In the AAA gaming landscape, big franchises are typically expected to continue to expand, change, innovate and push boundaries with each new iteration. When crafting a video game sequel it’s important to make sure the DNA of the series is intact, but also to offer something more. A new, bigger setting, deeper mechanics and additional features are benchmark goals for garnering a positive reaction from fans looking to drop their cash on a game that’s largely based on something they’ve already played. With this knowledge, if you told me there exists a series that’s had four major releases in as many years, that are all near-indistinguishable in setting, mechanics and even some content, and I didn’t already know you were talking about the Yakuza series, I’d tell you that sounds like a recipe for disaster. Somehow though, and I’ll attempt to articulate just how that might be the case in this very review, I find myself enjoying these games more and more with each release.
Yakuza Kiwami 2 retells, and expands on, what is probably one of my favourite storylines in a Yakuza game. In it, series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu and his adoptive daughter are trying to live peaceful lives when the Kanto-based Tojo Clan arm of the Yakuza is shaken by the murder of its current chairman. Being the previous acting chairman, Kiryu is dragged right back into the ongoing conflict between the Tojo Clan and a rival unit, the Omi Alliance, out of Kansai. Before long Kiryu becomes a pawn in the game of war being played by both sides and is taken into protective custody for his sake and the sake of the two opposing cities of Kamurocho and Sotenbori. Without spoiling anything, the ensuing conflict is one full of high stakes turmoil, violence, romance and intrigue that is nothing short of quintessential Japanese gangster drama. It’s not without its issues, but the fact that the plot and much of its presentation have been lifted straight from a PS2 game and still hold up so well is astounding. Plus, SEGA even went as far as to go back over and ensure the translation is impeccable, which pays off handsomely.
Sotenbori: a new city to explore, full of new faces to cave in…
Just like Yakuza Kiwami was a remake of the original Yakuza, Yakuza Kiwami 2 takes the existing framework of the PlayStation 2’s Yakuza 2 and rebuilds it with all of the trappings of a modern Yakuza game. Unlike the first Kiwami though, Kiwami 2 runs on the new Dragon Engine that powered this year’s Yakuza 6, making it look and play more like that game than anything else. Combat is largely the same, a more basic beat-em-up affair than Yakuza 0 and Kiwami with their different fighting styles, although things are somehow even more over-the-top. Equippable weapons make a welcome comeback, and coupled with some fantastically brutal finishing moves (including paired moves with partner characters) and ragdoll physics seemingly cranked up to eleven, combat often devolves into hilarious chaos. It doesn’t matter that things aren’t particularly deep or strategic when it’s possible to hurl a guy through a restaurant window before picking up a nearby bicycle and body slamming him with it while his buddies are sent flying by the sheer momentum of your movements. The experience and upgrade systems from Yakuza 6 are in here too, and even include some unlockable special moves that require highly specific circumstances to trigger but are downright fucking hilarious.
As far as comparisons to the original Yakuza 2 go then, Kiwami 2 is a whole new beast. On top of the gameplay changes, there are a bunch of side quests that either didn’t make the cut or were condensed into tighter sequences, plus there are a heap of new ones, as well. The RTS-style clan battles from Yakuza 6 make a welcome return with some added depth including more direct control of fighters and different objectives. There are also a plethora of minigames, of course, and while not everything from the original game made the cut (no bowling, boo), again there’s some great new stuff to make up for it. The most interesting new addition is outside of the main game itself though, in the form of a series of extra chapters dubbed the Majima Saga. That’s right, everyone’s favourite oddball yakuza Majima gets his own bit of playable action that fills in some of the gaps leading up to his appearance in Kiwami 2. The Majima Saga chapters are devoid of any of the main story’s extraneous activities or RPG-lite elements, but they’re short and sharp and playing as the loose unit that is Majima is a nice kind of palette cleanser to Kiryu and his permanent scowl. In a neat move, Majima can even deposit cash earned in his sections for Kiryu to collect in the main game.
…and some familiar faces to cave in, soz Majima-san
Visually, Yakuza Kiwami 2 is just as gorgeous as Yakuza 6, thanks to the engine the two games share. As always, the series’ strengths lie not in technical prowess (though there are some great lighting and effects work going on) but in the insane amount of care and detail poured into absolutely everything. Kiwami 2’s two major locations of Kamurocho and Sotenbori might be small by open world standards, but they’re busy, lively, places crammed with things to see and positively dropping with atmosphere. Character models look stunning as usual, although oddly enough it seems like a lot of the animation in cutscenes was lifted straight from the PlayStation 2 version of the game and applied to the modern characters. It just goes to show how impressive the series’ animation and direction was even back then, because very rarely does anything look as though it was animated or shot some twelve years ago. Special mention needs to be made to the random two or three times where liquid physics play a part in scenes, as whatever the developers have done to achieve the effect looks better than anything I’ve seen in a game before. It just goes to show how much care and attention the team has put into everything when two seconds of wine being poured into a cup is enough to warrant producing industry-leading liquid animations.
So how is it that these games can get away with being so similar with each new iteration and yet so compelling to play each time? Part of it is down to the core mechanics and gameplay loop, which are a combination of highs and lows that form a great synergy and do well to keep the pacing interesting after even dozens of hours and across multiple games. For me though, the driving force is always going to be the plot and the characters. So, to be able to settle into a new Yakuza game already familiar with every nook and cranny of its setting and knowing what to expect from the moment-to-moment gameplay, it becomes that much easier to lose myself in the story. Just like a long-running TV drama, once the first season or so is over and much of the setup is done, the characters and story arcs really start to shine. It also helps that in the relatively small spaces in these games, everything is so absurdly rich in detail that places take on a realness that makes returning to them feel strangely comforting.
If you love minigames, urine for a treat!
Yakuza Kiwami 2 is just as successful a remake of a PlayStation 2-era Yakuza game as the first Kiwami was, perhaps even more so thanks to the power of the Dragon Engine. It’s unfortunate that the next three games in the series from the PlayStation 3 are only receiving the upscale treatment, but if any one storyline in the series deserved to be given an extreme makeover, it was this one. If you’re up for forty-odd hours of super stylish martial arts action culminating in one amazing boss fight and a tear-jerking finale then this might be the game for you.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher