Review – Yakuza Kiwami
Of all the HD remakes and remasters to have cascaded our way in the last few years, Yakuza Kiwami is the last one I expected to become my favourite. But it has.
My first experience with Yakuza was the third entry in the series on PS3. Having just returned home from a trip to Japan, playing it almost felt like being back there.
I distinctly remember giddily telling friends at the time that it was so spot-on in terms of the look and feel of the country I’d just visited. Although playing Yakuza Kiwami didn’t fill me with the same sense of nostalgia, time having dulled my memories, it’s still an amazing slice of Japanese culture. Actually, it’s a slice of foreign culture unparalleled in gaming. Nowhere else will you find an experience so acutely focused on so many aspects of day-to-day life in another country.
It’s honestly surprising that this game was originally released in the west for PS2 over 10-years ago. It’s such a specifically Japanese game made for a Japanese audience that I have to give props to Sega. If it hadn’t taken a risk, western gamers would have been deprived of a truly excellent series.
Yakuza Kiwami is a remake of the first game in the series. Set in both 1995 and 2005, it follows series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu; before and after his release from prison. Expelled from the Tojo clan and cast out by most of his underworld contacts, Kiryu sets out to find his missing fiancé, recover 10 billion yen stolen from the clan and reunite an orphan with her mother.
All in a day’s work.
Sega has also included 30-minutes of all new cutscenes in Yakuza Kiwami which help to clarify some of the plot details in addition to providing callbacks to Yakuza 0. If you’ve played the prequel there are quite a few easter eggs for you to find.
Fans of Yakuza fiction, Japanese films, anime, manga and the like are the real target audience here. And they’re guaranteed to have a hell of a time. If you’re not a fan of those things then Yakuza Kiwami isn’t for you. It’s a niche inside a niche. If the story doesn’t grab you, the gameplay isn’t going to help much.
Not to say that the gameplay is bad. It’s just an acquired taste. Set in the fictional Japanese location of Kamurocho, Yakuza Kiwami is part open-world, part beat ‘em-up, part RPG, part dating sim, part… well, it does a lot of things. Not all of them well, but most.
A lot of Yakuza’s gameplay is centred on fetch-quests. I mean a lot. Usually, an abundance of fetch quests would mean a terrible game. In the past 12 years, game design has evolved and gamers now expect a lot more from the experience, but in Yakuza Kiwami, it works. It helps a huge deal that Kiryu is likeable and relatable in the extreme and that Kamurocho is a joy to explore and a sight to behold. It’s also fortunate that the narrative is strong enough to keep you invested in running back and forth across the city. Even for the 500th time.
For all the time spent completing fetch quests, an equal amount is dedicated to fighting. Be it a boss, the Yakuza, some random punks on the street or arch-nemesis Goro Majima; fighting is the other thing you’ll spend most of your time doing. Thankfully, the combat system is fairly robust.
Branded to Kill
Keeping the differing fighting styles system in place from Yakuza 0, players can switch on the fly between the balanced Brawler, slow and powerful Beast, speedy Rush and the special Dragon of Dojima style. Punch is tied to square, kick to the triangle and throw to circle, while X is a dodge. Combos can be performed by pressing different buttons together and in different orders.
Levelling up these fighting styles is the key to victory with 48 upgrades available for each style. The first three styles can be upgraded by spending experience points earned by completing missions, sub-stories, fighting etc. Each upgrade is cleverly designed to fit into the already established system. Instead of having to learn dozens of combos, the basic few you learn at the state are improved and augmented. It’s a simple and elegant design solution.
The Dragon of Dojima style can only be upgraded through the brand new Majima Everywhere system. Kiryu’s nemesis Majima is desperate to fight him in order to prove once and for all who the better Yakuza is. After his incarceration, Kiryu’s skills are a bit rusty. Not content with battling a Kiryu below his full potential, Majima decides to stalk him and provoke him into fights to help him get back to where he once was.
Essentially, you’re never really safe from Majima. He can show up anywhere, anytime and when he does you’ll be forced into a showdown. Every time you fight, whether you win or lose, you’ll get one step closer to unlocking a new ability. I went out of my way to track Majima down and by doing so I was hugely over levelled by about halfway through the game. I’d highly recommend it.
