It hasn’t even been a year since Yakuza 0 graced the Western audience with its origin stories of both Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima and yet Sega has kept the localization train rolling with the release of Yakuza Kiwami. More than just an up-res remake of the original 2006 PS2 title, Kiwami is a built-from-the-ground remake complete with about 30 mins of new cutscenes, a greatly improved combat system, ties to Yakuza Zero, a whole bunch of new activities, and the “Majima Everywhere” system. As it stands, Kiwami basically does everything the original game did, but bigger and better this time around. Like the name “Kiwami” entails, this is definitely the “extreme” version of Yakuza.
Yakuza Kiwami follows the story of Kazuma Kiryu, the main character of the series. After taking the blame for a murder his best friend commits, Kiryu returns to Kamurocho 10 years later to find himself stuck in the middle of a gang war between new faces, old friends, and mysterious outsiders. His best friend, Nishiki, is no longer the caring person he once was; his love interest, Yumi, is missing; ten billion yen has been stolen; and an innocent little girl may be the answer to everything. Considering this is the story that really started the whole series, its great to go back and see where some of these characters came from.
The plot is heavy on the drama, but like the series is known for, has just enough levity to keep things from being completely grim. What I really enjoy about Kiwami’s plot is that it’s paced perfectly, especially compared to some of the later games. The game is rather quick to start and every chapter keeps things moving and interesting with either big blockbuster action scenes, or startling new revelations to keep you hooked. All the while, you follow a very specific group of people with new characters popping up only when needed. I was very happy playing Kiwami because I wasn’t asking myself “Wait, who’s this guy? What group is he from?” It’s probably the easiest and most pleasing storylines of all the games.
Structurally, the well-paced storyline goes well with how Kiwami plays out. If you’re familiar with the series, there’s nothing different about how Kiwami unfolds. You’ll have main objectives around an “open-world” Kamurocho city and if you simply run point to point, you can watch some great cutscenes and participate in some fun, satisfying, beat-em-up action. While that could take a good 13-15 hours in itself, the main draw is all the different kinds of things you can do in-between the main missions, making it very easy to pour in dozens upon dozens of more playtime. I can’t tell you how many times I said “Okay let’s just finish this chapter quick.” Only to be pulled into three or four separate side-quests or activities I wanted to play through.
Certain bigger games like the slot-car racing Pocket Circuit is back from Yakuza Zero, along with a revamped women’s wrestling rock-paper-scissors game, now transformed into a strange card game. But beyond that, your typical Yakuza mainstays return like playing darts, pool, mahjong, singing karaoke, and more. The biggest and most disappointing omission is the lack of a classic Sega arcade titles to play in Kamurocho’s arcades. Whereas past games let you play Outrun, Space Harrier, or Virtua Fighter, Yakuza Kiwami doesn’t have any playable arcades games. Considering how many other things there are to do in the game, it’s not a huge deal but still one that bummed me out a bit. I can only play the claw grabber game for so long…
One of the biggest additions to Kiwami is the “Majima Everywhere” system. With it, Kazuma Kiryu’s best frenemy, Goro Majima, becomes a constant threat on the streets of Kamurocho. He will patrol random streets looking to fight you, he will pop up in the random encounters you’re already in the middle of, he’ll challenge you to a game of bowling, and he might even be waiting for you inside a hostess club. With each fight, you’ll slowly build up your rank and unlock new, more devastating abilities for one of your four fighting styles. It’s a really goofy and fun addition that will keep you on your toes and the combat benefits are worth pursing Majima all throughout the city. I only wish it felt even more out of the blue and random than it is because some of the more hilarious encounters are actually scripted events used to progress players to the next rank. I honestly think if the whole system was completely random, it would be that much more intense and comedic.
Speaking of the combat, let me wrap this review up by saying I think Kiwami has continued to perfect the fighting in the Yakuza games. With one single character using multiple fighting styles, the game allows players to dictate how they want to play and upgrade that character. Every fight is a satisfying clash between Kiryu and a bunch of thugs. While the combat is a bit button-mashy, guarding and evading come into play when building up your HEAT gauge. Land enough attacks without getting hit, and you can unleash a HEAT move that looks awesome and deals a ton of damage! How you ultimately fight though, is sort of up to you. If you never want to use the slow, hulking Beast style, you don’t have to, and you’re never really forced to. I honestly think Yakuza is at its best here, with one playable character with plenty of customization.
Each style has its benefits and those are easy to see. Rush is fast and agile, Beast is slow, powerful, and weapons-heavy, Brawler and Dragon are the middle ground. Right from the start you can switch through all these styles on the fly and get to see what you like. With each fight, Kiryu gains experience points that he can put into one of 4 separate grids. Each grid contains different, easily identifiable, upgrades. For instance, one grid strictly builds up your stats like health and damage boosts, while another unlocks new fighting actions. These skill grids make it very easy to see how you want to upgrade your character, not to mention that they don’t take insane amounts of grinding to really get into. By the end of my first 20+ playthrough, I had unlocked a majority of my abilities and didn’t feel like the game was abusing my time.
However, I do have to bring up my constant complaint with the series’ combat in that their one-on-one boss fights rarely are as fun as their big brawls. The bosses tend to have way too much health and tend to stay in states where they won’t get staggered for long amount of time. This means that you can be hitting them with a couch and they will just punch right through the attack, making you drop you weapon and fall to the floor. If the combat had more defensive options or a way to more easily break through, I think the boss fights would be much more enjoyable. Maybe I’m just bad, but bosses have always been an issue for me in Yakuza games.
In the end, Yakuza Kiwami does a phenomenal job at bringing a decade year old game to a new era. Everything you want out of the original has been upgraded with so many little quality-of-life improvements the series has seen over the years and it pays off. I miss some of the more outrageous situations that occur in later numbered entries as well as some of omitted mini-games but there’s still plenty to enjoy here. With one of the most enjoyable storylines and easily the best combat the series has seen so far, I will say it once again, now’s the perfect time to start playing Yakuza.