As a lover of Japanese and niche titles, it’s always a joyous occasion for me when they catch on with a Western audience. Right now, Yakuza is the series that has left me beaming more than any other thanks to increased efforts by Sega to popularize the series in the West. Sega turned heads in the first half of 2017 when Yakuza 0 made everyone learn what they have been missing out on all these years and it is looking to do the same in the latter half of 2017 with the release of Yakuza Kiwami.
With the release of Yakuza Kiwami, the series has come full circle with Sega incorporating everything it has learned from the original Yakuza on the PlayStation 2 to Yakuza 0 on the PlayStation 3/4. This remake offers players a chance to see how the story began through a modern lens, featuring re-recorded Japanese dialogue by the original VA cast, enhanced graphics, frame rates, loading times and a remixed soundtrack.
Despite such additions, there’s no escaping what Yakuza once was, and that will become increasingly clear as you delve into the game’s content. The series was solid from the onset, but it wasn’t until Yakuza 4 and 5 that the series hit its stride. Though the mechanics and appearances have been upgraded, the general tone and content remains the same — for better or worse.
This becomes most apparent when comparing this game with its prequel, Yakuza 0. Sega built Yakuza 0 from the ground up, going so far as to have the game take place in 1988 when Kamurocho was in a state of growth and more vibrant than the one seen in future Yakuza titles. Though series veterans will see this coming, newcomers who only played Yakuza 0 will no doubt be caught off-guard by the tonal shift. Players won’t be able to beat the money out of their opponents and most of the minigames consist of gambling in underground casinos. In fact, the game as a whole is literally darker as most of it takes place at night.
Overall, the story remains the same as it was in the original, but Sega added about half an hour of cutscenes which help fill in lingering plot holes, as well as several throwbacks which bridge the gap between Kiwami and 0.
The game begins in 1995 when protagonist Kazuma Kiryu takes the fall for a murder committed by his lifelong friend, Akira Nishikiyama. After spending 10 years in prison, Kazuma must find his way in a Kamurocho that has completely changed and track down his childhood friend, Yumi Sawamura, who has reportedly gone missing. In the midst of all this, he must protect a mysterious girl named Haruka and deal with the repercussions of a crime he didn’t commit.
The story might be the one thing that Kiwami potentially does better than 0 and several other games in the series. While experiencing a plot through multiple perspectives and seeing how they intertwine with one another has its merits, telling a story from a single perspective allows it to stay on track and provides players with the opportunity to maintain a vested interest in their character and the people that they meet during their travels.
And, of course, players can opt to make a rush through the story, which would take them about 20 to 30 hours to accomplish, but that would mean missing out on all the wonders that 2005’s Kamurocho has to offer. As always, Kamurocho manages to look roughly the same but radiate a new, distinct feeling. As such, whether you’re a newcomer or a veteran, traveling through the city’s streets will be always be an entirely new experience.
In this instance, the flood of emerging businesses and colorful disco clubs are now a thing of the past. Instead, Kamurocho is now teeming with hostess clubs and bars — something that you can hear many residents complain about as you wander around. In fact, many of the new minigames such as dice (chinchirorin (cee-lo) and chou-han), card games (oicho-kabu, koi-koi and poker), shogi and mahjong help reflect the mature tone that the game envelops — people aren’t dancing anymore, they’re gambling in shady, underground casinos. Though if gambling isn’t your thing, Sega also included Pocket Racer, darts, billiards, bowling, karaoke and an all-new minigame called “Insect Queen,” which combines the catfights from Yakuza 0 and the Mushiking: The King of Beetles arcade/card game, as a way to spend time in a more light-hearted manner.
It’s also worth mentioning that some of the more frustrating minigames have actually been taken out. The massage and slot machine minigames have both been removed and there are only two hostesses to romance this time around (or three if you count a certain someone). As a result, not only are the minigames more light-hearted, they’re not stress inducing anymore.
