To be clear, if you’ve never played or caught a sniff of a Yakuza game before, Yakuza Kiwami is absolutely where you should start. It is, by no exaggeration, the entirety of all that is beloved about the series in a nutshell. From within the neon-tinged romanticism of Kamurocho, in which all sorts of scum, villainy and opportunity can be found, to the teeth-shattering street fights, seedy nightlife and gloriously offbeat random encounters, Yakuza Kiwami confidently sits alongside its predecessor Yakuza 0, to stake its claim as one of the best and most interesting games to come along this year.
Welcome to the Yakuza
Thematically, Yakuza Kiwami often feels like a far Eastern take on the tales of the Wild West, as swaggering thugs find themselves put down by stoic heroes and the dogged, pioneering pursuit of substance, often above all else, separates the virtuous from the vile in moral terms, but unites them in their ultimate ambition. Indeed, much like the Deadwood boomtown of the 1800s, Kamurocho is a place where you can make your fame and fortune, yet it also remains a place where danger lurks around every street corner and where compassion and mercy are the real commodities.
Stepping into this frame is long time series good egg Kazuma Kiryu, whose star is already in ascendancy as we see him rising up through the ranks of the Tojo Clan, one of the largest Yakuza crime families in Kamurocho. Soon though as one might expect, everything goes awry when his childhood friend, Nishikiyama, guns down his superior for attempting to violate Kiryu’s sweetheart, Yumi. Deciding to take the fall for his friend and spending a decade wasting away in the slammer as a result, Kiryu emerges from his incarceration to discover that everything has changed; the Tojo Clan is in turmoil and Yumi, the one thing that kept him going all those years, has mysteriously gone missing.
With a narrative set-up like that, it’s little wonder that Yakuza Kiwami sets the stage for some real high-stakes drama and yet, while the core of its story does invariably revolve around a bunch of super-serious, double-hard tattooed lads ruminating about money and finger chopping, so too does the game freely embrace it’s a sillier side. And nowhere is Yakuza Kiwami’s less than serious side more brazen than in the sizable range of side missions and activities that it permits the player to engage with.
Whether you’re engaging in a flamboyant Karaoke session, watching some pole dancing ladies, drinking your way through about 20 different types of whiskey or schooling some kids at the local Sega arcade, Yakuza Kiwami always has the capacity to alleviate the po-faced aspects of its narrative with elements that are far more laid back, comical and most importantly, worthwhile.
Though Yakuza Kiwami is a wholesale remake of the very first game which appeared on the PS2, the narrative has been kept pretty much intact, but extra cutscenes and scenarios have been added to better connect Kiwami’s story with that of its immediate predecessor, Yakuza 0. Equally, because Kiwami essentially retains the broadly same narrative that we saw nearly twelve years ago, the game also boasts the same single protagonist setup (unlike Yakuza 0) and some of the larger, time-eating activities such as running a real estate business (which again you did in Yakuza 0) are also completely absent.
What was old is now new again
Speaking of which, though Yakuza Kiwami borrows much from Yakuza 0 in order to bring the original 2005 release up to date, one area where it doesn’t is in how player progression is handled. In Yakuza 0 you could level up your character and unlock new moves and abilities simply by piling boatloads of cash into whatever skill tree you fancied. In Yakuza Kiwami however, progression is tied to that old fashioned RPG trope of experience points and levelling, meaning that your primary avenue of progression will come from the myriad of eclectic side missions and activities that Yakuza Kiwami finds itself drowning in.
Another new change which Yakuza Kiwami brings which further bolsters its new progression system, and in is this sense makes the game superior to Yakuza 0 on some level, is the new Majima Everywhere mechanic whereupon long-time rival Goro Majima can ambush Kiryu from inside car boots, underneath oversized traffic cones and more to kick off a brawl. Should you prove successful in beating down the Majima family patriarch, Kiryu regains points in the ‘Dragon’ fighting style which empowers our hero greatly and allows him to unleash some real bone-crushing misery upon his unfortunate foes.
