Yakuza 0 switches, in an instant, between hyper-serious man posturing and helping a little girl winning a doll; without either feeling out of place. It let's you spend hours perfecting your darts game, after you spend hours beating up crooks in the street. Everything is equally important and given room to breathe; whether it be the substories, mini games, or the main storyline. One minute you watch a long cutscene of your character being tortured in a basement, the next you are singing karaoke in a bar. It's a masterclass in shifting tones.
There is a care in the design that is sorely missing from most big bugdet titles, where quantity is king. Producing a big budget game is enormously expensive, which means that studios have to maximize the number of people willing to buy the game which leads to more and more content being added on. And this is what it feels like in most games: added content. Not so in Yakuza 0. It's an "open world" game, but the world is very small. It's a district in a city (well, two districts in two cities). You become intimately familiar with the terrain in a way you don't in other games. As open world maps have become standard, and the perceived need for content has increased, side stories have become little symbols on a map. You enter a new area of a map, and a bunch of little dots appear, denoting the place where you can pick up a side story. They are color coded, too, so you know exactly what kind of feedback loop awaits. Want to beat up a bunch of dudes? Pick the green ones. Want to drive a fast car? Pick the blue ones. Those games are designed to present a wide variety of challenges, so that a huge number of people can find something to do when they don't follow the main stories. Yakuza 0 handles side quests in a different way: There is no markers on the map. You actually have to walk around to find side quests. And you don't get to pick what kind of story you want to do next, either. You see a person, or you find a weird place, and a side quest starts. It reinforces the notion that this is a living, breathing world in which you are just one of the participants. It gives you a deeper appreciation of the people giving you those side quests as well; they are not a blue blip on a map, but a person in need of help you found standing next to a ramen noodle stand.
Most open world games strive for a consistent tone. Take the GTA series, one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, for instance. GTA V is a long, draw-out joke. You can do Yoga, or play Tennis, or ride a bike, fly a plane, rob a bank, or... But it's all treated as a joke. "Look how stupid this all is." The game wants you to be in on this joke. Badly. It gives the audience a blanket to hide under, lest someone might think that you actually care about doing Yoga, or playing Tennis. It treats these things as punchlines, rather than genuine activities people might enjoy. In Yakuza, everything is treated with respect. The silly parts are silly, and the serious parts are serious. Nothing feels like it is an afterthought, or tacked on to reach more people. To some, this might sound like it couldn't work. But it does. Our current media landscape doesn't allow for different tones in the same work, even though some of the most interesting work can be done when radically changing tone mid-sentence. You just have to have trust in the audience to follow you on that journey. In that sense, Yakuza feels like a very mature game. Not because it is violent, although it is very violent, but because it treats the player with respect. It lets you discover things on your own, and doesn't give you a lot of hints for your next mission. (There is some really fun stuff with real world interaction in there as well.)
I don't know if it's getting older, or just seeing the world fall apart these last few months, but I have lost my appetite for cynism. I don't want play games, or read stories, or watch TV shows, where emotions are treated as a cheap joke, and I don't want to be presented with a list of things to do, either. I want to discover a world full of wonders, a world in which, despite all the over-the-top violence and the seriousness, there is still hope for us. Yakuza 0 is a game that delivers that. It is, in turns, violent, melodramatic, serious, goofy, funny, sad, and sweet. It is, in a word, human.