Release Date: 8/29/17
This year has been like a dream for Yakuza series fans. Yakuza Zero gets released earlier in the year, now Yakuza Kiwami, with Yakuza 6 in the near future and Kiwami 2 announced. I reviewed Yakuza Zero previously and now we’ve returned to the game that started it all. Remade with better graphics and additions to the narrative and some assorted upgrades it’s time to return to the beginning to see how it holds up a decade later.
The game starts out in 1995, seven years after the events that took place in Yakuza Zero. While the prequel was split into two interweaving narratives Yakuza Kiwami sticks to just telling the story around Kazuma Kiryu, the Dragon of Dojima, an enforcer in the Yakuza who is almost about to move up the ranks into what would be upper management. In Yakuza Kiwami our protagonist through circumstances does time for a crime he didn’t commit, and spends ten years in jail. When released he has been exiled from his Yakuza clan, the Tojo Clan, which is in the middle of an internal crisis when 10 billion yen go missing. With the girl he loves missing, his foster father caught in the middle of the rift between Tojo Clan families and his sworn brother possibly involved in creating the crisis Kazuma tries to make sense of the new world he has been released into.
One great thing about the original game being so cinematic is that a lot of this not only has held up extremely well over a decade but I enjoyed it even more in Kiwami. The original release featured voice acting of varied quality, and I’ve become so used to the Japanese voice actors from all of the other games that hearing them play the story out just feels more consistent. That and Kazuma Kiryu swore a lot in the US release long ago and that’s inconsistent with his character. Among the additions to this game are some small scenes which give even greater context to the events in the game. Originally Nishikiyama, Kiryu’s ‘brother’, did not have much to explain how his character evolved from the 1995 game opening to 2005. After Zero the change over time only become harder to reconcile. Kiwami throws in scenes that while not very long go very far to develop who this character is and what motivates him. All this makes the story stronger regardless if you’ve played Zero or not.
There’s also a few scenes added to make the new ‘Majima Everywhere’ system make sense narratively. The Majima Everywhere system is pretty self descriptive. There’s a character named Goro Majima, one of my favorite characters in the series, who is a bit crazy. In Yakuza Kiwami he wants to help Kazuma Kiryu regain the strength he might’ve lost while in prison. This is a creative way to explain why Kiryu has lost all of his abilities from Zero and how he needs to regain what he’s lost. Majima will throughout the game leap out to surprise Kiryu and challenge him to a fight. Sometimes when he’s hiding in a trash can or through an incredible amount of disguises and scripted events.
That said there’s a moment in the main story where that character gets injured and to see him magically back out on the street moments later in fighting shape is a disconnect that I wish had been thought out more. There are times when Majima will take a break and they really should’ve had that trigger after that part of the storyline for at least the rest of that chapter.
The problems Mark wrote about when it comes to the story also remain true a decade later. The noble yakuza trope is alive and well in the games and with Kiryu at times feel forced. He’s a man who lawn darts people head first into the ground, and as an enforcer probably did some really bad things, and yet we only see him helping strangers, taking care of lost children and feeding hungry puppies. I think the softer voice of the Japanese voice actor actually makes this more believable than the “Bring that shit!” voice of the original US voice acting. While I still think Kazuma Kiryu is one of the greatest characters in video gaming I also can admit that criticism still holds true. He’s an anti-hero stereotype, a super badass criminal who somehow only does good things and you never get to see the bad things, and the only people he beats up are clearly bad guys. Later games kind of make the attempt at showing how he could never be a regular guy because his main talent is turning people into broken piles of what used to be people. While that dichotomy in itself would be interesting if the games ever chose to explore it Kiwami doesn’t do so.
Still a decade plus later and the story of the game’s plot mostly holds up, and the additions outside of Majima Everywhere fit and are an improvement.
