Sephiroth, Liquid Snake, Ganondorf; video games have some wonderful villains. But making bad guy who is both frightening and sympathetic is a challenge. Yakuza nails it, creating what might be gaming’s best antagonist. We take a look how they pull it off in this critical video.
Crafting a compelling villain is tough. It’s one thing to have an evil overlord who kicks puppies, but it’s entirely different to create a character with understandable motives for players to sympathize with. Yakuza Kiwami achieves this with Akira Nishikiyama. Through strong writing and gameplay contrasts with the prequel, Yakuza 0, Nishikiyama is one of gaming’s best antagonists.
Yakuza follows the story of Japanese gangster Kazuma Kiryu as he navigates Japan’s criminal underworld, all while trying to protect a young girl named Haruka. Akira Nishikiyama is Kiryu’s best friend and sworn brother within the yakuza. They were raised by the same foster father and rose through the ranks together. After Nishikiyama kills a high ranking crime boss, Kiryu takes the fall and goes to prison for a decade. When he leaves, the entire world has changed. Especially Nishiki.
Nishiki was thrust into a leadership role that was meant for Kiryu, and Kiwami expands on the original Yakuza’s story to follow his rise to power through a series of cutscenes that run parallel to Kiryu’s story. In them, we see as he struggles to understand his new role. Originally something of foppish and flashy loudmouth, Nishiki slowly transforms into a calculating and cruel mafioso. But it’s not without cause. His sister succumbs to illness, his best friend is in jail, and other yakuza take advantage of him until he reaches a breaking point. He decides to rise to the top and achieve enough power to ensure that he is never treated with disrespect, as well as to steal the game’s MacGuffin: ten billion Yen that will allow him to craft a comfortable life for him and his friends. This single-minded pursuit changes Nishiki so much that that he risks harming Haruka, placing him in conflict with Kiryu.
Yakuza’s writing does a lot to show Nishiki’s transformation but when paired with Yakuza 0, the series makes direct changes to its gameplay that stress the gap between Nishiki and Kiryu. Nishiki is the first major character players interact with in Yakuza 0. Players can hold a button to automatically walk beside Nishiki as he and Kiryu explore Kamurocho together, a simple mechanical way of showing the trust Kiryu has for his friend. Close proximity between characters can often be considered visual shorthand for intimacy or comfort, and this is expressed by scenes where the pair remain close to each other, including an opening scene that explodes into a joyous display with a wild karaoke song that shows a sillier side of the relationship.
Yakuza 0 takes extra time to keep Nishiki and Kiryu involved with each other. They go to batting cages together and shop for new suits. They even fight together and can engage in unique power moves against enemies. These small interactions and Nishiki’s ability to actually aid players in combat helps form a bond that doesn’t exist in Yakuza Kiwami because for the majority of the game, he hardly ever meets with Kiryu. If he does, it is only in a cutscene or boss fight. Nishiki is either out of the player’s control or directly opposing us; a far cry from the chummy interactions of Yakuza 0. Too bad. Nishiki was a great karaoke partner.
Kiwami ends with two boss fights. The first is against a corrupt politician. Haruka is the politician’s illegitimate daughter, and he wants to kill her and her mother to avoid scandal. After this boss fight, Nishiki attempts to steal the money he believes will lead to his freedom. The boss fight between him and Kiryu is a brutal display of tragic violence, a catharsis of pent-up emotion that finally explodes in a flurry of kicks and punches. In the same way musical characters sing when they have too many feelings, Kiryu and Nishiki have a boss fight.
That final release of emotions somehow clears the air, and when the aforementioned corrupt politician staggers back into the action for one last attempt at murdering Haruka, Nishiki sacrifices himself to save his friends, killing the true foe but taking a gunshot in the process. He gives up on his goal and blows up himself and the money he coveted.
Through a juxtaposed narrative and shifts in gameplay that place Nishiki at a distance from Kiryu, Yakuza is able to give their tragic final meeting a true sense of gravitas. We understand what Nishiki wants and can appreciate when he abandons it. And thanks to the differences from Yakuza 0, players gets a sense of what Kiryu’s lost. He’s lost a dear friend. It’s far more memorable than any evil overlord.