More than just a neat addition to the progression structure of the game, the Majima Everywhere mechanic also plays into the story of Yakuza Kiwami too. Deliberately framing himself for a murder committed by his best friend, Kiryu ends up spending a decade in the slammer during which time his legendary fighting abilities begin to dull and worsen. Upon his release, and in an effort to make him a worthy foe once more, Goro Majima proposes these spontaneous brawls to sharpen Kiryu’s skills and so, quite keenly, Majima Everywhere feels like a well-thought out addition to the original formula, rather than a half-hearted afterthought.
In terms of the violence, Yakuza Kiwami plays extremely similarly to Yakuza 0. When fights begin, Kiryu can elect to use three different fighting styles to get the job done. The Brawler fighting style allows Kiryu to combine devastating grapples and strikes, while the Rush fighting style places an emphasis on lightning fast kicks, punches and evasions; perfect for enemies that hit like a truck but are slow in doing so. Finally, the Beast style of fighting has our hero dealing slow, but extremely damaging attacks while being able to absorb damage and pick up weapons for use on the fly. In short, Yakuza Kiwami provides no shortage of options for tactical violence and the armies of goons, cage fighters and more besides that you’ll tangle with do a great job of taxing your fighting competence in this regard.
As nice and varied as these styles of fighting are, Yakuza Kiwami really is at its best when players charge up their Heat gauge by beating up enemies and/or blocking their strikes, to unleash a series of facer-breaking attacks. From jamming somebody’s head into a car door and stomping it into oblivion to full on leaping up as high you can in the air and planting them in the ground skull-first, Yakuza Kiwami provides players with a spine-breaking plethora of special moves to use on their hapless enemies.
While Heat actions and attacks have been a staple of the series since the PS2 days, this latest entry in the franchise expands upon that concept yet further still with the new ‘Kiwami Heat’ moves. When your opponent is vulnerable, Kiryu’s Heat meter has topped out into a red colour and he has unlocked sufficient skills in his Dragon style tree, the Dojima Clan protégé can absolutely devastate the opposition with a whole new array of lethally damaging attacks. Again, this is just one more example of how the developer has taken an aspect from the original game and absolutely expanded upon it to create something that encompasses much greater depth and is, by proxy, much more enjoyable as a result.
Simply put, there is an innate savagery to Yakuza’s fistic encounters that you just don’t get from other games, in so far as every punch, every kick, every knee, every elbow and every anatomical slam into something hard all look and sound absolutely horrific. In fact, you often find yourself going out of your way to pull off the more complex Heat based takedowns simply because they all feel so darn satisfying. Honestly, while taking down a bunch of lads with a super quick set of Taekwondo style kicks is grand, it’s not quite up there with dropping some gormless goon groin first on a railing so hard their genitalia tries to escape through their face.
Absolutely bursting with value
The price point is a key consideration here too; make no mistake, with over 70 side stories, a bunch of mini-games, a 60 hour plus runtime and a bunch of free incoming DLC, Yakuza Kiwami is nothing less than the full fat Yakuza experience, it just lacks the usually necessary beefy price tag (the game can be found for $29.99 or less in some places), to convince folks of that. Likewise, the price point falls short of corresponding to huge amount of craft that has gone into this remake, too.
By using the same engine that powered Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami looks light years better than it did in its original incarnation. The resolution is higher, the framerate is higher, there are many more visual effects, the streets are busier and the texture work is, for the most part, absolutely stellar; all rendering the impression that Yakuza Kiwami is an absolutely astounding remake.
Because Yakuza Kiwami uses the Yakuza 0 engine however, not everything is so perfectly even across the board from a visual quality standpoint. Though the textures are definitely improved, there are still some character models which don’t look quite as good as they should. Essentially any character model which doesn’t belong to the main narrative cast tends to be given less attention in the detail department, often sporting simplistic facial features and design to make them appear more like assets from a PS3 game, rather than a PS4 one.
Though not quite so sprawling or wildly ambitious as Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami nonetheless cements its place as an essential entry in the series. Indeed if anything, the leaner content offering (it’s still a 60 hour plus affair and then some), coupled with its lower price point both combine to make Yakuza Kiwami an essential starting point for newcomers to Sega’s increasingly popular franchise.
For Yakuza veterans, Yakuza Kiwami represents the fulfilment of a promise Sega made back in 2005 on Sony’s PS2 console; a full-tilt reimagining that is as brash and as bold as Kazuma Kiryu himself. Yakuza Kiwami is utterly essential.