A Legend Reborn
Remakes in the gaming space have kind of gone the way of the dodo. With HD remasters being a lot easier to produce, most publishers don’t feel the need to commission full-on restorations of their back catalogs anymore. The last time we saw some truly extensive remakes was back in the early ‘00s with Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes (both on GameCube, coincidentally).
Whether or not Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s intent with Yakuza Kiwami was to fully remake the original classic or just update it is irrelevant; the end result is that we’ve gotten a smoother, prettier version of the first Yakuza title that doesn’t take advantage of every update done to the series over the years.
It still makes for a kick-ass game, even if it’s not the definitive version of the legendary title.
Yakuza Kiwami (PS3 [Japan], PS4 [reviewed], PC)
Released: January 21, 2016 (JP), August 29, 2017 (US, EU), February 19, 2019 (PC)
For those unaware, the Yakuza games are a long-running series of action-RPG inspired beat-’em-ups that can be summed up as a Japan simulator. The main setting of every Yakuza title, the city of Kamurocho, is based on the real-life red-light district of Tokyo with meticulous attention to detail. If you were to hop on a plane and take a stroll down the streets of KabukichÅ, Tokyo, you’d be surprised at how not lost you are.
Yakuza Kiwami is a remake of the first game in that series, which released 12 years ago in Japan. The game follows the story of Kiryu Kazuma and his return to society after a 10-year stint in jail. On a stormy night in 1995, Kiryu’s best friend, Akira Nishikiyama, ends up killing the patriarch of the Tojo Clan after the man kidnaps Kiryu and Nishiki’s best friend, a woman named Yumi.
Since Nishiki has been under hardships as of late (his sister is in terminal condition), Kiryu tells him to flee the scene with Yumi so that Nishiki doesn’t end up abandoning his family in their time of need. This one choice then changes Kiryu’s life forever, as he becomes banished from the Tojo Clan and has 10 years of his life stolen from him.
Unexpectedly, this only encompasses the prologue chapter of the game. Not a lot of time is wasted on exposition or even stage setting. A new subplot is added about Kiryu getting a ring for Yumi during the intro, but the game ushers you pretty quickly through these events before shifting into modern times and starting the next series of events.
While this is a little jarring, it’s also refreshing with how bloated the series has gotten in some of the later installments. Yakuza 4, for instance, is loaded with expository cutscenes that can play for upwards of 20 minutes at a time (the finale being feature length). The longest you’ll ever sit around in Kiwami is roughly 15, by comparison, and that is at the end of the tale.
Anyway, when Kiryu returns to Kamurocho all those years later, he comes to find that Nishikiyama has become corrupted with power and that the Tojo Clan has now lost 10 billion yen at the hands of Yumi and her estranged sister, Mizuki. To make matters worse, Kiryu runs into a young girl by the name of Haruka that is claiming Mizuki is her mother. What the hell has gone on in those 10 years?
What follows is a tale that shows how far Kiryu is willing to fight for his beliefs and the ones that he cares for. While Nishiki is basically a lost cause, Haruka represents the life Kiryu might have obtained had he not taken the fall for his best friend. The girl is also much like him, an orphan who just wants answers about what is going on with her life.
Without a doubt, this is the strongest story the series has ever told, even if some of the opening cutscenes are light on explanation. The bond between Kiryu and Haruka is heartwarming and the set-ups for action scenes are made all the more powerful by the mystery surrounding what is going on with the Tojo Clan. The surprise twist that happens in all of these titles isn’t too extreme and doesn’t happen in every other chapter, relegating it to the finale where it belongs. This is a narrative more grounded in reality that seeks to showcase how far Kiryu is willing to go and it pays off beautifully.
In the original release, Kiryu only had access to one fighting style that then progressively became more and more devastating in each sequel. For the prequel title, Yakuza 0, Kiryu took on three styles that each saw use in specific scenarios and allowed players to experience a different take on the violent action. Kiwami retains those three styles and gives Kiryu’s ultimate “Dragon of Dojima” style from the beginning, though with a small caveat. Jail time has ruined Kiryu’s strength, so he now has to work to remember everything about his “Dragon” technique.
When I started Kiwami, I was wondering how the developers were going to stop players from being completely broken for the whole game and their answer pleased me. The series’ comic relief, Majima Goro, encounters Kiryu and becomes infatuated with his strength. He then proclaims that he’ll be watching and waiting for the perfect time to battle Kiryu, just to keep him on his toes.
