Yakuza Kiwami is the sum of every other game in the series. I don’t know that it would exist without every other game that has preceeded it (though I guess, if you want to be pedantic, most come after it in the greater series timeline). What Yakuza Kiwami can’t quite do is bring itself to be better than any of them.
Far beyond a simple remake of the original 2005 PS2 beat ’em up Yakuza (or its original Japanese title Ryu ga Gokuto, “Like A Dragon”), Yakuza Kiwami upgrades the experience with visuals befitting current gen hardware, a number of modern mechanical overhauls and a few changes just to sand down the rough edges that have accumulated with the passage of time. It’s also given the game’s writers the opportunity to go back to the script, filling in a few glaring plotholes, and adding subplots that allow the game to foreshadow the events of later titles. This also lets them reference events from its prequel, this year’s Yakuza 0. I was initially surprised to see Kiwami releasing so soon after Zero but having played them both I can see why — they are almost two halves of the same story, their plots both intersecting with and flowing on from one another.
For fans of the original Yakuza, notoriously oddball and most definitely niche as it was, Kiwami‘s dogged insistence on preserving it in amber while also work in its new material means its a game filled with strange eccentricities. Your ability to look past these moments of inconsistency will dictate the amount of fun you have with it.
The game begins as though you’ve loaded up a save from the end game of Yakuza 0 in which the player has 100%-ed everything. Series protagonist Kiryu Kazuma, a trusted lieutenant in the Dojima family is at the highest point of his young life. He’s a rising star in the family, he’s a force to reckoned with in a fight, everything’s coming up Milhouse. But then, in a whirlwind series of cutscenes and plot twists, Kiryu finds himself in jail. For a decade. During this time, his skills fade, his once-energetic outlook on life is replaced by a more cynical, hardened one. He finds himself back to where he started, struggling to look after a lost kid and trying to piece together what’s happened to all of his friends since he got put away.
It’s also 2005 when he gets released from the big house which which means there’s mobile phones everywhere and everyone’s singing Eurobeat songs at karaoke because Initial D is huge right now and what does anything mean anymore? So, you start punching people.
Fighting is one of the systems that Kiwami has updated for 2017. If you spent time with Yakuza 0 this year, and especially if you dug into the real estate plot line, you’ll already be quite well versed in Kiwami‘s four fighting disciplines. Dragon of Dojima has been made a full time style, activated by pressing down on your D-pad, along with the Brawler, Beast and Rush styles.
Kiwami also holds onto Zero‘s ability tree over original’s clunkier upgrade system. Everything you do, from fights, karaoke, side quests and even stopping for a bite at a good looking restaurant gets you XP which can be traded for upgrades on any of the three trees. Dragon of Dojima upgrades, however, can only be unlocked by completing certain challenges. This could simply be sparring with Kiryu’s trainer or through the much-vaunted new feature, Majima Everywhere, in which the series’ leopard-print wearing androgynous serial-harasser will spring out at you at random intervals. This feature is actually quietly to your campaign progress so you may find it takes you longer than you thought to upgrade the DoD style than you thought, but in that lies another wrinkle.
Majima is a source of constant dread for the player. Less attacks than they are outright muggings, Majima appears with monotonous regularity to battle you and he is, more often than not, impossible to avoid. He is a drain on your health bar, your resources and your time. Crossing the city from one objective to another becomes a fraught experience because he could show up at any moment, health bar not only refilled but multiplied, for round two. The only saving grace you’ve got against him is that, if you spent time playing as Majima in Yakuza 0, then you’ll know all of his moves and be able to read them as he readies each blow. Had I not had that specific experience, I would have found myself much more frustrated with his incessant challenges.
Majima is also one of the areas where the game tries to weave in story elements from Yakuza 0 and opens up strange inconsistencies for itself. There’s two versions of Majima in this game and they couldn’t be more different from each other — there’s the Majima who shows up in story cutscenes to mince, chew scenery and taunt you with memories from Zero, and there’s the deranged Majima who leaps out at you every few minutes like a mad cat in a YouTube video. It’s bizarre to walk into a cutscene that features Majima treating Kiyru with total sincerity and a pleasant demeanour despite having bayed for his blood in the street only a few moments prior. He’s played as an eccentric, but in a game that tests the suspension of disbelief as much as this, it is occasionally a bridge too far.
This is something can be seen again and again through Kiwami‘s larger story. Scenes from the original game are painstakingly recreated, their dated camera movements and of-the-2000’s action movie staging sticking out like sore thumbs. This is juxtaposed against what is a genuinely well-crafted script about the fall of Kiryu’s friend and Yakuza wunderkind Nishiki. It’s every inch on the level of the slow-burn crime drama seen in Yakuza 0.
Like Yakuza 0, it’s writing, acting and animation that pulled me through Kiwami‘s story when all the other bells and whistles would make me want to stop. Camera angles aside, there aren’t many cinematic games today doing the things that Yakuza has been doing for over a decade now.
Yakuza Kiwami is an interesting assortment of moments that are excellent and moments that are not and there’s not much between them. It’s storytelling is some of the best in the business, but in every other respect it may be simply too jarring or combative to fully get into.
Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: Great visuals; Great story
Lowlights: Leave me alone, Majima, jeez
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.