Yakuza Kiwami is kind of an odd beast. Developed and published by SEGA (with some help from Deep Silver) as part of a celebration for the tenth anniversary of the Yakuza series, Kiwami is a complete remake of the very first game in the series. It’s a very faithful adaptation, with cutscenes remade on an almost 1-to-1 scale, and with dialogue and pacing almost untouched, though a few scenes have been added to help fill in some of the plot holes. This is all perfectly normal since remakes of old games aren’t exactly unusual. What makes Kiwami unusual is where it stands in the series as a whole; it’s coming out after the release of Yakuza 0 earlier in the year, a title which is now the jumping in point for newcomers to the series. That means for many new fans (myself included), the remake of the first game is actually going to be the second real exposure they get of the series. To add to the oddness of this situation, Kiwami was even made with the engine used in Yakuza 0’s creation and translates the combat from 0 wholesale. Maybe because of all of this, Kiwami acts as both a remake of the first game and oddly like an expansion of the sub-stories and systems from 0.
Of course, let’s put all that aside and ask the big question: Is Kiwami good enough to receive recommendation, or is the game somewhat overshadowed by the previous release of Yakuza 0? Let’s dive in and find out.
Kiwami’s story follows the adventure of one Kazuma Kiryu, a (surprise, surprise) yakuza. For those not in the know, the yakuza are basically just very well organised Japanese career criminals; while what they’re doing is definitely illegal, they’re careful and powerful enough that the police can barely touch them. In this story, one of the most powerful groups of yakuza is the Tojo Clan, the organisation that Kiryu works for. The Tojo and Kiryu have made a home out of the city of Kamurocho, a red light district which is based on Tokyo’s real life red-light district of Kabukicho. When we join Kiryu, he’s already a fairly high ranking member of the particular subsidiary of the Tojo that he’s employed under and is, indeed, climbing the remaining ranks quickly. For all intents and purposes, life is very good for Kiryu; he’s about to enter into a highly sought after position, he’s got his best friend (a man named Akira Nishikiyama) by his side, is slowly working up the courage to confess his criminal life to his childhood sweetheart, and all while in the prime of his youth. All in all, things couldn’t be better.
And then he’s convicted of murdering his boss.
Note that I say convicted. It’s actually his best friend, Nishikiyama, who pulled the trigger, but Kiryu takes the heat to save Nishiki’s skin. It wasn’t just the murder charge that he saved his friend from either, since killing your own boss is practically a death warrant in the yakuza world; it’s telling that Kiryu considers his expulsion from the Tojo as getting off light. Of course, the ten years of jail time he has to serve is probably his biggest concern. Nevertheless, Kiryu faithfully serves his time, even as he’s cut off from the outside world.
Ten whole years pass, and Kiryu is finally set free. The world he steps back into is almost alien to the one he left behind. Technology and society has marched on without him, and even the city of Kamurocho has radically changed, with a gargantuan new tower built in its heart. More pressingly, the situation with his friends and old crime family has deteriorated: His childhood sweetheart is missing, the Tojo are in disarray after discovering their reserve of ten billion yen has just up and vanished, and Nishikiyama (the friend he had saved so long ago) has turned into a ruthless captain of the Tojo. Kiryu takes it upon himself to try and find out just what the heck is going on and try and save his old organisation from tearing itself apart while also saving his friends, even if he has to risk his life to do so. Along the way, he encounters an innocent young girl by the name of Haruka, found at the scene of a bloodbath. Despite initial appearances, this girl will not only prove crucial in helping to calm the tornado of madness that’s blazing through Kamurocho but will prove to be far more important to Kiryu than he could have ever realized.
That’s just the set up for the story of Kiwami. From there, the game goes through what is basically a classic crime novel if you ratcheted up the stakes and drama by several times and then added about 500% more fistfights. The resemblance to crime novel-like writing isn’t a coincidence since a fairly well known crime novelist by the name of Hase Seishū actually helped to pen the story. His style of writing helps to keep the narrative very mysterious and intriguing, and it keeps the events bound to a fair amount of realism, at least as far as this sometimes cooky series goes. As far as moment to moment writing goes, every character is given a strong and memorable role, and Kiwami does have some really great set piece moments. It bears mentioning that Kiwami comes with a few extra scenes compared to the original release: There are a few plot holes left by Nishikiyama that get some much needed closure, and his motivations for his change in attitude are given some more screen time. These additions help to round out what was already a very strong story and helps to bridge the gap between the Nishikiyama that players saw during the events of Yakuza 0 to his classic depiction in the first Yakuza game.
Of course, all the story in the world wouldn’t matter if the game had lacklustre gameplay. Thankfully, Kiwami’s gameplay is great fun and definitely the highlight of the remake. The use of different styles returns from Yakuza 0: Kiryu can switch between the fast and dodge-friendly Rush stance, the balanced jack-of-all-trades Brawler stance, and the indomitable and fierce Beast stance. There is a fourth style in the form of The Dragon stance, which is as cool as its name makes it sound but is a little unusual, so we’ll come back to that. Each of these different stances allows you to launch a different kind of attack and use a different defence and also allows you to switch between all four to match whatever situation you find yourself in. Kiwami specifically adds a few new ways to change stances extremely quickly, which can result in some interesting home-made combos. Importantly, each different stance ties into the game’s Heat system: If Kiryu can attack his enemies without taking damage, he’ll build up ‘Heat’ (which as far as I can understand is energy born from pure hype and manly power). If he has enough Heat, he can launch unique attacks that play out in mini-cutscenes mid-fight, which often result in huge amounts of damage. The particular situations he has to be in to activate the Heat moves are often quite specific, such as having his back to the wall when an enemy attacks or to be in a certain stance when attacking a blocking enemy.
