At least we got one -OTY out by now!
The Yakuza series has been stuck in the past recently, for better or worse. January’s Yakuza 0 was a flashback to Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima’s origins, and while this chapter of their lives was never covered in previous games, Sega soon realized that the events of 0 added a few wrinkles to the events of the original PS2 game. On top of that, with 0 being a perfect entry point for new fans, a remake of the original game seemed like the right thing to do.
Enter Yakuza Kiwami. Kiwami’s goal was to provide a beefed up version of Yakuza 1, and it specifically succeeds without issue. The game runs on the same infrastructure as 0, looking and playing nearly identical. Kiwami’s story takes place directly after the events of 0, with Kiryu and his oath brother Nishikiyama making headway in the Tojo clan. However, Nishiki guns down the family’s patriarch and Kiryu, taking the blame for his partner’s actions, is sent to jail for ten years. Now free on parole, Kiryu arrives back in Kamurocho and is immediately thrust back into a dramatic turn of events. Kiryu’s fighting styles return from 0 as well, with his late game “Dragon of Dojima” style unlocked from the get go. This leads to Kiwami’s biggest new addition, Majima Everywhere.
During his stint in jail, Kiryu’s skills were dulled. His Dragon style is nearly useless, and he needs to learn even the most basic abilities from the ground up. Luckily, everyone’s favorite eye patch wearing Yakuza, Majima, challenges Kiryu to a trial by fire. Majima will appear randomly during your travels, battling you over fast food orders, cheap alcohol, and other goofy goings-on. Each time you defeat Majima, a new ability is added to the Dragon style’s repertoire, eventually bringing Kiryu back to his former glory. Interactions with Majima are the highlight of the game, as it’s filled with more modern Yakuza writing as opposed to the original’s dated dialogue.
And therein lies the main issue with Yakuza Kiwami: Its origins. The original Yakuza is a dated game, and even with all the graphical and gameplay improvements, the one thing the development team couldn’t touch was the writing, and it shows. Additional cutscenes were added into the script to fill in small plot holes created by Yakuza 0, and they all have better pacing than anything in the rest of the game. All of the new dialogue, which boils down to Majima interactions and flashbacks showing Nishikiyama’s backstory, far surpasses anything from the original game, and even feels disjointed when those characters show up in cutscenes that were in the original release.
The sub-stories in this game also feel vastly inferior to the ones in any of the recent Yakuza titles, with nothing memorable like the living statue in 0 or Saejima’s interactions with cats in 4. Most sub-stories amount to “this man stole something from someone, I must beat him up.” There are also a few sub-stories featuring the series’ unfortunate consistent mistreatment of trans women, usually using them as an excuse to do combat against a female character model like Poison from Final Fight. No, it doesn’t magically make it okay that Kiryu’s fighting a lady just because she “used to be a man”, it’s just a different kind of gross. Surprisingly, Kiryu himself is openly understanding to the LGBT characters that appear in-game. It would be nice if the developers could listen to their own character and back off from the transphobia for once.
A more positive consistent thing in the Yakuza series are its distractions, and Kiwami has all the staples. Karaoke, billiards, darts, and hostess clubs all make their return and are just as fun as they were before. Pocket racing from 0 also comes back, with a brand new side story about the Pocket Fighter trying to retire that had a lot of the previous game’s charm. There is one new minigame called MesuKing, a parody of the Japanese tradition of capturing beetles and pitting them against one another. Instead of actual bugs, sexy women in insect-themed bikinis wrestle while the outcome of their fight is decided by rock-paper-scissors. It’s goofy and fun in an embarrassing way, but the best part is seeing Kiryu interact with the children who play the game, urging them to play fair and make new friends. I’d pay full price for a game about Kiryu working at Sunshine Orphanage after seeing how heartwarming he is with the kids here.
Yakuza Kiwami may not be completely new, but what is modern is tons of fun. There’s still plenty to see and do, lots of fun minigames, and lovable characters you’ve come to expect from the franchise. It just pales in comparison to the last few entries, and probably won’t make series veterans care much. For newcomers or people who REALLY want to wallop Majima, there’s a good amount of fun to be had, especially at the discount price the game is going for. However, for those who need a full, sprawling Yakuza adventure with better humor and drama, 6 is on its way.