NOTE: We were provided a complimentary code of Yakuza Kiwami in exchange for our honest review.
Upstanding Yakuza member Kazuma Kiryu has everything going his way at the start of Yakuza Kiwami. After faithfully serving the Dojima family for years, he’s only a day away from becoming the head of his own yakuza subsidiary, with all the security and street cred that has to offer. Tragically, his knuckleheaded best-friend happens to interfere when a senior-ranking Yakuza boss forces himself on their childhood friend. In the process of said interference, the high-ranking Yakuza boss finds himself on the wrong end of a couple bullets to the chest.
Knowing that this would spell certain death for his friend, Kazuma takes the fall and lets his friend escape, going to jail for a solid decade for a crime he didn’t commit. Yakuza Kiwami follows Kazuma as he begins to adapt to life on the outside after 10 years in prison, as well as pursuing the mysterious disappearance of 10 billion yen.
The story of Yakuza Kiwami is familiar to fans of the long-running series. It re-traces the original Yakuza game on Playstation 2 from 2005. It’s safe to say that advances in video game technology have made quite a few strides since 2005, as a cursory glance at the original vs. the PS4 remake will tell you.
Despite the fact that the core story is essentially being re-hashed, Yakuza Kiwami does feature some additional cutscenes that help thread the plot in with the more recent Yakuza 0, which serves as a prequel to the larger franchise.
Those unfamiliar with the series will be able to dive right in and appreciate the soap-opera level drama and hard-boiled personalities within the various yakuza families. At first it can definitely be a bit confusing with the various families as you piece together the hierarchy, but within the first hour or two you definitely have a general grip on what’s going on. Kazuma is an intriguing character; a yakuza member and brawler who also has respect, patience and dignity in abundance. His honorable behavior makes it almost too easy to pick out the “villain”, but in the end you can’t blame the guy for being trustworthy.
The voice acting and updated graphics do wonders for the story; conveying a rich and flavorful world of corruption, bone-crushing work, and the value of loyalty and family. With the original being over a decade old, it’s a fantastic return to the series, and a welcome addition following the Yakuza 0 prequel that finally came out in the US at the beginning of the year.
At its core, Yakuza Kiwami is an action-RPG that focuses on hand-to-hand combat/brawling. Kazuma has a variety of martial arts styles at his disposal, his signature moves residing with the infamous “Dragon Style”. At the start of the game, you have a robust health bar and command over multiple grabs and finishing moves to make quick work of your enemies. Strangely enough, Yakuza wants you to believe that when a battle-hardened Kazuma goes to prison for 10 years, constantly battling assassins from within and having nothing else to do but work out and fight, that he actually gets weaker. Come on…really? *sigh*
In all seriousness, the first fight after you get out of jail is a bucket of cold water to the face as you realize just how far you’ve fallen. The difficulty spike can take a bit to get used to, but it mainly forces you to diversify your fighting styles.
Shortly after you get out of prison you’re confronted by a former nemesis named Goro Majima. He makes fun of you for going soft, then proceeds to utterly wreck your shit to make sure you understand just how much more powerful he is than you. As the game progresses, Majima will randomly appear in a zany and humorous mechanic otherwise known as “Majima Everywhere”. He may jump out from behind a vending machine, appear from within a mascot costume, or just come crashing into a brawl at the most inopportune time. He won’t be nearly as strong as his “true form” fight at the start, but the challenges serve to keep you on your toes, as well as helping Kazuma remember some of the long-lost Dragon techniques that he had forgotten while in prison.
The combat in Yakuza Kiwami is pretty crisp, and your ever-evolving repertoire of hand-to-hand combat techniques reward experimentation. Too often brawlers fall into the trap of favoring one style, making the other options purely aesthetic. Yakuza does a great job of showcasing the strengths of adopting the “beast”, “balanced”, “rush”, or “dragon” techniques. As you battle and gain experience, you will be able to unlock different techniques within these 4 fighting styles, or general improvements such as increased defense or heightened HP.
Of course, pummeling on thugs can get tiring, so Yakuza Kiwami features a robust selection of mini-games. Whether you’re gambling or playing arcade games, there are numerous ways of earning “completion points” that you can then exchange for upgrades and rare items. At times these mini-games can feel like busywork, but the variety almost guarantees there will be something that strikes your fancy. Particularly with the arcade offerings…
Overall, Yakuza Kiwami is a gorgeous remaster of a franchise that is sometimes left to the wayside. The bone-crunching combat is crisp and responsive, the story epic and laden with drama, and the Majima mechanic offering a sense of uncertainty and excitement as you explore the neon-lit city of Kamurocho. If you’re a fan of Shenmue, definitely give this a try – though you may be more of a Yakuza fan by the time you’re done.