ourselves a property empire, and the opportunity to play an arcade-perfect version of OutRun. And this time we’re not going to be three years late to the party.