The myth goes, you've doubtless heard before, that Sega doesn't make games like it used to. Not its Japanese arm, anyway, where the style and strut of its 90s and early 00s output can feel like a distant memory, as can all that grand ambition that was once fuelled by naked madness. The truth, however, is known by too few in the west. Sega is still capable of greatness. It still possesses an unhinged genius. It just pours all of it into one series.
At this point in their lives the Yakuza games are hardly unsung, unloved or underappreciated - after a long hiatus they even make their way over outside of Japan fairly regularly, even if localisation remains agonisingly slow - but they're certainly not played by anyway near enough people. Maybe it's the story that's staggered and swayed its way through each game like a drunken Kamurocho businessman on the long walk home, or maybe it's the intimidating sprawl that had accumulated by the time of Yakuza 5, the last mainline entry to make its way over here back in 2015.
Yakuza 0 feels like the perfect answer to both those concerns. It's a prequel, for starters, shearing away so much of that flabby lore, while elsewhere it's been trimmed down to the essentials. That might seem counter-intuitive when other open world games feel the need to go bigger, but Yakuza 0 proves the hoary old idiom of less is more. There are now just two protagonists and two districts to be explored here - Kazuma Kiryu stalks Kamurocho, the series' long-running pastiche of Tokyo's Kabukicho area, while Goro Majima runs the nightlife in Sotenbori, an analogue of Osaka's own Dotonbori. It all amounts to a renewed sense of focus.
This is a punchier, tighter game than its immediate predecessors, though it certainly doesn't skimp on detail or polish. Instead, this is a Yakuza game that luxuriates in its own overindulgence. Thanks in part to its period setting, a late 80s that accentuates those acres of neon with a woozy, lurid edge, the excess that's always played a part in Yakuza is more prominent than ever before. It's a world of restaurants selling 100,000 yen sushi and nightclubs serving golden bottles of champagne that's then hurled up or pissed away on scruffy side streets. It is a marvellous place to spend some time.
That excess trickles down to some of the mechanics. Instead of racking up XP in the many fights you encounter on those same streets, you earn money that's then used to unlock new moves and buy your way through Yakuza 0's skill trees. In practice, it means each fight - again an area that's leaner and meaner than what's gone before following a slight overhaul - is accompanied by showers of 1000 yen bills streaming across the screen. As a spectacle it's gloriously over-the-top.
As is so much about Yakuza 0. The melodrama that propels its story onwards is full of endless and improbable twists and turns, but it's grounded by its own character and personality. For all its excesses, Yakuza 0 can be an exceptionally well-written game, full of winningly human touches. Newcomers should be warned that a sizeable amount of time playing Yakuza will be spent sitting through cut-scenes, so it's a blessing that they're rarely a chore.
The rest of the time is spent prowling the small but packed streets where endless diversions - and endless scraps - await. There are other, grander and larger open worlds that afford the player more freedom, but there aren't any as immersive as those offered in the Yakuza series. Yakuza 0's world is the finest yet, bolstered by the 1080p 60fps presentation afforded by the PlayStation 4 and underlined by a staggering sense of place. Walk the main strip of Kamurocho under the blinding cover of neon by night and it's a an impeccable piece of virtual tourism; seeing the mad melange of goods in a Don Quijote store or leafing through period magazines on the shelves of a local conbini, you're transported to a world that's all the more fantastical for its everyday verity.
Its handling of everyday life is also delightfully surreal, be that in the poodle rocking karaoke interludes or the hyper-kinetic presentation of the batting mini-game. How Yakuza remains a convincing whole when one minute it's dwelling on a character's personal drama then the next it has them sliding on their knees across a pulsing disco dance floor is one of the series' great achievements, and the mini-games here are top notch. The arcades, too, are stuffed with period gems - Space Harrier and OutRun are among the diversions, as playable as ever and presented with a selection of scanline filters of your choice.
They're reminders of Sega's golden age, but let's not forget they're part of a more recent triumphant series for the company. In Yakuza 0 you can see that same swagger, the same vibrancy and the same delirious lust for life that endeared Sega to so many back in the day. Sega still makes great games, and if you're not acquainted with the series it's worth getting involved in one of the greatest of them all.