Earlier this year I opened my Yakuza 0 review talking about how rarely the opportunity arises to jump into the deep end of a gaming franchise you’ve NEVER played before. Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the first Yakuza game that originally released on the PS2 in 2005, represents a welcome continuation of that wonderfully enlightening experience. Kiwami allows me to, for the first time, return to Kamurocho, to see how things have changed since I’ve been away and once get wrapped up once more in the cozy bizarreness of this seedy corner of Tokyo. Yakuza Kiwami is more than a simple remake, it’s yet another perfect opportunity to jump into this fantastic series that has been niche for far too long.
In 1995, Kiryu and his childhood friends Nishikiyama and Yumi are involved in the murder of a Tojo Clan Patriarch, Sohei Dojima. Taking the fall for Nishiki’s bloodlust, Kiryu is expelled from the Yakuza and incarcerated for ten years. Upon returning to Kamurocho in 2005, Kiryu learns of a ten billion yen robbery from the Tojo Clan, and it isn’t long before he’s once again embroiled in the world of organised crime.
Stripped down to its basic elements, Yakuza Kiwami plays and looks almost exactly like Yakuza 0. The two games utilise the same engine, the combat has been tweaked here and there but is otherwise identical, it’s even set in the same district of Tokyo (albeit some 17 years after Yakuza 0). In a lot of ways it was strange to play this after Yakuza 0, while they may follow each other chronologically, Yakuza Kiwami is a remake of a PlayStation 2 game and it does show at times. The story isn’t as immediately engaging and I found myself missing elements of Yakuza 0 that were unique only to that game. Majima is no longer playable (more on that later) and there’s no cabaret club or real estate mini-game. It was amusing to discover how wrong I was about certain characters in 0 and their significance in later games. Some major characters from Yakuza 0 are gone by the time Kiwami starts and, in hindsight, the absence of some Kiwami characters in 0 is rather strange.
All that being said, Kiwami is absolutely worth playing and a does a fantastic job at continuing (starting?) Kiryu’s saga. The narrative hooks took a while to sink it, but once it was over I found myself gobsmacked by yet another totally engaging tale of love, betrayal, greed, and revenge. It’s also incredible how I’ve come to love Kamurocho itself. It may be the same area with only a handful of changes, but it feels just as alluring and cozy as it did in Yakuza 0. It’s an entirely unique vibe and the sense of place is second to none. Strolling the busy streets, neon signs pulsing overhead in a language I can’t understand, gangs yelling threats and shop vendors offering their services, this is Kiryu’s town through and through and it feels great to be back.
The other thing making Yakuza games stand out is its enormous amount of side characters and their quests, or ‘sub-stories’ as they’re called. This time around you can equip an item that will mark areas and characters that trigger these side quests on your map. This makes getting swept up in doing side quest after side quest very easy. They’re all fairly simple, usually involving a handful of conversations and a good brawl or two, but it all adds to the tapestry of this town and its often bizarre inhabitants. One moment you’re taking a Japanese judo champion out for a night on the town and the next a young boy at the arcade is showing you the hottest schoolyard fad: a card game that involves scantily-clad bug ladies wrestling each other.
Majima was in the original Yakuza, but for Kiwami, presumably in response to his far bigger role in Yakuza 0, they’ve added the ‘Majima Anywhere’ system. The idea being that at any point while walking around Kamurocho Majima could jump out and attack you. While on paper this sounds fun it’s not integrated as well as you might think, it was also a little irritating. When he’s hiding somewhere nearby you’ll hear a yelp of “Kiryu-Chan!” every time you leave a building, menu or finish a conversation. This quickly becomes quite annoying on its own, but it’s also not all that helpful in terms of an indicator of where the hell he actually is. The other jarring element of this system is how it completely disregards the main story. At one point I’d just watched a cutscene where Majima got roughed up pretty bad, only to walk outside and find him waltzing around as if nothing happened. I appreciate the developers adding new things to their remakes, but this particular addition could’ve used some more work.
Similarly to Yakuza 0, some fights toward the end of the game are stupidly difficult. One Yakuza Lieutenant could not only dodge and roll away from my punches extremely quickly, he also wielded dual pistols. Yakuza games aren’t shooters so when Kiryu gets shot he doesn’t just shake it off, he screams out in agony, collapses to the ground clutching his gut, and loses a chunk of health. You then have to mash X to get back up. So when this Lieutenant would consistently dodge attacks, roll out of the way and then shoot Kiryu mid-roll it extremely quickly became infuriating. Getting stun-locked in a game is never fun, but it’s worse when it’s used to artificially increase the difficulty. Having not played the original I’m not sure how faithful encounters like this are to the PlayStation 2 version of the game, but they certainly feel more dated now than they would’ve back in 2005. It’s mostly the closing hours of the game that have these enemies, with them ramping up in number the closer you get to the finale, but boy did they sour my enjoyment of whatever scenes they appeared in.
I did have some concerns, both before and during my time with Yakuza Kiwami, that it would feel like a significant step down from Yakuza 0, simply because the latter was made by a development team far more experienced and familiar with their tools and characters. There are moments where the games PlayStation 2 origins make themselves known, but they’re nowhere near offensive enough to ruin the experience this game has to offer. It’s truly unlike any other game series out there and I’m ecstatic that it’s finally getting its time in the sun. Kiwami tells a thrilling and surprising story, features engaging combat, hilarious mini-games, side-quests and characters to distract you along the way, and is packed with enough shameless wackiness to make even the hardiest anime fan blush. With Kiwami 2 announced for a 2017 release in Japan, this train is showing no signs of slowing down. It’s time to get on board.
Yakuza Kiwami was reviewed on a Playstation 4 with a code provided by the publisher.