Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3

Yakuza is a long-running franchise from Sega, but with some of the titles restricted to a Japanese release, not everyone with a PlayStation 4 may be up to speed with the past six games (not including the remakes and spin-offs). If you’re new to Yakuza, fear not. You don’t need to know anything about the previous games to get the most out of Yakuza 0. In fact, with Yakuza 0 serving as a prequel to the other titles in the series, you get to see how the main characters become who they are in the other games.

Enter the World of Yakuza

Think of Yakuza 0 as a refreshing take on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, only it’s wholly Japanese and takes place in 1988. Just like Rockstar’s legendary franchise, Yakuza 0 allows players to do a variety of side activities while offering an enthralling storyline and aggressive, rewarding combat. As a young member of the Yakuza (Japanese mafia for the uninformed) players first take control of Kazuma Kiryu, a mainstay in the Yakuza series. As the game progresses, Goro Majima also becomes a playable character, offering a completely different take from someone who has been kicked out of the Yakuza and wants back in.

Most of your time in Yakuza 0 will be spent doing whatever you want. You can gamble at the casino, play classic Sega arcade games, beat up thugs on the streets, manage a real estate business or even take charge of a cabaret. Of course this is all secondary to the main story of Yakuza 0, which is compelling in its own right. Unlike many action-based games that focus more on combat than story, you will care about the characters in Yakuza 0. Few cut scenes will be skipped as you listen to every conversation that occurs within the Japanese underworld. There isn’t an English language option, but the Japanese vocals with English subtitles seem to fit the vibe of Yakuza 0 much better than an English voice cast.

Combat is Heated

When it comes to combat, you will be fighting often. Most of your time spent between cut scenes will be moving from one place to another or getting into fights with people. While there isn’t a great deal of variety in the combat outside of the multiple fighting styles you can choose from, you do have the ability to unlock new abilities and techniques as you play through the game. In addition, the combat feels visceral, but fun at the same time. You’ll stomp on the heads of lesser men while mashing out your combos and earning money as you do it.

Speaking of cash, the character progression system revolves around money. If you wish to unlock new abilities and techniques, you’ll need to spend your hard-earned cash to do so. Luckily, almost everything you do in Yakuza 0 earns you money. If you take out a group of hoodlums on the street, you’ll earn a decent amount of cash for your troubles. You can also partake in Kiryu’s real estate business, or Majima’s cabaret. Your money flows freely between the characters, so you’re never restricted to any one method to make cash.

Play in the Sandbox

Yakuza 0 takes place in Japan, but in the fictional locations of Kamurocho and Sotenbori. You can always choose to continue the story, but there’s no rush. You are free to partake in as many side activities as you’d like. Head over to the bowling alley, stop by the arcade for some classic Outrun or Space Harrier, grab a bite to eat at a local restaurant, sing some karaoke and more.

Of course there are also more provocative activities you can indulge in. As you might expect from a mob story that takes place in the 80s, women aren’t depicted very well. Not only can you view “sexy” video galleries (unlocking more as you meet new women), but almost anytime the story involves someone that needs to feel manly, the default response is degrading a woman in some way. It’s not the most ideal scenario, but it’s fairly accurate for the time period and context of the game.

If you’ve been looking for something to replace the aging Grand Theft Auto V, or you want a somewhat fresh take on the genre, Yakuza 0 offers more than enough to keep you entertained. The story alone is enough to keep you coming back, but its true sense of freedom is what really sells the game. Every action feels satisfying from getting an item in the Crane Game to stomping on someone’s face during a fight, there’s a lot to like about Yakuza 0.