Another Lonely Hitman
The Majima Everywhere system is a lot of fun. Not just because it helps you level up and keeps you on your toes. Majima is one of the best characters in the series and having him pop up and be his whacky, eye-patched self can bring some much-needed levity to proceedings. Though on occasion it can cause a bit of tonal whiplash.
Yakuza, on the whole, is a bit of a tonal nightmare if I’m honest. Again, something that should kill the experience, but somehow doesn’t. The story is incredibly complex, detailed and a serious and sombre affair. The sub-stories though are another thing altogether. From helping a man win stuffed toys from the claw machine for his “daughter” to feeding a stray puppy, there is no shortage of sub-stories available. With 78 to complete, there’s a lot of room for the weird, whacky and wonderful.
Having some of these sub-stories butt up against the main plot can create a dramatic shift in tone. For example, early on, Kiryu barely escapes with his life, having been betrayed and shunned. After the cutscene, I went to the closest sub-story available and was taken on a date with Majima in drag. It’s all part and parcel of the experience, but expect some of it to be a jarring pivot.
Like a Dragon
Majima in drag does come dangerously and questionably close to being offensive which is a line Yakuza seems to crisscross throughout. For all the strides forwards it takes, it takes just as many back. There’s the woman with a huge gambling debt you need to track down who turns out to have been born a man. There’s the cross dressing brother and sister and there’s Rina, the bi-sexual hostess.
These four characters all appear in Yakuza Kiwami and none of them are played for jokes or used as a plot device. Their orientation and self-identification is never called into question and Kiryu treats them no differently from anyone else he meets. I was impressed that Yakuza could be so progressive, but there are still troubling elements in the game that undo some of the good work.
Asia is a bar in the game that you can attend for no other purpose than to watch girls dance on a pole. They’re not naked, but aside from one or two sub-stories that take place inside, Asia serves no purpose other than ogling semi-undressed females. Worse is MesuKing. A trading card, battling game, MesuKing features scantily clad women of impossible proportions, dressed up as various insects, doing battle.
MesuKing is shown to be a game played by children in Yakuza and Kiryu is initially taken aback due to the salacious nature of the imagery. There are a series of sub-stories that require you to play MesuKing and while the male part of my lizard brain enjoyed the flesh on display, it’s gratuitous in the extreme. Not to mention pretty weird.
One step forward, two steps back.
Aside from exploring and fighting, there are a huge number of things to do in Kamurocho. You’re able to visit a range of restaurants, shops, hostess clubs and bars, play billiards, darts, Mahjong, poker, blackjack and more, take part in an underground fight club, do Karaoke and go to the batting cages amongst others. Yakuza Kiwami is filled to the brim with mini-games and content and each has specific requirements that count towards game completion.
Playing through the main narrative only would probably take around 10-15 hours, but you’re going to want to dive into the diversions. Not only do they help level you up, they give you a better understanding of the world of Yakuza and break up the fetch-quests and fighting. I’m over 80-hours in and have 90% completion, so that gives you an idea of value for money.
Thankfully, there’s a new game + option which carries our progress over. There’s also a Premium Adventure Mode that lets you explore without any story missions. Both are a good way to mop up completion percentage, though Premium Adventure lets you change the time of day at will and has all locations unlocked.
Yakuza Kiwami isn’t perfect, nor is it for everyone. It’s clunky and a bit dated and while there are some surprisingly progressive elements, there are some shockingly regressive ones present as well. The story and characters are the stars of the show as is the world of Kamurocho. Fans of the series will love it and there’s certainly the opportunity for people new to Yakuza to jump on board.
Yakuza is a niche series and it’s definitely an acquired taste, but if it hooks you it’s unlikely to ever let you go. Bring on Yakuza 6. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and get 100% completion.
Yakuza Kiwami was reviewed on PS4 using a digital code provided to PowerUp! by SEGA.
Game title: Yakuza Kiwami
Game description: The inaugural entry in the critically-acclaimed YAKUZA series first shed its light on the seedy underbelly of Japan and the criminal organizations that thrive there.
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