Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio | Publisher: SEGA | Genre: Action-Adventure | Platforms: PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One | Reviewed On: Xbox One
For a lot of people in North America, the Yakuza franchise was either unknown to them or this very-Japanese series that many didn’t give the time of day. It really wasn’t until Yakuza 0 that the series got a new lease on life and became wildly popular here in North America. A prequel to all the previously released games, it served as a primer on Kazuma Kiryu and his journey through the criminal world of the yakuza. With Yakuza Kiwami, players were treated to a modern update of the original Yakuza. Yakuza Kiwami 2 is a different type of remake. With the inclusion of new story content, the removal of other story content, and a combat system that initially seems limited compared to Kiwami and Yakuza 0, Kiwami 2 will not go down smoothly for everyone. In the end, it’s a tighter, more streamlined game that walks a fine line between remake and revision.
The narrative is pretty much identical to the original version of the second game. Kazuma Kiryu tries to broker peace on behalf of the Tojo Clan by forming an allegiance with the Omi Alliance. Unfortunately for Kiryu, he has a rival in Ryuji Goda – the Omi chairman’s son – who has other plans for the Omi Alliance. Most noticeable is how much tighter the story is in Kiwami 2 versus the first game. There are very few tangents within the main story and a lot less loose threads to tie up by the end, which helps maintain pacing. It’s a fairly straightforward story that introduces new characters and builds upon the past two games without spiralling out of control. Which is impressive, since the story also brings players to Sotenbori, Osaka in addition to Kamurocho, providing an additional smaller area to explore that will be familiar to Yakuza 0 players. It’s a shame that the game drops the ball with its ending, suddenly dropping conspiracies and ulterior motives one after another in a more extreme version of what is expected from these games.
Despite that, it’s a testament to the power of the first game’s storytelling that every character re-introduced in this entry brings with it a backstory that is easily recalled. Characters like Haruka and Makoto Date still serve a purpose in this game, but the one who stands out the most in Yakuza Kiwami 2 is Goro Majima. The “Mad Dog of Shimano” feels more at home within the main story of this game than Kiwami. This remake specifically gives Majima a new side story that ties closely to his past in Yakuza 0 and takes place between the events of Kiwami and Kiwami 2. It’s a surprisingly emotional extra bit of content that gives Majima more weight within the Yakuza franchise and will be new content to those who have played Yakuza 2 before this remake.
Of course, the substories are what have made the Yakuza franchise so fascinating for many people. The side content has always felt like the heart of the series, as the lovable Kiryu helps out the citizens of Kamurocho. His character is so endearing and fully fleshed out at this point that he easily stands as one of the best video game protagonists solely due to how much he meshes with typical open-world game design. A side quest isn’t a side quest to Kiryu. Instead, he thrusts himself (or is thrusted by others) into a situation that plants him into a moral conundrum or mystery that he is more than willing to solve. It helps keep things interesting for players because even the shortest bit of content adds nuance to Kiryu as a character.
Where the game’s story content falters is in those brief asides that introduce content like the Clan Creator (which was previously in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life) and the Cabaret Club Grand Prix (which brings back the Cabaret Club minigame from Yakuza 0). While the Clan Creator is rooted in the main story a little bit better than you’d expect, you never have to touch it again outside of the one mandatory tutorial. Same goes for the Cabaret Club which just feels forced into the main story, and also isn’t that fun to engage with. The Clan Creator content at least offers a more entertaining diversion, incorporating real-time strategy elements into clan warfare. There is still plenty of side content worth playing including the inclusion of Virtua Fighter 2 and I will never get tired of doing karaoke. Still, the features incorporated into the main story just feel so forced.
For those coming into Kiwami 2 after playing the previously mentioned Yakuza 0 and Kiwami, there are many elements that will seem impressive. The most noticeable is the Dragon Engine. It is a technical improvement in almost every regard. Fights on the street begin much more seamlessly and going in and out of buildings isn’t locked behind a loading screen. The game also looks significantly better, but that’s par for the course for any remake of a 14 year-old game in a new engine.
There are some glaring issues on technical side of the game, though. The game crashed on me three times during my playthrough: twice trying to do the same action in a substory, and another time just as I was leaving a building. There would be noticeable hitching sometimes as the game stalls when trying to use a Heat move in combat. Some weird flickering with the edges of hair is extremely noticeable on facial hair and creates a weird shimmering effect. These all add up to break immersion in a game that so often feels propulsive in its pacing. While not a deal-breaker, it’s a shame to see so much polish go into the game and still have it coming out with noticeable issues.
What will probably disappoint a few people who have no knowledge of the games outside of Yakuza 0 and Kiwami is the combat system. While the upgraded use of weapons in combat is a huge aid in battle, there is also only one combat style versus the four different ones in previous games. There’s no switching between Rush and Beat, because it isn’t justified anymore. Kiryu is the “Dragon of Dojima” and his moveset in Kiwami 2 incorporates elements of the other fighting styles, with an increased emphasis on Heat actions. It will likely rub some players the wrong way, but dedicated Yakuza fans have been playing the games like this for a while and having multiple fighting styles just doesn’t make any sense at this point in the series.
The divide between the die-hard Yakuza fans and the ones who jumped on at Yakuza 0 is more palpable in Kiwami 2 than other games. It’s less faithful to the second game because it not only cuts out substories, but also adds in minigames from newer titles in the franchise. It’s a case of being blissfully ignorant because those who don’t know about the cut content won’t have any idea, while those who do will struggle to wrap their heads around some of the decisions around cutting it. There’s even a tiny third area that isn’t included in Kiwami 2 but all of these changes only emphasize that this isn’t exactly a remake. If you didn’t know about the changes, there’s no reason to suddenly care. They offer slightly different experiences, but Kiwami 2 easily improves upon the original with its added Majima story and quality of life improvements.
Maybe the most stark difference is in one key moment of the game that uses different licensed music than the original game. It’s all a matter of taste, but the difference between using a funky, rock song versus Yakuza Kiwami 2’s inclusion of alternative metal is extremely vast. Tonally, the alt metal fits with the style of game that Yakuza is, but cinematically it’s a dud and a moment that should have been more emotional was instead comical. Licensing issues are one thing, but a change like that is one that even those who haven’t played Yakuza 2 will likely find grating.
Yet even with weird decisions like this, Yakuza Kiwami 2 is undoubtedly a great game. At this point, playing any of these games is the equivalent of comfort food. It’s also rare for a remake to really justify a purchase to those who have already played the original, but the visual improvements and the inclusion of the Majima content is worth it alone. Those newly initiated to the franchise will have a lot of fun roaming the streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, and will no doubt enjoy the main story just as much as previous games. Which ultimately is the point of a remake like this. Kiwami 2 emphasizes the importance of updating games so younger players can experience something they may never have had the opportunity to otherwise. Any Yakuza fan can take comfort in knowing that it doesn’t matter how many tiny elements change in these remakes, so long as more people can experience what has made the series so reverent to so many.