Unfortunately, not all of the side content manages to offer the same amount of reprieve from the story as the minigames do. Kamurocho is home to a plethora of amusing characters and part of what makes Yakuza such a unique series is that your character has the chance to interact with many of them via Side Stories. However, while each Side Story allows you to engage in a story outside the main one, almost all of them play out exactly the same way a part in the main story would: Kiryu encounters an NPC, there’s some dialogue and then Kiryu must go to a certain location where a fight soon ensues. Instances like this are when you can really tell that Yakuza Kiwami is a remake of an older game, as the side stories overall offer less variety than the ones from future games.
Of course, the non-stop action will be a non-issue for those who enjoy its Devil May Cry-esque combat and hate the minigames in general, and they’ll be happy to know it remains largely untouched from Yakuza 0. Outside of a few new abilities and attacks, the only two major additions are new heat attacks which allow players to prevent bosses from recovering health and the return of the Climax Heat Gauge which is now a part of the regular Heat Gauge.
Even though much of the quintessential Kamurocho experience remains intact, there is one thing that helps make Yakuza Kiwami’s Kamurocho different than the others: Goro Majima. Following the events of Yakuza 0, Majima has developed a keen interest in Kiryu and resolves to bring him back up to speed soon after his release from prison by fighting him nearly every chance he gets. The culmination of Majima’s efforts is the Majima Everywhere system which is essentially a gauge of the bond (up to SSS) between Kiryu and Majima.
As the name implies, Majima can appear almost anywhere in Kamurocho depending on certain criteria: he won’t appear during times when he is set to appear in the story, or when you have yet to complete an event needed to move up a rank. Outside of that, however, Majima can — and will — ambush Kiryu at nearly every location in Kamurocho. For example, he appeared at a bar and tried to overcharge me for alcoholic drinks he referred to as “hobo juice,” while another time he popped out of a trash can that I was walking past. Despite the semi-randomness of these encounters (higher rank means more ways to ambush Kiryu), Majima’s best appearances are the ones you are actually tipped off to. An underling named Nishida will occasionally send you messages telling you exactly where Majima is in the city and following his instructions leads to bizarre situations such as finding Majima hiding beneath a massive traffic cone or masquerading as a hostess at a popular club.
Though humorous, the interactions between Majima and Kiryu also serve as further illustration of the tonal shifts that the series is known for. Just like with trying to romance hostesses when you should be looking for your missing childhood friend, the atmosphere between Majima and Kiryu can change in a heartbeat. In one scene, Majima will try to bash Kiryu’s face in with bat, but then in another Majima will threaten to tell everyone in the city that Kiryu (accidentally) tried to rent a gay porn video — granted, that soon devolves into a fight as well.
As I said before, there are plenty of other throwbacks to 0 which help make Kiwami a stronger game than the original. The fates of characters like Nishikyama, Reina and Shinji have far more meaning now that we’ve met and interacted with them beforehand. In addition, side characters like the children from the Pocket Racer minigame also make an appearance, but they’re young adults now. It was cool knowing that characters you’ve met 17 years ago have grown up and still remember you. Little things like that help turn Kamurocho from a mere sandbox where thousands of goons are simply waiting around for Kiryu to thrash them, to a sprawling city with actual emotion.
In fact, it’s the little things that help make the game surpass what it appears to be on the surface. Sure, you could simply play the story and the game would be little more than an action game mired in plot twists and conspiracies. But if you go out of your way to experience everything the game has to offer, whether its the minigames, hostess clubs, side stories or simply exploring, you’ll quickly find that Yakuza Kiwami is greater than the sum of its parts.
Yakuza Kiwami represents the pinnacle of the series, with Sega bringing everything it has learned over the years and refining it into a single neat package. The result is a unique and unforgettable experience that far outstrips what was presented in the original entry. Unfortunately, as a remake of a game from more than a decade ago its impossible for the game to escape its core structure. Yes, the graphics, sound and overall gameplay has been improved, but there is still content in the game which is still evidence of a time when Yakuza was new and Sega was still wading in new waters.
Regardless, Yakuza Kiwami is one of the strongest games to come out on the PlayStation 4 this year and it’s easily among the best in its entirely library. If you’re even remotely interested in the Yakuza series, then you owe it to yourself to pick this game up.