Gangster's Paradise - Yakuza Kiwami (REVIEW)
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
It's about damn time we got this game! After the success of Yakuza 0 and the forthcoming buzz around the next chapter with Yakuza 6, I was jazzed to play a completely remade version of the game that started it all. Yakuza Kiwami is a full remake of the original Yakuza that came out on PS2 during the Fall of 2006. Originally titled Ryuu ga Gotoku () in Japan, translated to “Like a Dragon,” I've always felt that the Western title felt off, sure the ongoing theme of living in a Yakuza paradise subsist through the entire series, I felt that one of the major downfalls of the series in the west was a title that felt more indicative of misguided marketing from its time. Yakuza was one of my favorite titles from the PS2 era and despite a star-studded yet misguided English localization, it was pretty damn fantastic. Fast forward to 11 years later, Yakuza Kiwami takes the narrative of the first Yakuza game and melds it with the modern gameplay of Yakuza 0.
Yakuza Kiwami follows series lead protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, formerly a high ranking member of the Dojima Family, as he unfolds the truth behind the mystery of 10 billion yen up and vanishing. During the game's opening, Kazuma's sworn brother/childhood friend Akira Nishikiyama kills the patriarch of the Dojima family to protect the pair's childhood friend Yumi. Burdened by duty to his sworn brother, and mostly to further the plot, Kazuma takes the fall for it... going to prison for decade before getting released to a whole new Kamurocho. The former Dragon of Dojima returns to his home city set to rebuild his life as a civilian when a plot involving Nishikiyama, Yumi, and a little girl named Haruka all play a part in Kazuma unfolding the mystery behind the missing money.
First off, let's focus on what's different in Kiwami; the biggest and most obvious change is the game's visuals. Yakuza Kiwami, like Yakuza 0 before it, play out more like an upscaled PS3 title than a title natively made for the PS4. The game's hyper-stylized look feels more akin to anime than a live action series. Character models look good, skirting the line between realism and cartoon-like. The game's main cast is wonderfully crafted with a high attention to detail in the most of the important players. Many of the world's NPCs and enemies, aside from bosses, do suffer from almost boring character design with many of the denizens feeling very similar to another random street-walker across town. Cinematics are rendered in real-time but feature considerably up-res'd visuals. It can be jarring at times to go from a story cinematic to in game when seemingly the whole aesthetic noticeably shifts between the two. Overall, if you played Yakuza 0 this game will look and feel very familiar to you.
Another aspect that Kiwami lifts from Yakuza 0 is the combat system. Kazuma employs four styles in combat; his standard and balanced brawler style, quick hitting rush style, heavy yet slowed down beast style, and of course his ultimate dragon style. Combat is simple to pick-up but difficult to master, light and heavy attacks and punching in combos will be your go-to method to dispatch Kazuma's opposition. Defensively you can block, dodge, and grab your opponents... opening up opportunities to punish them after a well timed dodge or block. The bombastic part of combat plays in to the heat maneuvers, these are heavy hitting attacks you can only pull off when your heat gauge fills up. New to the series are extreme heat actions linked to your styles, these “Kiwami heat moves” occur when you have a full gauge and your enemy is exhausted. When an exhausted enemy haunches over, the color of their aura should tell you which style to switch to... then just hit heavy attack and watch the sparks fly.
When you start the game all your stats are completely maxed out, but after the first chapter and a good ten years in the clink... Kazuma Kiryu has become a shell of his former self. Here is where character building comes in to play, and unlike other stories where you're forced to build yourself back up from the bottom... this actually makes sense in the context of the game's narrative.
Brawling in the street, completing story and side missions, and of course eating at restaurants earns the player experience points. Level up enough and you can use these points to plug into your character build. Picking which skill tree to follow is up to you, allowing you to unlock various abilities that augment your abilities to increase your health/heat gauge. The various skill trees improve the first three fighting styles... for Kazuma's dragon style your uneasy friendship with Goro Majima makes building up your dragon style possible.
Brand new to the series is the “Majima Everywhere” encounters. Independent from fighting Majima in the story, Majima Everywhere has Goro Majima randomly fighting you all over town. These encounters can come from Majima just stumbling across your path or in more orchestrated, in many ways ridiculous, encounters where Majima pulls out all the stops from pretending to be a police officer or dressing up like a hostess at a cabaret club... yes the latter did happen... yes it was not pretty.
Each time you fight Majima, win or lose, you slowly build up your dragon style. This is explained after early on in chapter 2, when Majima easily beats you he vows to build you up to who you once were all for the sake of a good fight. These encounters are similar to the Mr. Shakedown encounters from Yakuza 0 only without the fear of losing half your wealth.
Yakuza Kiwami makes for a fantastic jumping off point for fans who just played Yakuza 0. References to the prequel are pepper in across the narrative of Kiwami with Majima telling Kazuma about his days as the manager of a cabaret club to references to side missions from Yakuza 0. The narrative also clears up much of the confusing plot points that occurred in the decade Kazuma was in prison, telling the story of how Akira Nishikiyama went from being Kazuma's sworn brother to one of the main antagonists in this story.
I've mentioned it before in my review for Yakuza 0, but for those who are new to the series, the Yakuza series is less of an action game and more like an RPG. As Kazuma walks around the city, various enemies will pop up and challenge Kazuma to fight... similar to random battles in a classic JRPG. You can run from these battles or go head-first in. This felt jarring at times, but overall did not bother me as much as one would think random battles would... maybe it's because I grew up on JRPGs. One complaint I have is with the items and accessories, while some impart straight forward stat boosts... some have effects hidden within the description. I remember when I played Yakuza 0 there was an item I had that gave me a massive boost in defense, but the description said that people would fight extra hard to take the item from me... of course this reflected in game with at times getting my ass handed to me thanks to a tenacious bunch of baddies. The same can be said for Yakuza Kiwami, so of course I suggest reading through item descriptions before equipping them.
While the core narrative is laid out fairly linear, there is no shortage of side activities to participate in. These include spending your ill gotten gains at cabaret clubs to singing by yourself at karaoke. The town is also littered with side stories involving the denizens of the city, from a wicked lady trying to scam you for cash to a drunk in a park looking for a quick nip. Kamurocho is a living city and they actualized that wonderfully with this game.
Overall, this was a trip down memory lane and hands down the definitive version of this story. I hope they go one step further and give the same treatment to the sequel. While the series is incredibly niche, I always have loved the Yakuza series. Challenging combat that keeps me coming back and despite how ridiculous some of the game's story beats may be, it always seems to work in the context of the series. While the Yakuza series isn't for everybody, it's certainly one I recommend gamers give a shot to. What better way to be like a dragon than to roam around a Japanese red-light district, beat up street punks, and sing cheesy Enka ballads by yourself.
4 OUT OF 5
Shine bright like a dragon
+ Gripping story that doesn't take itself too seriously
+ Engaging combat
+ Majima Everywhere!
- Gameplay not for everyone
- Japanese references may fly over Western heads
- Very Niche