This year, Sega celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Yakuza series. It’s a franchise so prolific it already has seven installments under its belt, including a prequel and a zombie spin-off, with an eighth installment coming next March. But all of those numbered installments can be alienating to someone who wants to give the series a try, especially when they are billed as complex dramas with long-reaching character dynamics and continuity.
Enter Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the PS2 original that started it all, complete with a massive visual update and overhauled gameplay. And it’s a great entry point to this series, assuming you can overlook some of the game’s gray hairs.
Women, Money, and Power
You play as Kazuma Kiryu, an enforcer of one of the many crime families present in Japan, just as he gets in over his head. After being wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of one of the crime family’s leaders, he returns to the district of Kamurocho only to find that things have become more volatile. Old friends have either vanished or have changed completely, there is an entire fortune of ten billion yen missing from the leader’s vaults, and the secret to where it has gone is tied to a mysterious little girl that wanders her way into Kazuma’s protection. What follows is a crime thriller full of double crosses, uneasy alliances, twists and turns, and bloody fights to the death.
The biggest hurdle of Yakuza Kiwami’s story is how it is dominantly presented through cutscenes. More than half of the run time of the main adventure is comprised of these sequences with characters talking, emoting, or acting in small intimate scenes. Despite the stigma that cutscenes have developed over the years, games are meant to be interactive after all, they are handled exceptionally well here. They aren’t wrought with exposition, the characters evoke distinct personality through their actions and their body language – thanks in no small part to some spot on mocap performances – and they perfectly push the story forward.
If there is one character that doesn’t make the best impression, it’s Kazuma Kiryu himself. While the story isn’t entirely focused on him and his motivations are clear, his personality is rather plain compared to the more nuanced and melodramatic performances. He’s the standard taciturn tough guy with a heart of gold and while it isn’t a bad portrayal, since it leads to a lot of the supporting cast playing off him rather nicely, it’s a character type that’s been done before.
Bloody Knuckles and Endless Distractions
This soap opera-inspired narrative delivery is juxtaposed nicely with brutal bare-knuckle brawling. Every major battle in the game has Kazuma beating down multiple enemies with a healthy mix of light jabs, heavy blows, blocks, dodges, and throws. Those attacks can be changed up further by switching between three different fighting styles of fast, balanced, and strong respectively. There’s even an improvised weapon system where just about any loose object nearby can be used on your enemies from a traffic cone to a broken bottle to a street sign to a motorcycle.
But what really makes the combat pop are the special finisher attacks you can pull off. By avoiding attacks and pummeling your foes into paste, you slowly build up a Heat gauge. Once it hits a certain amount, you can pull off a devastating attack. Gameplay-wise it’s nothing original, but the way the game presents the bone-crunching blows, from grabbing a guy by the hair and punching them repeatedly to smashing an entire bicycle on their prone body, is so impactful and fierce I flinched several times.
What breaks up these fistfights and story beats is Yakuza Kiwami’s other claim to infamy: its open-world. On the whole, the city district you’ll spend most of your time in isn’t the biggest ever seen, but there are plenty of activities to keep your attention. In addition to side missions and random encounters against street punks and rival gang members, there are also various bars and restaurants for you to eat and drink (which helps restore your health), bowling allies where you play a couple frames, batting cages to practice your home runs, karoake bars, host clubs where you can hang out with cute girls, and even an arcade with a crane game. What helps make these activities more than just background clutter to the more immediate plot of face-punching and crime family skullduggery is that doing well at any of them grants you experience points to help build your skills.
Yet none of these mini-games feel half-baked. Even when some activities boil down to simple controls, the karoake mini-game boiling down to a Dance Dance Revolution-style string of Quick-Time Events, they are presented and handled effortlessly. It’s a level of polish that Sega is so proud of, there’s even an option in the game’s menu to play any of the more competitive games with another player completely devoid of story.
New Paint, Old Problems
Yakuza Kiwami does bring a lot of novelty and intrigue to the table but on the merits of a remake, it can be a mixed bag. The marketing hypes that the game includes more than half an hour of brand new cutscenes to fully flesh out the characters, and these new snippets of story are integrated seamlessly.
Alternatively, there is a difficulty issue. As mentioned before, the game does a great job switching tone between complex crime thriller and brutal street fighting action pulp, but sometimes the latter suffers from some absurdly cheap enemy ambushes and damage sponge bosses. As early as Chapter 3 of the main story, there are major fights with enemies that absorb damage left and right all while having attacks with barely any pattern to them, leading to a lot of trial and error based-gameplay. There is a new gameplay mechanic, Kiwami Attacks, where if you have the right amount of Heat and you stun the boss you can perform a super attack that will blast through most of that health bar, but even that doesn’t fully fix the problem. If you don’t have enough energy built up to pull off any of these attacks, the boss will start regenerating health, so if you have been getting smacked around losing Heat only to find out the boss just undid all of your hard work, it leads to a battle of frustrating attrition.
This particular frustration becomes even more of an issue when fights in the late game introduce enemies with firearms, which can punch through you effortlessly.
The final curious addition to this remake is an expanded role for the series’ more popular character: the eye-patch wearing psycho, Goro Majima. In addition to his appearance at several points of the main story, he will also randomly appear throughout the game’s open world, randomly challenging Kazuma to a fight. Every single time you win unlocks new special attacks and abilities to a fourth fighting style, which can easily overwhelm most enemies in the game. On the one hand, it is amusing to see this deranged gangster contrive reasons to fight the main hero out of some demented love to see him at his peak, on the other it can lead instances where he’s around every corner stopping the pacing dead in its tracks.
Yakuza Kiwami is a difficult game to thoroughly recommend because it feels so uncanny. From a production standpoint, it looks and feels like a modern game, but the level and boss design feel almost completely untouched from ten years ago. The actual combat is punchy and rewarding, but some of the encounters can boil down to grabbing the largest object nearby and slamming through a horde of cutthroats like a Loony Toons episode. Some of the story beats can lean a little too heavily on contriving a series of fistfights, but the meticulous amount of detail that went into portraying the city of Kamurocho and its various activities are so impressive it’s a time sink all by itself.
However, for the asking price of thirty dollars, I did get a lot more out of it than what I was expecting. It is a much needed entry point into a series that has made its own mark in the industry as a more melancholic and measured crime experience. A game that ate up forty hours of my time and had my attention, even when I was having conversations with a club hostess, picking up spares, or smashing the teeth out of some punk with a baseball bat. If you’ve wanted to get into the series before but didn’t know where to start, this is the game you’ve been waiting for.