This brings about a new inclusion to Kiwami, the “Majima Everywhere” system. In an effort to give players the fanservice that Yakuza 0 rightly dodged, Majima now stalks Kiryu around Kamurocho to build up his strength from 10 years prior. As the title suggest, Majima can be everywhere in Kamurocho. You may be grabbing a bite to eat, playing a round of bowling or fighting random thugs and Majima will force his way into the scene.
I like that his retcons Majima’s original character beat, but it also shines a spotlight on how Kiwami is actually too faithful to the original game. Majima has an expanded presence, but his original role in the game isn’t revamped. Kiwami exhibits this wacky-ass Majima that is funny and a bit psychotic mixed with the original version of him that isn’t very fleshed out or even particularly sane. He always had an infatuation with Kiryu in the first game, but it felt more malicious originally instead of what he morphed into following Yakuza 3. This comes off like a butting of heads over giving fans what they want and trying to remain faithful to the original game.
That faithfulness also rears its head in the cutscenes, which come off looking stiff. Sure, all of the textures and character models are updated to the glory that we saw in Yakuza 0, but the key-framed animations from the original PS2 release are left untouched. Even lip-syncing isn’t redone, so you have instances where Kiryu looks like he has lockjaw and walks very stiffly while the expanded bits look beautiful and smooth.
This also plays into the city of Kamurocho itself, which loses the additions done to the structure in Yakuza 4 and 5. You can’t go underground or on the rooftops and there isn’t another city to explore, like every other game in the series, so it feels like a step backward. I know this was done to retain the thematic elements of the original game, but even a little bit of new additions would have been nice to see.
Well, I can sort of take that back as two new mini-games are included, though they are both recycled from Yakuza 0. We see the return of Pocket Circuit Racing and, for some god damned reason, the cat fighting mini-game is now repurposed as a sexy bug fighting mini-game. While Yakuza is known for reusing a lot of assets and even copying mini-games between entries, why two of the weaker additions were left in Kiwami baffles me. Also, Mesuking (the bug fighting game) can go to hell, since a rock/paper/scissors based fighter is just plain aggravating and totally unengaging.
The boss battles, though, are the worst culprit of this. Kiwami almost plays like a “best of” version of the entire series, so you’ll have boss fights that utilize enemy patterns from Yakuza 2 and 3 and have a complete disregard for the different styles Kiryu has at his disposal, apart from some tacked-on heat actions that require you to change. While it’s neat that you are encouraged to try new things, having the bosses regenerate health while you change styles to perform a special finisher is pretty dumb.
The one part I do appreciate is the return of experience and the original heat gauge system. It was nice to experience something different in Yakuza 0, but fighting enemies to gain actual XP makes more sense to me. The heat system also doesn’t limit your abilities when you aren’t at full power, though the “Dragon” style will get better as you retain heat.
It all just adds up to a game that is at odds with itself. I don’t think anything is particularly bad, but if Ryu Ga Gotoku studio was given more creative freedom and more time to work on Kiwami, I feel they could have totally overhauled the game to make better use of the combat system that Yakuza 0 introduced. The slavish devotion to the original ends up hurting the overall experience, but not enough to make this a bad game.
At least the technical aspects, apart from cutscene animations, are fantastic. There is still some odd screen tearing while walking around the city, but Kiwami outputs at a full 1080p and never drops from its 60 FPS framerate in combat. The speed at which battles unfold is mesmerizing and electrifying, something that 0 did as well.
The redone dialog is also a pure joy. While the English version of Yakuza had a dub job, Kiwami brings back the Japanese dialog that just feels plain at home with this decidedly Japanese series. Hearing anyone but Takaya Kuroda voice Kiryu is just plain wrong, so to see him bring all of his gained acting chops back into Kiwami is delightful. Really, this game has some excellent voice work and I’m sure even fans of English dubs could appreciate how well these actors sell this material.
To top this all off is the excellent price point Sega has settled on. I might have a bunch of issues with the quality of certain aspects of Kiwami, but getting an extensive journey with an excellent story for $30 is really a steal. Yeah, Yakuza 0 has more to do and even the other games in the series are more consistent in quality, but the budget pricing for Kiwami makes it a must-own for series fans and basically the best entry point for anyone on the fence.
Really, you can’t go wrong with Kiwami. I would have liked it if every aspect of the game had been fully redone, but we don’t see remakes like this come along often. I can deal with a few stumbling blocks when the core quality of what makes Yakuza so unique and engaging remains untouched. At least now more people can have a chance to experience this classic, which is the best thing about Kiwami’s existence.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]