Yakuza Kiwami 2 has a lot of expectations weighing on it. It has to serve as a remake of the original Yakuza 2, a beloved fan favorite. It also has to be an improvement over the last canonical entry in the series, Yakuza 6. Finally, it must toe a line that any remake of a ten-year old experience must walk, making quality of life improvements while keeping the spirit of the experience intact.
While I can’t compare this remake to the original game, I can declare that Yakuza Kiwami 2 is still the gritty Japanese-crime-drama-meets-audacious-interactive-tourism experience the franchise is known for. Even when what it adds doesn’t really amount to much.
There Can Only Be One
Yakuza Kiwami 2’s plot picks up one year after the events of the first game. Kazuma Kiryu is doing what he can to look after his surrogate daughter Haruka while also coming to terms with the chaos of what happened. Losing his spiritual, brother, sister, and father figure in the fallout from an elaborate plan that left his organization, the Tojo Clan, financially crippled.
But things are never simple for the infamous Dragon of Dojima. He is called in by the Tojo Clan to broker peace with another major group, the Omi Alliance, in order to prevent a massive crime war. But things take a turn for the worst when the head of the Tojo Clan is assassinated, and an internal coup within the Omi Alliance comes to a head. What follows is an admittedly convoluted conspiracy plot that Kiryu has to unravel and stop before the fighting threatens to destroy his life and his home.
In short, it’s another Yakuza game plot. This isn’t to criticize the game, just an observation that despite the changes in characters, locations, and motivations, the series has a distinct formula.
What makes Yakuza Kiwami 2 stand out is major villain Ryuji Goda, the Dragon of Kansai. An entitled, egotistic, selfish and ferociously bullheaded gangster framed as a dark opposite to Kiryu’s more reserved, stoic, and sympathetic demeanor. And in the mind of this volatile man, there can only be one Dragon in the criminal underworld.
Goda isn’t the only thing that is great in concept. The entire plot feels like a natural progression of scale from the first game. It progresses Kiryu’s character and motivations; a man losing his family and sense of identity growing to rebuild a surrogate family and reaffirm his sense of self. The shadiness of the criminal underworld escalates from internal affairs to unstable power plays and the threat of complete open conflict. There’s even a love interest subplot where Kiryu teams up with a hardboiled police detective named Sayama, adding an entertaining dynamic not seen in other installments. It is also where the series started leaning in to its more audacious forms of spectacle, such as a set piece where Kiryu has a fistfight with a bunch of tigers like it’s no big deal.
But while these elements are great in theory, they aren’t exactly treated with care. Despite Goda being billed as “Dark Kiryu” and sharing space with the protagonist on the game’s box art and promotional material, he basically drops out of the plot halfway through. You have a big boss battle with him early on, then he’s basically gone until the third act when the crap starts hitting the fan. The romance between Kiryu and Sayama also feels noncommittal and vague. Part of that can be due to the series’ notable romanticizing of the Yakuza lifestyle blended with old school Samurai film ethos (the hero never gets the girl due to awkwardness or duty), but Sayama’s inconsistent attitude on Kiryu from one revelation to the next muddies the water even further.
But the tiger boss battle is still pretty spectacular.
This doesn’t mean the story is bad or incoherent, if there is one series that can still sell the hell out of extended cutscenes and story beats it’s Yakuza. There’s just some noticeable padding.
Walking The Bad Streets
Like all prior installments, Yakuza Kiwami 2 is an open-world game where you can freely explore the districts of Kamurocho and Sotenbori at your leisure. A fully immersive cityscape where you are encouraged to enjoy the night life and occasionally defend yourself from wandering thugs and gangsters. The kind of experience that can go seamlessly from you getting a meal at a fried chicken restaurant on the street corner at one moment, beat the tar out of some punks with your bare hands the next, then unwind with some karaoke.
