When Yakuza first hit American stores in the mid-2000’s it was mistakenly marketed as a Japanese answer to the Grand Theft Auto series. Undoubtedly, Yakuza has a lot of open world tropes in common with Grand Theft Auto but Yakuza has so much more strange, odd-ball charm and delightfully off-kilter surprises shoehorned inside of it that saying it’s “like GTA” is like saying that Far Cry is a lot like Doom. Rather than being a redundant knock-off of everyone’s favourite open world crime spree simulator, Yakuza might just be the most uniquely idiosyncratic series of games to come along in many, many years.
Yakuza Kiwami is a remake of the very first Yakuza game from the mid-2000’s using the fantastic tech used in Yakuza 0 and updating the first game in the series in almost every way. The promotional blurb for Yakuza Kiwami promises updated high-definition visuals, improved dramatic story scenes and added game mechanics to bring it up to par with more recent entries. Being a sleeper hit in the PS2 era hasn’t exactly implanted a long-lasting nostalgia in the minds of western gamers, being that it was often suppressed by SEGA for being “too Japanese”. That means that this remake will be many PS4 players’ first encounter with the game, but it’s been remixed in such a way that it assumes players are fresh from the grips of the excellent Yakuza 0. Indeed, following on from the 80’s themed prequel earlier this year, Kiwami seems to be an absolute no-brainer. Retrofitting a lot of plot points and game mechanics from 0 into Kiwami’s mid-2000 setting makes a lot of sense and is the kind of retcon work George Lucas could have done with the original Star Wars trilogy. A lot of plot points from Yakuza 0 are tastefully implanted into off-hand lines of dialogue, making references to the empty lot, the nihilistically nondescript patch of concrete from Yakuza 0 that people died to protect is often referred to in regretful mourning by Kiryu here in Kiwami. But it doesn’t linger, and it’s never awkwardly plastered on top of the original story for the sake of a few fanboy references. Instead of being distracting fan service it feels much more like a clever, hidden pay-off for the well observed.
The story itself, largely kept intact from the original Yakuza game from the mid 2000’s, is in comparison to later entries in the series a much tighter and more focused affair. Considering the sprawling spider webs of double crossing that makes up a lot of the Yakuza lore, it’s easy to mistake Kiwami’s relatively short run time as needless streamlining. A casual play through clocked in at just under 30 hours which is nothing to sniff at, but it’s a mere snack when compared to the 100 hour four-course meals in games like Yakuza 5. Couple that with the fact that some of the mini games are mysteriously absent and it feels much more bare bones than previous iterations. Admittedly, the culprit could be that original source material had yet to grow into what the series eventually became but in reality it doesn’t hurt the game. Kiwami is a much more concise experience that doesn’t drown the player in content and would rather players see most of what it has to offer on the first lap around the track rather than relying on New Game + to get everything done.
That’s not to say Kiwami’s story is slumming it, though – far from it. There’s still an overflowing cast each with their own desires, objectives and conspiracies to enact. Despite the refined focus, Kiwami is still a storytelling heavyweight and rewards patience with lots of broad character development down the line. In fact, it’s surprising to see Kiryu as a more confrontational go-getter when he’s portrayed as a stone monolith of peace and democracy in later entries. It’s a testament to long-term storytelling and the respect that Yakuza has for its own characters that the seeds of personal narrative arcs are planted years in advance of them actually coming to fruition in later games. Expect more of that from Kiwami, but with the added pleasure of seeing where a lot of fan favourites began their stories.
Fighting in Yakuza Kiwami is still an absolute delight, too, having been built off the back of an already solid fighting engine in Yakuza 0. Punches and kicks land with crushing, bone snapping brutality, while throws send enemies hurtling towards brick walls – it all still feels absolutely devastating. Yakuza is from the Indiana Jones school of hard knocks where punching and kicking will send tough guys into piles of street trash and parked motorcycles, bowling over their pals as they go. This is aided by a remarkably clean and crisp audio visual design that sandwiches the violence of Yakuza between weighty bone-breaking street fighting and Dynasty Warriors levels of artistic license. By landing combo’s, dodging past enemies attacks and taunting downed opponents, Kiryu’s “heat” gauge will rise, which, when full, will allow him to unleash a torrent of satisfyingly ridiculous special moves that will cause large amounts of damage. Kiryu also has four separate fighting styles to level up and with each enemy dispatched Kiryu is given a set amount of points to spend on those styles as he see fit. Saving up those points to purchase a veritable sack full of new devastating moves is wonderfully rewarding.
But in between cracking the necks of his enemies and the melodrama of Yakuza life Kiryu will spend much of his time wandering around Kamurocho (a fictional area of Tokyo) looking for things to do: eating at restaraunts, playing baccarrat and blackjack in hidden, underground speakeasies, getting into fight club tournaments, racing stupid little toy cars, going to hostess clubs and frequenting arcades – just living life pretty much like real people do. The difference between Yakuza and other open world games starts here. While it’s not unusual for games of this kind to be littered with cookie cutter side content, Yakuza actually makes it worthwhile by giving context to what is essentially filler content. Because these activities are associated with actual locations in the world, Yakuza takes time to populate these places with characters and stories that help to flesh out the world. It transforms a pretty pointless pool mini-game to actually feeling like Kiryu is relaxing on some downtime between jobs whereas in games like Grand Theft Auto side activities are just disconnected mini-games that are launched from inside the world. Kiryu will walk around Kamurocho a lot throughout Yakuza Kiwami, and the player will spot little landmarks that will raise an eyebrow because maybe Kiryu spent a lot of free time there just… living his life. And that’s what Yakuza is – between all the beat downs and gangster dramatics, Yakuza is a fascinating simulation of Japanese life made by people that love who they are and where they come from. It’s wonderful.
So far so Yakuza, though, right? This might strike long-time fans of the series as awfully familiar. Well, actually, it is familiar, but that’s absolutely fine. Yakuza is such a completely bonkers mix of styles and genres that it’s the one time where familiarity is absolutely fine. That said, it isn’t afraid to introduce some refreshing new features. The Majima Everywhere system for example is a sub-plot that runs alongside the main quest where fan favourite Majima will pop up at random intervals in the open world to fight Kiryu. Not only are a lot of these fights unavoidable, much like Nemesis from Resident Evil 3, but it’s also the only way to level up the dragon style move set. Being consistently interrupted by Majima might sound jarring but having to account for the sudden curve ball thrown into the fray while travelling from a-to-b is a lot of fun. Majima will hide in plain sight under huge objects, disguise himself as other characters in the game or he’ll just straight up insert himself into other fights Kiryu is having with NPC’s. Rather than being an irritant, Majimas interruptions become a great excuse to be distracted and gives the player a chance at some awesome dynamic moments that didn’t exist before in previous Yakuza games. Plus it actually plays a much bigger role in that it attempts to further flesh out the relationship between Majima and Kiryu.
It’s amazing to see Yakuza finally become a success in the west after being held back for so long. Thankfully, with the success of Yakuza 0, and hopefully now Kiwami, perhaps more games will make their way to the west before Yakuza 6 comes out in 2018. But for now, Kiwami is an excellent update to the original game with some innovative new features and some old familiar ones players already love. Just don’t be put off by its short runtime.