Flashback To The (Future)Past
I’ll be completely honest here: the original Yakuza totally flew under my radar when it was released on the PS2 in 2006, and I start to regret that the more I sink my teeth into the recent revitalization of the beginning of the franchise. I found myself picking up Yakuza 0 earlier this year, and I really enjoyed playing it. So much so that I find it to be one of the best games released this year, and the best starting point for Yakuza newbies.
While Kiwami is a ground-up remake of the original release, it takes the foundation built by Yakuza 0 and sets out to be a balance of a faithful remake and a modern game. Developed by SEGA and published by SEGA of America/Deep Silver, Yakuza Kiwami released on August 29, 2017 and retails for the budget price of $29.99. This title is a PS4 exclusive, just like its predecessor.
Set seven years after the events of Zero and a ten year timeskip after that, the focus primarily stays on franchise mainstay Kazuma Kiryu. Without getting too much into the complex plot, Kiryu is on the cusp of starting his own small yakuza family within the Tojo clan. In what seems to be the natural order of things, interactions with a supposed love interest (Yumi) and a fellow associate (Akira Nishikiya) lead to some internal strife, causing the timeskip that I had mentioned previously.
Kiryu may have lost ten years rotting in a prison cell, but he quickly finds that things in the city of Kamurocho haven’t changed all that much. What’s worse, Yumi is nowhere to be found, and everyone is trying to track her down. Kiryu included. I’m barely scratching the surface here; the plot is a pretty deep one, but it’s aware of what it is and usually isn’t very outlandish. Substories also make a return, and most of them are pretty entertaining. You’ll encounter most of them simply by traversing the game space, but there are times where running into these can get to be a little annoying.
Graphically, this game is just as marvelous as its prequel. Being in the same urban setting as before, it does a fine job staying consistent. Character expressions are relatively natural, mouth flaps are consistent with the redubbed (exclusively) Japanese dialogue, and action on screen is fluid and consistent. There were some graphical glitches here and there, but nothing really major. It does tout 1080p visuals and 60fps framerate, and it gets the job done. There were occasions where the framerate did drop, but it was rare and didn’t detract from gameplay.
Being a cutscene-heavy game, these sequences looked good as well. They can be paused and are skippable in many cases, which is nice if you fail a section and just want to get back to the action instead of sitting through these sequences time and again. I do appreciate the fact that they took the time to completely redub the game, and the acting is on point for what it is. Even if it does get a little hammy at some points, it’s pretty enjoyable.
Holding Down The Streets
Gameplay is very similar to what you find in Zero, and that’s not a bad thing either. While strolling the streets of Kamurocho, many of the distractions found there make a return in Kiwami. It makes sense due to the setting, and shows that these places are still popular and in business within the universe. Bowling, batting cages, darts, pool, UFO catchers, and so on are all present and ripe for dumping as much cash as you want to drop.
You’ll also encounter a few new entertainment options as well, such as casino minigames and a Pokemon-style TCG/arcade game called “MesuKing” that features scantily clad women standing wearing insect-themed costumes (and you’ll find cards for use in battle throughout the city). It’s best to discover these on your own, but these minigames are well thought out and don’t detract from the main game if you completely ignore them. Some of these minigames are also available as light multiplayer games. While Yakuza isn’t particularly known for this sort of thing, it’s nice to see it added here, even if the offerings are somewhat light.
When it comes to combat, it remains largely unchanged for the most part. You’ll encounter random punks and yakuza in the streets, and boss battles are pretty challenging as well. The primary three styles of Brawler (balanced combat), Rush (quick, weak jabs), and Beast (slow, strong strikes) return from Zero and work as they did before. Using Heat actions is also largely unchanged, though there is an addition for Extreme Heat actions in certain circumstances. These actions are pretty brutal, but it does tend to get a bit tiring seeing the same finishers after you’ve pulled them off countless times. The new fighting style that’s featured here is Dragon, which was unlockable in Zero. It’s a standard style here, and is basically a mix of Brawler and Beast. You’ll power up each style using EXP instead of money via the Final Fantasy X-style ability wheels, and these can be used to upgrade the main three styles. However, this is not the case for Dragon style.
This is where a system called “Majima Everywhere” comes into play. He basically replaces Mr. Shakedown from previous games, and you don’t have to worry about losing all of your money in the process if you fail. You’ll encounter the crazed “Mad Dog of Shimano” mostly at random throughout the game when you least expect it. Sometimes you’ll run into him simply as himself, other times you’ll find Majima in more creative ways that are reminiscent of Dio’s misdirections (and memes) from Jojo’s Bizzare Adventure. There are also times where he calls you out to meet him at a specific place to throw down.
Either way, he’s extremely determined to take Kiryu down. Each time you defeat him, which will be often, you’ll unlock moves for Dragon style. This is a welcome departure from the more traditional wheels for the other styles, as you don’t simply grind EXP to unlock the abilities. Not only that, but he isn’t exactly that hard to run into. Honestly, I welcome this sort of thing simply because Majima is such a ham. Give me an entertaining reason to progress, and I’m all for it. Sometimes he can be a pushover, and he can be a bit annoying at times, but his outlandish behavior more than makes up for it with each encounter.
While Zero set the tone for these remakes, Yakuza Kiwami does a fine job of maintaining its predecessor’s status quo. While the avalanche of modern video game remakes might dilute this release in some ways, this is not a game that simply up-rezzes the graphics while ignoring any improvements that the gameplay could use. This is a release that treats its IP with care and knows how to execute what’s already worked.
While some could argue that having limited changes just makes for more of the same, this gameplay is still fun and engaging. I really can’t recommend this title enough. It may not hit as high as Zero did, but it does a damned fine job modernizing a game that fans fell in love with a decade ago. Tack that on with a budget price and an abundance of gameplay, and you’ll be finding yourself among the ranks of Yakuza fans, as I have. With Kiwami 2 recently being announced for Japan, it’s important to show that the States are just as interested for it. Just be sure to start with Zero before you climb into this one.
~ Final Score: 9/10 ~
Review copy provided by Sega. Screenshots taken by reviewer.