In one of Yakuza Kiwami’s opening missions, series protagonist and hard-edged Yakuza lieutenant Kiryu Kazuma goes in search of a birthday gift for a special lady. Upon locating the perfect present, Kiryu finds himself at the mercy of a greedy pawn shop owner and decides to ask a friend for a loan, who agrees, believing Kiryu to be using the cash for a visit to the local brothel. On returning to the pawn shop, it turns out that the owner has intentionally raised the price on the item and so Kiryu returns to his friend to borrow more money, who is impressed by his readiness to return to the brothel for another round. This process repeats another couple of times, all the while forcing the player to walk back and forth between the same environments and talk to the same people repeatedly to solve what boils down to an inane fetch quest. In any other game this would come off as lazy and boring mission design, but in Yakuza, intentionally drawn-out and obfuscated gameplay design married with engaging and often darkly funny dialogue is just part of the experience. This is the design DNA of the Yakuza series as a whole, and as this new version of the very first entry on PlayStation 2 proves, not much has changed since the beginning.
Yakuza follows the aforementioned Kiryu Kazuma, a member of the Dojima family of the Yakuza operating out of Kamurocho, a fictional Japanese precinct based on the Kabukichō red-light District in Japan. After taking the fall for the murder of the family boss, Kiryu spends ten years in jail, only to find the Kamurocho families in turmoil on his release. Without going into too much more detail, what follows is an excellent, well-written mob story full of great dialogue and interesting characters. As with every entry in the series to follow, the core gameplay loop in Yakuza generally involves watching said story unfold in a few cutscenes, walking from place to place in Kamurocho while being accosted at random by gangs of thugs looking to fight, and participating in surprisingly detailed diversionary activities along the way. It’s old-school action adventure fare, and the game fully cements its relatively niche status by sticking (unflinchingly) to this same repetitive format throughout – but Yakuza succeeds so significantly on the strength of its storytelling and the painstaking detail with which the setting is that it almost never feels like a chore to play.
Do Game You Even, Bro?
Kiwami, It’s Japanese For ‘Extreme’!
Yakuza Kiwami is a remake in every sense of the word. Built from the ground up using the same engine as Yakuza 0, Kiwama takes the entire original game and both enhances and expands it, bringing it in line with the later entries in the series. The most immediate change is the overall presentation; gone are the fixed camera angles, segmented city and JRPG-esque battle transitions of the PlayStation 2 version, replaced by a fully-open world where only building interiors are separated by load screens. Visually, this new version looks very close to Yakuza 0, sharing the same detailed character models and painstakingly detailed city, although still bearing the same overall structure as the original game meaning that it looks and feels a little more dated by default. Kiwami also features all new audio, with the awful English dub from the localised PS2 version being replaced by an all-new Japanese recording. Yakuza Kiwami looks and feels like a new game, and the extent to which the developers recreated the original almost note-for-note in all new detail is commendable. The whole thing runs at a full 1080p/60fps, and features some much needed quality-of-life improvements as well, such as the ability to save and load at any time.
Combat in Yakuza Kiwami also receives a major overhaul. The multiple-discipline fighting style of Yakuza 0 makes a return, adding much needed depth to the action. Players can now swap between four distinct styles on the fly, and spend experience on a plethora upgrades to suit their preferred methods. The most interesting (and often hilarious) addition to the combat experience is a system the developers have dubbed Majima Everywhere. A recurring character, and most recently a playable one in Yakuza 0, Goro Majima already played a fairly major role in mainline story of the first entry. Early on in this new version though, a new scene occurs in which Majima laments the dulling of Kiryu’s combat talents after having been in the slammer for a full decade and vows to help him regain and refine the use of the deadly Dragon of Dojima fighting style. To achieve this, the Majima Everywhere system sees Kiryu’s rival-cum-sensei using the power of disguise to surprise him at any given moment and initiate one of many mini-boss style battles. These attacks occur in increasingly surprising and entertaining ways, and they serve to remind the player to always be prepared, suspicious of every convenience store clerk, high schooler and oversized traffic cone in sight.
There’s a solid concept for a Saturday morning anime in here, somewhere
But Wait, There’s More!
With the visual and core gameplay improvements alone, Yakuza Kiwami could already pass as a full-fledged remake, but in a commendable commitment to pleasing its fans, the developers at SEGA have seen fit to stuff Kiwami full of all-new content as well. Several new minigames make an appearance, each with their own new ‘substory’ side missions to complete. Pocket circuit racing makes a comeback, and as with every side activity in a Yakuza game, is far deeper than your typical throwaway distraction in an open world game. An all new collectible card battling arcade game appears in the form of MesuKing – a strategic take on rock-paper-scissors where well-endowed women dressed (quite provocatively) as insects duke it out to the delight of a worryingly young fanbase of children. Existing minigame diversions such as visiting Hostess Clubs are also more fleshed out in Kiwami, and every other facet of the game has received some form of added content, be it new side quests or items to find, or the 30-odd minutes of new story scenes peppered throughout. All of this adds up to make Yakuza Kiwami a great value offering, much more than your average video game remake.
The critical thing in all of this, however, is that despite the impeccable execution of this re-release – it’s hard to say who Yakuza Kiwami is for, exactly. It’s easy to assume that it caters to series newcomers, and those hot off of completing this year’s prequel, Yakuza 0. It stands to reason that those players would jump at the chance to experience the next chapter in Kiryu’s story, but with the next major release being Yakuza 6, and no sign of the four games in-between getting the same re-release treatment, newbies are going to find themselves missing a whole lot of the saga’s unfoldings regardless. Series veterans are perhaps better served here then, offered the chance to replay the game that started it all, albeit with all of the modern trappings they’ve coming to expect as the franchise evolved. Maybe, but the problem there is that so much of Kiwami is either an exact re-telling of the first game, has directly inspired the later entries, or borrows liberally from them, and as a result the whole thing will feel so familiar that it borders on redundant.
You vs the guy she tells you not to worry about
Yakuza Kiwami is a worthy release, and sets a very high benchmark for video game remakes. Based on an already excellent title, it successfully blends the original’s engrossing story and engaging gameplay with the accumulation of twelve years of franchise evolution. Kiwami will satisfy anyone starving for more Yakuza action since playing the equally great Yakuza 0, at least until Yakuza 6 hits the West early next year. SEGA’s newfound commitment to the series’ Western fans is laudable, especially when considering the budget-friendly RRP of $69.95 AUD at launch.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro