The Yakuza series combine deep melodrama with exploration through vibrant city streets. Yakuza Kiwami is a remake that recreates the feeling of the original game, adding new features to streamline the experience. It’s a glorious crime story that benefits from a fresh coat of paint.
Heather and Luke are big fans of Yakuza and decided to shake up the review format with an in-depth discussion of what they loved and what they’d rather kick to the curb.
Luke Plunkett, Kotaku: Yakuza games have become renowned lately for telling their story from the viewpoint of multiple characters. Yakuza Kiwami, out this month on PS4, doesn’t have this feature, so we thought we’d implement it for the review of the game instead.
Heather Alexandra, Kotaku: Which one of us is Majima? Keep reading to find out!
Plunkett: Joining me for this review will be Heather Alexandra, who is as much a fan of smashing dudes over the head with bicycles as I am.
Alexandra: It’s true. Give me a good old baseball bat and a full heat gauge and I’ll work some wonders. I think to start I want to get a sense of how you felt about Kiwami as a remake. The original Yakuza released in 2005 and when I look at the two games side by side, it’s really neat how much this seems to capture the feeling of the original. What do you make of it as our resident Yakuza fanatic?
Plunkett: I can barely remember the original, a game I played briefly at the time but never got around to finishing. And even then, I was obviously playing the game in its own time. This remake, aside from being technically beautiful (by Yakuza standards, anyway), is now very different, because it’s a 2005 game being experienced in 2017. So in that way it’s really interesting, both as a “historical” game, but also as a yardstick for how much the series has changed since it first began.
Like, you can see here that in some ways the series has barely changed. You run around Kamurocho, you punch a lot of people, there’s a lot of talking. And yet it’s also changed a lot, in that despite the technical makeover, there’s no upscaling the fact that Yakuza 1 is a game that’s lacking in a lot of the things that really appeal to fans who have come into the series through its later games.
Alexandra: Kiwami has a much smaller scope than something like Yakuza 0 but I think that also gives it a lot of focus. While the series is now famous for side quests and random activities, Kiwami has a focus and drive to it that I really enjoyed by the end. But maybe I’m a simple gal; all I really wanted were some dudes to punch and neon-lit Kamurocho streets to wander and Kiwami delivers that in a neat little package with only a few extra gimmicks.
Do you miss those other things? Different perspectives, building friendship with Officer Kikuchi or whoever else?
Plunkett: Yeah, it’s tough. I agree, there’s a vastly reduced scope to this game, which is as much a curse as it is a blessing. It’s a much shorter experience, with a lot less to do around the edges, which as someone very into Yakuza’s diversions was a disappointment. But the scope of later games had its own problems, with story bloat and drag definitely becoming factors, which meant part of me appreciated the fact Kiwami was over in under 30 hours.
Alexandra: I do miss Akiyama; I fell in love with him Yakuza 4. But I agree when you say some of the later games can feel bloated. I don’t remember the through-line of that game too well anymore but I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to tell folks Kiwami’s story years from now without missing a beat. It’s a simple crime tale with very few twists that doesn’t really waste your time. Unless you accidentally bump into Majima while wandering the streets...
Plunkett: Okay, let’s talk about Majima. It was the thing I was most looking forward to, and ended up being the worst thing about the game.
Alexandra: I had fun with it! It was neat to go bowling with him at the very least. Honestly, my biggest issue was with how much time it took to unlock good stuff for the Dragon of Dojima Style. You have to fight Majima a ton of times to fill out that skill tree.
Plunkett: I hated it. It was on some Star Wars special edition type shit. This isn’t Majima’s story, and the way they just stuff him into Kiwami is so lacking in context or elegance that it kinda ruins the flow of whole sections of the game.
It’s not game-breaking or anything, but still, I actually would have preferred they’d left it out. There’s more than enough Majima in later games (or 0!), we didn’t need him here.
Alexandra: My bigger problem is being reminded of how Majima was written in Yakuza 1 after spending so much time with him in 0. There’s some method to his madness and clear respect between him and Kiryu. In Japanese, Kiryu even calls him “onii-san” in casual conversation. There’s the kernel of the more three dimensional Majima here but it’s still pretty jarring to watch how wild he originally was before the series fleshed him out. Majima Everywhere made that more noticeable. I had fun with the mode but I think you might be right to an extent; it sometimes felt a bit too wild.
Plunkett: I mentioned this already, but one thing I really liked was the fact this is still a video game set in 2005. That was 12 years ago now, and it’s funny going back in time to see a game that was once so modern transformed into a flashback, retro thing.