This is thanks to the game’s progression system. By doing these various activities or eating certain food, you are given points to help improve your stats or unlock certain perks. My only real issue with this system is that unlocking perks and stats are presented in a bland and loosely connected UI. Every time I pause the game to unlock something, it usually involves me tediously scrolling down through the menu, looking for something that might be helpful. Also, while there are plenty of side activities to keep you busy such as golf, mahjong, running a cabaret club and playing full versions of classic SEGA arcade games (like Virtua Fighter and Virtual-On!), certain staples like bowling and various casino gambling games are absent.
Also it just wouldn’t be a Yakuza game without bizarre and hilarious side missions. Everything from being roped into a photoshoot by an eccentric muscle man in a thong to helping a sushi chef get a perfectly balanced knife to help him create the ultimate dish happens. It’s unusual, it’s humorous, and it juxtaposes really well against the more grounded crime thriller main story.
But what really helps elevate the side missions is how they are tied to combat upgrades. By helping certain characters’ problems throughout the city, Kiryu unlocks additional Heat actions, contextual super attacks that help give him an edge against tougher foes. It’s that little bit of extra incentive that makes these activities really pop.
Those punch-ups are still the feather in Yakuza Kiwami 2’s cap. It maintains the streamlined and simplified control scheme of Yakuza 6 – no alternate fighting styles, just grab a random object and use it as a club – and is noticeably more fierce and tactile. Going into a flurry of blows to knock down a big thug, then transitioning into a Heat Action where you use his prone body as a screaming bat to wail on his buddies never gets old.
Finally, there is a criticism that is addressed when it comes to the boss battles. While the fights themselves can still turn into fights of attrition, with Kiryu having to take his shots carefully or risk getting slung around the arena like a well-dressed ragdoll, super attacks are a lot more approachable. While the remake of the first game had a nasty habit of letting their health sponge bosses heal unless you used the right super attack on them, which was unbelievably annoying near the end, Yakuza Kiwami 2’s super finishers are simplified. Boiling down to a button-mashing Quick-Time Event sequence when the big bad is on his last legs. It’s predictable, more approachable, and it still delivers on the exhilarating rush of getting that final devastating blow.
The only real major element that doesn’t really work in this remake is the return of the Clan Creator. I mentioned before in my review of Yakuza 6 that the whole thing felt like a cheap RTS game; more at place on mobile phones than on a modern console. Mindless repetition with barely any strategy involved. Well, it’s back… and it’s still pretty bad. While it has gotten a bit more sophisticated, it still feels like a watered down version of tower defense. Plants vs. Zombies without the charm. It just feels so out of step with the more personal human-level perspective of the rest of the experience and sticks out like a sore thumb.
The Mad Dog’s Day
There is one major addition to Yakuza Kiwami 2. A brand new prequel story involving the series’ unhinged psycho, Goro Majima, explaining what he was up to between the events of the first two games. It has a fully playable Majima, includes rewards that carry over to the main game, and it somehow manages to be too short and drawn out at the same time.
The main story of Yakuza Kiwami 2 is broken up into sixteen playable chapters, while Majima’s side story is made up of three chapters. But in order to fully play Majima’s content, you need to finish the entire main story in order to unlock his chapters. Thankfully, this side story is accessed from the main menu, so it doesn’t interrupt the main adventure.
As for the story itself, it feels half-baked and rushed. Majima starts off the story completely maxed so there is nothing to upgrade, and it makes every single fight feel completely pointless. A few seconds of button mashing and everything’s dead. The only reason to do any side content as Majima is to unlock additional items for Kiryu in the main adventure… a main adventure that you have already beaten. Which just leaves the plot, which is mostly forgettable save for some side characters from Yakuza 0 returning.
It’s not the worst addition ever, but it’s mostly insubstantial fluff.
While the main story can get too melodramatic for its own good and Majima’s side story doesn’t amount to much, I can recommend Yakuza Kiwami 2 on its level of presentation alone. The twists and turns of the plot kept me wanting to see what would happen next, the gorgeous production provided by the Dragon Engine left me wandering the streets just taking in the sites, and the combat is as satisfying as hitting someone you don’t like with a bicycle. While I can’t say that Yakuza 2 still holds up under a modern lens, I can say that this remake kept my attention to the end. And in that regard, the developers should give themselves a round of applause.