Graphically the game looks much better than the PS2 version though doesn’t really compete with other PS4 titles and looks equivalent to the PS3 Yakuza games. Even Zero looks a little better mostly because the bubble period of the 80s added an interesting aesthetic that was stylish and bright compared to the duller 2005 look. Still the cutscenes look great and it’s awesome to see familiar scenes play out crisper and in a higher definition. Still the game has a lot of little details and goes for style all over the place. The game does crowded streets well with people holding hands, trying to push tissues packets onto you, and so on. The reflection in the rain puddles and the amount of detail everywhere give Kamurochu a unique identity. The attacks animate decently and look painful, and the new Kiwami Heat attacks are fun to see play out. I experienced some framerate drops in a few battles and cutscenes however it was never consistent and it didn’t hinder the experience any.
One of the major changes the game makes from the original version to the remake is continuing the multiple fighting styles from Yakuza Zero. Kazuma Kiryu has four distinct fighting styles. Each has different speeds and Heat moves, devastating moves that rely on certain conditions and a meter on the top of the screen to activate. These styles are:
Rush, which is a fast paced striking only style. No grab button, but the moves come off rapid fire and can easily dizzy enemies. This style also has a bob and weave instead of a block, and allows quick evasions. This makes it easy to rapidly keep a combo going by attacking, quick stepping, attacking, and weaving between enemy attacks and other dangers.
Brawler, which features slower attacks than Rush but has a grab and allows for immediate counter attacks. Some finishing attacks can be charged for extra damage and there are grab moves and as it’s leveled up have Heat moves that counter a lot of different enemy attacks or cuts through their defense.
Beast, much slower but higher impact. If there’s an object that can be grab it will automatically be grabbed if Kiryu is attacking and it’s within reach. Both regular and finishing attacks can be charged up, even every move in a combo can be charged. Between the auto weapon grabbing and some Heat moves it’s one of the better styles for controlling crowds.
Dragon of Dojima, which is similar in many ways to Brawler. It’s a throwback to the moveset that Kazuma Kiryu used in the original game and has some very powerful attacks and counters, however it can ONLY be upgraded from fighting Majima and from using a specific trainer that has requirements tied to a side mini-game that makes it less useful until it’s been upgraded. To begin with you can’t even use Heat actions or add Heat to the Heat bar until they’ve been each unlocked for this style.
The different fighting styles blend well together and are fun to switch between to see how they complement each other. It certainly adds a bit more depth than the original which only had the one fighting style to upgrade. There are bosses where you might realize one style just isn’t working and switch to the other, or sometimes that one fills the Heat meter quicker and then switch to another style where the Heat moves are more useful in that instance.
The majority of the game is interacting with other characters, triggering cutscenes and smashing the heads in of random gangs who for some reason never seem to get the word out that someone with Kiryu’s description is not a person to mess with unless they’ve paid their health insurance premiums (for those not in the US health insurance premiums are like protection racket payments but to a company instead of the Yakuza). There are times when the hitting things sections are longer and lead to a boss fight as well. Essentially the core of the Yakuza games from the last decade still follow the lead set in the first, they’re beat em ups set in a gangster soap opera where you gain experience points from punching people and use that to get better ways to punch people and it worked then and it works now.
Outside of the main structure the game also features a ton of extra stuff to do, from billiards, to bowling, darts, batting cages, karaoke, dating simulator, gambling, and more. One of the strangest additions is a return of the women’s wrestling/fight club from the first game. Only it’s back as a collectible card arcade game where the women dress as bugs in bikinis to fight each other on a tree trunk surrounded by a crowd of beetles who are cheering them on. It’s basically rock, paper, scissors with wrestling moves and unlike the mini-game in Yakuza Zero while it features bugs it isn’t buggy and it’s easier to beat than the mess from Zero. Pocket Racer returns as well and is, well, more pocket racing worth it for the dialogue from the character running it.
There’s also 78 sub missions within the game itself. This is where I appreciated the game more as while nearly all are from the original title I don’t know that I ever was able to find them all or activate them before so it’s a mix of nostalgia and content I never saw the first go around. The submissions, like in most Yakuza games, are strange, touching and interesting enough that you’ll want to hunt them down just to see what the next one offers.
