Siege Spots – Yakuza Kiwami

Posted on Aug 21 2017

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As the game tells you early on, “Kiwami means EXTREME!” Does Yakuza Kiwami live up to its name?

The answer to that largely depends on how you feel about Yakuza as a series. For those of you who haven’t been keeping tabs on this, let me explain quickly what exactly this game is. Yakuza Kiwami is a remake of the original Yakuza game, released on PS2 in 2005. SEGA has taken the story from that original game and given its gameplay a fresh coat of paint, seemingly thanks to the same game engine that recently powered Yakuza 0.

Also before we proceed, it’s important to frame this with my own experience with the Yakuza series. You see, the Yakuza series is notoriously pretty dense, and if you jump directly into, say, Yakuza 4, you’re going to have a hard time knowing what’s going on. I know that for a fact, because my first hands-on exposure to the Yakuza series was in around 2011, when I picked it up off the shelf at a local game cafe and played it for a bit. Word of advice, Yakuza games are not the kind you can dive into for a bit at your leisure; you have to go all-in.

Animation of roulette wheel from Yakuza 0

The next time I touched Yakuza was in 2016, when I picked up Yakuza 0. It was being praised as the perfect entry point for the series, so I decided it would be a good place to start. And largely, it was! The combat had advanced from when I first played, and I was finally ready to set aside the time to focus on the story. Sadly, life happened, and Persona 5 happened, and NieR Automata happened, and Yakuza 0 fell by the wayside.

So when SEGA offered to send us a copy of Yakuza Kiwami for review, I hesitated. Would I be able to jump into Yakuza Kiwami directly, without finishing Yakuza 0 first? Ultimately, I decided it shouldn’t be too bad; Yakuza 0 was a prequel after all, so I imagined that I should be able to jump in from the start of the series (or at least a remake of the start), and get along fine. For the most part, I was right. The game works well as the beginning of a saga, though I could tell early on that players of Yakuza 0 would get small story payoffs here and there from their time playing Yakuza 0. Still, it didn’t seem like Yakuza 0 was entirely necessary for enjoying Kiwami.

Animation from the Yakuza intro

That’s enough history. What about the game? Well, for those of you who played Yakuza 0… It’s basically that. It’s a new story with the same sort of gameplay you’re used to. If you enjoyed Yakuza 0, you’ll enjoy this, having already been invested in the characters and prepared for the gameplay. Pick it up and have fun.

I won’t leave you newcomers in the dark, though. Yakuza is the modern incarnation of the old arcade beat-em-up, given a huge narrative boost and an open world to roam around in. You’ll fight crowds of enemies, choosing between 4 distinct fighting styles, as you progress through the epic story of the inner workings of the Yakuza. And along the way, you can take a break from the intense drama to enjoy zany side missions and wildly varying minigames.

Fighting in Yakuza Kiwami

Combat is the weakest part of the Yakuza Kiwami experience. From what I can tell, combat in the Yakuza series has evolved greatly since its roots, but it still feels clunky, especially among its modern peers. It has some interesting choices to make in combat (dodging, guarding, changing fighting styles), but ultimately feels shallow. That may not bother you when you play, especially if you’re used to old beat-em-ups with even shallower combat, but fights felt more like a chore than a fun gameplay experience. Honestly, I’d recommend playing the game on Easy difficulty. Not because the combat is impossible to get through otherwise, but because it’s frustrating, unrewarding, and made me less interested in the story as the combat wore on. It’s a shame that the gameplay doesn’t compliment the story as well as it should. There’s an upgrade system to give you more moves and buffs to work with, but I’m not a fan of that kind of system. I think that challenge in these sorts of games should come mostly from your own skill, not from what you’ve managed to unlock.

Animation of story scene from Yakuza Kiwami

The story mostly makes up for the combat. When the combat made me fade and want to stop playing, the story kept me going. It’s rare for such a narrative-heavy game to be intriguing early on, but I was hooked within the first hour and kept coming back to see what happened next. It’s a roller coaster plot about the bureaucracy of the Yakuza, full of death, betrayal, and drama. If that sounds at all appealing to you, you’ll feel right at home. Unlike the original PS2 game, this game is entirely voiced in Japanese with English subtitles. The performances in the game are impassioned and strong, and definitely help in selling the drama. I suppose that will be disappointing for those hoping for a remastering of Mark Hamill’s performance as Majima, but the Japanese VAs make up for that loss.

Alongside the drama, you’ll find the aforementioned minigames and side quests. Some are longer and more involved than others, but they all serve as lighthearted distractions from the plot. Among these are a strategy card fighting game starring scantily-clad women dressed as bugs, and a hostess club you can run. You could likely dive deep into any of these experiences and totally forget about the main game. That is, of course, not something I would do. I definitely didn’t lose 100,000 yen in 15 minutes at a casino beneath a ramen shop, and then spend 30 minutes earning my money back by playing a children’s claw game to sell the stuffed animals to a weird middle-aged man. That would be absurd. Here, have a gif of me bowling.

Gif of bowling in Yakuza Kiwami

All of these aspects are pretty obvious to anyone familiar to the Yakuza series. These things combined are basically the Yakuza formula at this point: stilted combat, great story, goofy minigames. But should you buy it? Again, if you played Yakuza 0, you already know. If you loved that, this is more of that and a continuation of the story. Can’t beat that. It’s more to love.

Personally, I think that the Yakuza formula works just fine, as long as you’re not fighting. It’s a shame that such a core part of the game is so hard to manage, while all the extraneous missions and games are so fun and fleshed out. But the minigames only work so well because they contrast to the fighting, violence, and drama. I don’t have a solution for how to fix this fundamental issue that the Yakuza games have for me, but I can manage to force myself through the fighting to get to the fun. I don’t know if it’s worth it to everyone, but it’s worth it for me.

UFO claw game from Yakuza Kiwami

Is Yakuza Kiwami a good entry point for newcomers? I suppose it could be if you really insisted on it. It wouldn’t be obtuse or uninviting. But honestly, I’d recommend finding a copy of Yakuza 0 and starting there instead. If, after you play Yakuza 0, you find yourself wanting more, Yakuza Kiwami is your next step. The combat is about the same, but the story of Yakuza 0 feels much more modern and palatable. Yakuza Kiwami‘s story and missions sometimes show their age; you shouldn’t go in expecting the latest, greatest Yakuza game. This is a remake, through and through. It’s for newcomers and old fans alike to experience the old PS2 game with lightly improved combat and a prettier face. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but know what you’re getting into.

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