Alexandra: I keep picturing Kiryu coming out of prison and finally getting a crummy little cellphone. That stuck with me for some reason.
Plunkett: Which when the game first came out was probably this really poignant, modern thing! And now it’s like, lol, ok Grandpa, nice dumbphone. It’s also funny to note that this might be the only Yakuza game where Kiryu’s suit and collar are actually fashionable for the time period.
Alexandra: One of the great things about this series is how it manages to leap from year to year and really communicate a difference. Some of that is in the small stuff like fashion or cellphones but it also baked into the setting. Kamurocho always feels familiar but hold tiny little touches depending on the game. In Yakuza 0, it actually feels quants compared to Sotenbori but when I played a little bit of Yakuza 6 at E3, Kamurocho was as modern as ever.
There were roombas, Luke. Roombas!
Plunkett: Plus maybe the best thing about Kiwami is that it’s set only in Kamurocho, which means more than any of the more recent games it really lets you learn the lay of the land. By the end of Kiwami I was playing with the map turned off and was finding my way round pretty easily just by remembering the names of main streets and the landmarks. Considering Kamurocho is maybe the real star of the series—and like you say, it’s always nice seeing it grow up—it was great getting to spend an entire game there without being whisked away somewhere else.
Alexandra: Speaking of stars, can we be real for a minute and agree that this isn’t really Kiyru’s story? In a lot of ways, this game is about Nishikiyama.
Plunkett: It is! And maybe that’s Yakuza 0's greatest gift to the series. I just kept imagining playing this game without knowing Nishiki’s story (he’s your best friend throughout the prequel), and how shitty that would have been. Knowing the story of his friendship with Kiryu really made his turn in Kiwami more impactful, and also lent a little more (sorry) bang to his farewell.
Alexandra: They added additional story scenes for Nishiki in Kiwami and that really paid off. We get to see him struggle as he inherits responsibilities that everyone wanted Kiryu to have. For a while, he’s not really good at being yakuza. By the time of the game, he’s a smooth operator but its still really clear that underneath it all, Nishiki never forgot what it was like to feel inferior. It’s so well written. He’s probably the best villain in the series.
Plunkett: Yeah, he really is, that’s one of the things that stands out here. Were he the villain in a later game he’d probably lick a gun barrel before somersaulting out of a helicopter onto an exploding horse, but here, in a humbler time for Yakuza, he’s just a good kid who makes some bad decisions.
How’d you find the combat here? After the baseball bat-infused fury of 0, I had a bit of trouble returning to a more nuanced combat style, especially since I didn’t get far with the game’s advanced styles.
Alexandra: I really liked it. The three styles might even work better here than in 0. I stuck with Brawler for most of that game but here I found myself switching from Rush to Beast or whatever I had to do in order to win. Kiwami finishers had a lot to do with that. Missing those is punishing since bosses will regain a lot of health. I was a lot more aware of my stance and heat gauge here than in other games.
Plunkett: I wonder whether that’s just a relic of the original design or something they tweaked here, because I was the same. For the last 3-4 games I’ve mostly stuck with the one fighting style, but here you just couldn’t, otherwise you’d run into a brick wall where a certain boss or group fight wouldn’t let you progress unless you used the “right” style.
Alexandra: I got my ass kicked in the gambling den fight more times than I’d like to admit until I literally went Beast Mode on them.
If I do have one minor complaint about the combat, it’s that some of the bosses are reusing move-sets from 0. Shimano is basically a re-skin of Mister Shakedown. It’s not a big deal but from time to time Kiwami feels a bit more like a Yakuza 0 mod than a game unto itself.
Plunkett: It definitely feels like the odd Yakuza game out. We’ve had a fairly natural progression in terms of game design, if not the timeline (thanks to 0 being a prequel) over the last few games, but throwing Kiwami into the middle of it all certainly makes for a weird fit. I know this is going to throw out my “which Yakuza game do you try next” timeline, because while Kiwami follows on from 0 in terms of narrative, I assume it’s going to be jarring for many going from the more modern design and tone of the newer games to something shorter and more raw.
Alexandra: I’m going to start up Yakuza 5 soon and I bet that’s going to be strange. I’m super glad that 0 and Kiwami are around though. The former is one of the best games I’ve played this year and while Kiwami is a bit less ambitious, it’s still very good. I played this while on a vacation and enjoyed every moment of it.
Except maybe when Bob Utsunomiya didn’t have any extra items to give me. That greedy clown...
Plunkett: There are four constants in life. Death, taxes, a new Yakuza game every year and Bob Utsunomiya being a creepy piece of shit.