Playing it is a wonderful reminder of why I got into the series in the first place and many of the decisions made make it worth playing through whether you’re someone who played the original or new to the series.
However not everything added works and there’s issues with the game. Here’s where there’s a lot of comparison to the original.
Some of those issues are problems Mark encountered in his review of the PS2 game and an abundance of new ones. The camera angles and how it follows the character is so much better than the original and there’s no longer a load screen for each fight encountered on the street which makes the game so much smoother. The soft lock on does mean that there will be times you’re hitting air instead of enemies still as even with the multiple styles how the combat plays out hasn’t much changed in the last decade.
One of the problems for this game is that new players who’ve played Yakuza Zero will feel that this game is a step backward instead of a step forwards. There’s less characters, cities, and activities. The SEGA arcades don’t have arcade games in them aside from the bug battling mini-game. Yakuza Zero had friendship quests, different Management mini-games, and so on. Yakuza Kiwami is a remake with a budget price though I can’t help but feel like some Zero players might be disappointed with some ways the game takes a step back and how Zero feels like it expands on the ideas of Kiwami instead of the other way around.
Of course it’s ten year old game and in some ways it certainly feels like it. There’s a reliance of a lot of missions which direct you to go to the other side of the map, and once you get there to go back again. If you don’t know better than to buy health items at the store you might find yourself in trouble at some of the early game main missions where there’s long periods between hopefully finding one.
Some of the way the game adds newer mechanics to the older structure doesn’t always feel that balanced. In the original the game only had one fighting style to improve and you didn’t have to distribute experience points to learning bits of several styles and could focus on expanding the one. Here there are several styles to improve and in the early chapters of the game it doesn’t give you really any tutorial on how to use them effectively (Zero had trainers who would teach you best ways to use the styles), and there’s not a lot you can upgrade early on which can leave you with several styles that are stripped down versions of themselves. Effectively that means that the hardest part of the game is in the opening chapters of the game. Once the styles have been leveled up a bit and new heat moves are unlocked along with multiple ways to change styles the game becomes kind of easy, which is the opposite of a typical difficulty curve.
For all that I love Majima as a character the Majima Everywhere system is something I enjoy but that’s only because I’ve grown to love that crazy bastard over several games with wanting more Majima. Yakuza Zero lets you play as Majima. Kiwami lets you fight him. Over and over and over and over again. If you’re looking to keep upgrading the Dragon Style to its fullest you’ll probably fight him 50 or more times. That’s not an exaggeration. There are separate milestones for just fighting him 10 times for each of his forms. I once fought him, walked two steps, got surprised by him and fought him, went into a store and had to end up fighting him, and then ran into him down the road from the store. Frankly, I’m not sure if people who might be experiencing the character for the first time are going to like him after having to fight him dozens of times. Even people who played as him in the first game may not enjoy it. There are some fun and creative ways they are go about it, and I mean Goromi alone is worth the entire mode, it’s just that the battles don’t differ much and the same strategy can be used for nearly all of them. It also doesn’t really make me want to replay the game right away knowing that’s going to be a thing all over again.
So if you’re wondering if you should play this or Yakuza Zero, play Yakuza Zero first. Even if this might feel like a downgrade after playing through Zero enough has been changed and added to the original title in Kiwami that is explained in so much greater detail in Zero (like the fight styles) and if Kiwami is your first exposure to Majima you might never want to see him again. Yakuza Zero is a better introduction of the characters and mechanics of Kiwami. While I played through the series in order and then the prequel, I don’t think with the changes made in Kiwami that’s the optimal way to play the series. Get Zero, then come back, and then when Kiwami 2 comes out go get that as well. Hopefully that one will have a Tigers Everywhere system.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Despite being over ten years old Yakuza is still a great game, and while Kiwami sometimes stumbles in finding a good meeting ground between the newer additions and the older structure, it is absolutely worth seeking out. Just play Zero first.