You would have thought these conditions and the fact that they result in non-interactive cutscenes would mean they get dull, but I think this system is an absolute blast. Since you have to work to build up the necessary Heat to use these attacks AND lose that Heat when activating them, they feel like momentary rewards for performing well in combat, and the whole thing creates this satisfying ebb and flow. Speaking of satisfying, the developers clearly put a lot of work into making the combat and especially the Heat moves feel really crunchy and visceral. I’ve seen Kiryu stomp some poor punk’s head onto the pavement more times than I can count, but that somewhat sadistic rush never gets old. Though, it probably helps that everyone in the Yakuza universe is apparently made out of iron since no one will die during combat, even if Kiryu literally shoves a knife through their chest. The series is funny like that.
This gameplay style is one of the reasons that I said that Kiwami sometimes feels like an expansion of 0. While there is a tutorial that goes over all of the basics of combat, they throw all of the stances at the player right out of the gate and make the game’s extensive upgrade system available immediately. This is great for players who are coming from 0 since it means they can immediately start experimenting with the new fast switches and getting back in the swing of things. However, I think this might be a little overwhelming for a completely new player since the game doesn’t stop to properly lay out the important differences between the stances. Combine this with the fact that Kiwami throws more difficult fights in the early game than 0, a newcomer to the series might be somewhat intimidated. To that end, Yakuza 0 is likely still the best place for completely new players to jump in, but this does mean Kiwami is great fun for anyone just coming off the heels of 0.
One of the completely new features for Kiwami is a system called ‘Majima Everywhere.’ This is an odd but pretty humorous running side-event where Kiryu is constantly hounded by fan-favourite Goro Majima, a yakuza that works for a different part of the Tojo than our protagonist. Majima has this weird fixation on Kiryu and was disappointed to learn that Kiryu let his fighting prowess get rusty over the ten years he spent in jail. To help get his “buddy” get back into top form, Majima is determined to surprise and ambush Kiryu whenever possible and slowly strengthen him back up. This is actually tied directly to the previously mentioned fourth style of The Dragon; unlike every other stance in the game, The Dragon’s potential power can only be obtained through fighting Majima (and training with a particular teacher, though Majima’s involved in that too). What starts off as a lacklustre stance that hits too hard and has no Heat moves can be powered up to be almost completely unstoppable but only by fighting Majima. Luckily, the ‘everywhere’ in Majima Everywhere isn’t an exaggeration. Majima will chase you dowt the street, interrupt random encounters, force his way into mini-games as you play them, ambush you using a variety of tactics…he’s everywhere. This is great fun to watch unfold, because Majima’s completely bonkers style of both fighting and sneaking up on Kiryu is strongly contrasted against Kiryu’s own comically serious self. It also shows a crazy sense of dedication for the joke on the developer’s part since Majima will show up at least once in most of the side activities. The Yakuza series is well known for its huge list of optional content, and Yakuza Kiwami is no different, even adding stuff that wasn’t in the original release. Add the fact that Majima shows up at least once in all of this side content, and you’ve got a great addition to already fun mini-games and distractions.
Of course, the game isn’t without its problems. There are a few issues that crop up thanks to the fact it’s being so faithful to the original release of the game, namely that the story has a pretty erratic pacing since the narrative was written before the developers found their comfort zone. As an example, Kiryu goes from picking up Haruka from a pretty brutal bloodbath, trying to comfort the traumatised girl about the things she saw, to immediately getting into funny shenanigans, like helping her to feed a lost puppy. The sharp contrast of events feels sloppy at best and is a good example of the kind of stumbling pacing the original game suffered from. It’s not only the old content that presents some issue, however. While the Majima Everywhere stuff is a really fun system, it makes Majima a little too familiar to the player. In the original release, Majima only shows up a handful of times throughout the entire game, and whenever he comes swaggering on screen, it’s a surprise to the player, as well as a sign things were about to get serious. Here, even if the remade cutscenes still give him the same kind of presence, it’s much harder to take him seriously. How am I supposed to find him intimidating after we played around with miniature racing cars at a kids event? Just for the record, that does indeed happen, and it is indeed pretty hilarious. Not to mention the heavily RNG nature of the Majima Everywhere system can make it a pain to find all of the situations necessary to upgrade your ultimate style.
In summary, I hold that Yakuza Kiwami feels like an expansion of 0 that also acts as a remake of the original game, as confusing as that idea is. Its more brutal boss-fights, the re-use of 0’s combat, and a few pieces of side content that wouldn’t make sense unless you’ve played through 0 all contribute to the idea that completely new players to the series would just feel lost or intimidated rather than endeared. That being said, for fans of the series and those who have played 0, this is nothing but great news. Not only do they get to experience the still very good story of the first Yakuza game in shiny HD and can experiment with the new ways to use the combat system that Yakuza 0 set up, you can also get more chances to interact with everyone’s favourite mad-man, Majima. This is all without mentioning that you can get all this great content brand new for only around £30 (or your regional equivalent). Even if the game has its share of problems, I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this title to anyone who enjoyed Yakuza 0 or is already a fan of the series. The start of Kiryu’s journey is also the start of an amazing game series, and you owe it to yourself to dive in.
Publisher: SEGA in Japan and North America; Deep Silver in European and Australian territories.
Platform: PS4 (limited release for the PlayStation 3 in Japan)
Release Date: 29th August 2017 (released a year earlier in Japan)