If you were to ever compile a list of protagonists that rate highly on the “getting shit done” index, Kazuma Kiryu would be approaching top three. The main hero of the Yakuza series, Kiryu has been cracking skulls and clotheslining criminals on the streets of Kamurocho for over a decade, but Yakuza itself has largely flown under the radar over here.
When it was first released on the PS2, people mistakenly referred to the game as GTA meets Japan. Sure, it’s about criminals and there’s free roam elements, but that’s missing the point entirely. Yakuza at its heart has always been an RPG beat ‘em up that just so happens to be a crime story. Then you’ve got the odd zombie game thrown in for good measure, but let’s not talk about Dead Souls, eh?
Despite Yakuza having 8 games in the series released in the West, it feels like the franchise has only begun to get mainstream recognition in the West with the release of Yakuza 0. The decision to set 0 before the events of every other game allowed the franchise to get out from under the weight of its own history, and cater to new fans by offering a standalone adventure. If you’re yet to experience the world of Yakuza, 0 is one of two perfect jumping on points. The second one is Yakuza Kiwami.
Kiwami is a retelling/remake/remaster of the first Yakuza game, with all the gameplay updates brought in with 0. You control control Kazuma Kiryu as he kicks seven shades of sake out of the Japanese criminal underworld. Combat itself is simple enough, as you mix light attacks, strong attacks, grabs and the environment to decimate anyone foolish enough to stand in your way.
The special Heat attacks also return, which allows Kiryu the chance to make use of certain circumstances to brutally decimate people. There’s always been a darkly comic level to the heat attacks in Yakuza, as they accelerate from zero to curb stomp faster than you can drop 300,000 Yen at a hostess club. Before you ask, I only went there to ensure my review was thorough. Yes, that’s the ticket.
Just like in Yakuza 0, Kazuma Kiryu can switch between four different combat styles depending on the situation he’s in. Brawler is your standard issue style; jack of all trades, master of none. Rush turns Kiryu into swift kickboxer style fighter, able to dart around opponent and capitalise with quick combos. It’s an ideal style for 1v1 boss fights, as you can easily avoid attacks and counter with your own offense.
Beast is perhaps the most situational fighting style, as Kiryu becomes a human tank able to pick up weapons as part of his combos. Unless you’re in an area densely populated with weaponry and goons, Kiryu is a little too slow to keep up with most serious opponents. We’ll talk about Dragon style later on.
The blood spilled during battle flows through the same familiar streets of Kamurocho, the fictional district of Tokyo that Yakuza fans have become familiar with over the years. Champion District, Theatre Park, Purgatory Tenkaichi Street, the casino hidden behind a ramen shop that requires a secret password; it’s all there.
Despite being fictional, the attention to detail that comes with building this world is almost amazing. Those Virtua Fighter 4 posters plastered all over Club SEGA help establish the mid-2000’s time period. That immersion is somewhat lost when it comes to localisation, as people use colloquialisms like “hangry”, which only recently entered the popular lexicon.
Still, credit to the Yakuza team for creating a small hub that’s packed with sidequests, activities, collectables and more than the odd hostile encounter. Whilst the plot itself is engaging, you’ll often find yourself wrapped up in the litany of sidequests that are available on practically every corner. Even if they are mostly simplistic “go here, do this” missions, they typically reward valuable EXP and give the player some comedic punchline that makes each quest enjoyable.
The main plot itself, once you finally get round to it, remains largely unchanged from the original game. Kiryu still takes the rap for the murder of his patriarch Dojima, only for him to return to civilisation 10 years later to find his Yakuza family, the Tojo Clan, are missing 10 billion yen and his childhood friend Yumi is nowhere to be seen. Intrigue, murder and betrayal follow. If anything, Kiwami is more like a Director’s Cut version, with extra cutscenes revealing what happened to Nishiki during Kiryu’s time in jail, and the rivalry between Kiryu and Majima gets fleshed out further.
Majima’s role in Yakuza Kiwami is one of the most important aspects, thanks to the implementation of the Majima Everywhere system. It’s similar to the Mr Shakedown system from Yakuza 0, whereby a tough boss roamed the streets and would challenge you to fight if he spotted you, except here we have the infinitely more charismatic Goro Majima. From chapter 2 onwards, Majima can be encountered roaming the streets of Kamurocho, and fighting him unlocks new abilities for Kiryu’s Dragon style.
The whole convoluted premise is that Kiryu got rusty during his 10 year stint in the slammer, and Majima wants to restore Kiryu to his former glory by fighting him. Often. Most battles with Majima give you abilities that improve the Dragon style, which eventually makes it the most crippling style in Kiryu’s arsenal. Without the Majima Everywhere system, Dragon style is less like Smaug, more like Mushu.
The fascinating caveat of the system is that the more you fight Majima, the more obtuse and hilarious his encounters become. The game doesn’t lie to you by calling it Majima Everywhere, as he could turn up anywhere. We won’t spoil some of his more elaborate appearances, but you should make sure you’re stocked up on health items just in case.
If there were any criticisms to throw towards Yakuza Kiwami, it’s that the camera has a tendency to shit all over itself when backed up against a wall. It’s hard to defend yourself against attackers when the camera starts climbing the wall and giving you a near-sighted bird’s eye view of proceedings.
It could also be said that Yakuza Kiwami doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from Yakuza 0. Swap the 80’s suits for mid 2000’s puffer jackets and whatnot and the two games become practically identical. Still, at this price on Amazon, you’re getting a 20+ hour adventure through the seedy underbelly of Japan, with enough endgame unlockables to entice series fans to stick around for a bit longer. Whether you’re new to Yakuza or a long time veteran, Kiwami is worth your time.
Review copy purchased
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Early on in the game, you're told that Kiwami means “Extreme”. While this isn't an extreme makeover, Yakuza Kiwami is an extremely good retelling of an underrated PS2 gem.
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