Yakuza Kiwami 2 (PlayStation 4 Review)
Writing this review reminds me that an era is now over. While Yakuza 6: The Song of Life was the swansong for the series’ protagonist, Yakuza Kiwami 2 marks the final “new” game to feature the Dragon of Dojima, Kazuma Kiryu, as the playable protagonist. Filled with a number of new content and revisions for Yakuza 2—originally released in 2006—does Kiwami 2 serve as the fitting end to an era of incredible games that now, finally, has the recognition it deserves in the west?
Of course it does.
Yakuza 2’s reputation paints its narrative as the high point of the series—a point I can only refute with 2017’s Yakuza 0. It’s held strong all these years, and there’s even a belief held in some fans that 2 should have been the finale to Kiryu’s arc. This brings us full circle to the remake.
In Kiwami 2, players revisit 2006’s Kamurocho. The struggle from the previous year’s events are still felt throughout the city, and Kanto’s Tojo clan is just barely holding it together before Kansai’s Omi Alliance assassinates the Tojo chairman. With tensions brewing between Japan’s east and west—a veritable yakuza cold war—ex-Tojo chairman Kiryu must step up to prevent all-out war. Opposing him is Ryuji Goda—the dragon of Kansai who harbours a deep hatred towards the once enormous Tojo clan.
If the original Yakuza—or Yakuza Kiwami—was about family without bloodlines, then Kiwami 2 is all about exploring those missing bloodlines. The young Daigo Dojima, son of the recently deceased and influential Dojima family patriarch, is positioned to take the helm of the entire Tojo clan despite rejecting it. Meanwhile, Osaka’s famed Yakuza Huntress and celebrated detective, Kaoru Sayama, seeks to unravel the mystery behind her own origin. These characters take center stage as they confront the realities of their own bloodlines and the heritage or baggage that may accompany it.
There’s an incredible level of consistency in Kiwami 2’s narrative that just doesn’t exist in the later PlayStation 3 generation releases. Each new reveal pushes the narrative further, with every entwining element serving to more deeply explore each character’s history while simultaneously expanding the central theme. Plot details that may appear to not serve the central narrative eventually converge in a satisfying conclusion. While the Omi Alliance’s internal conflict pushes the war, it’s Ryuji Goda’s own heritage that ultimately sets the stage. As the yakuza’s east and west war develops, the foreign Jingweon mafia appears to interfere as nothing more than a distraction, only to be a crucial narrative gel that glues the entire story together. Yakuza 2 has a stellar reputation for a reason, and that may very well be a result of crime novelist Hase Seishu’s guidance before departing from the series in later incarnations.
Contrasting the carefully woven narrative of the main game is a Goro Majima side story. Upon progressing Kiryu’s story, players will gradually unlock a three-chapter game mode in which they play the Mad Dog of Shimano. While ultimately shallow, the side story makes its intentions clear when it reaches an emotional climax as the one-eyed protagonist reconnects with Makoto Makimura—the psychologically blinded heroine of Majima’s Yakuza 0 arc. Fanservice aptly describes every facet of this game mode, and that’s fine by me. This is some good, eye watering fanservice.
Returning to the main campaign, there aren’t many changes to the narrative. A couple of additional scenes are included to introduce new minigames, and a whole (though small) area has been rewritten out of the game. These changes don’t entirely detract, though some of the new scenes risk distracting players from the momentum that the original Yakuza 2 had slowly built up. More positively, the improved graphics result in some incredible motion capturing. Yakuza Kiwami 2’s expansive cast are predominately actors, and the graphical enhancements offer more tools to charge the scenes more emotionally. Kiwami 2’s characters feel very real.
On the note of visuals, Kamurocho looks fantastic, but there’s a lot of asset reuse. That Rizap building, while blank, definitely did not exist prior to the 2016 setting in Yakuza 6. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, and Kiwami 2’s Kamurocho is mostly faithful to the 2006 setting. There are areas that have been changed for this title, and even the Majima campaign features some small differences from the main experience. Close inspection can also reveal somewhat subpar textures on the environments, but an otherwise normal playthrough won’t draw too much attention to this. Despite the criticisms, this title is still gorgeous. Both locations are fairly accurate representations of their real-life counterparts.Of course, Yakuza Kiwami 2 isn’t all narrative and graphics. Players can explore Kamurocho and Sotonbori, the fictional representations of Tokyo’s Kabukicho and Osaka’s Dotonbori respectively. Each area is littered with entertaining distractions, including an arcade featuring full versions of Sega’s Virtua Fighter 2 and Virtual On: Cyber Troopers. If neither of those are your speed, perhaps readers would enjoy playing the UFO Catchers or the urinal Toylet game. Yakuza is also famous for its karaoke, offering players the chance to visit a fantastical world straight from a music video. Many of Yakuza 6’s minigames return—Kiwami 2 only excludes the minigames associated with the sleepy Hiroshima town of Onomichi—while the inclusion of Sotonbori brings a host of new minigames instead.
Kiwami 2 also benefits from a large portion of development time no longer being dedicated to the Dragon Engine. While it’s undeniable that there was likely additional work on the engine, the bulk of this was done for Yakuza 6. The result? Kiwami 2 feels more fleshed out. There’s no sense of loss from the game failing to match its own scope. Kamurocho is here in its fullest, and it feels bigger than ever as a result. Sotonbori may be cut down in comparison to Yakuza 0, but the new layout matches its initial appearance in Yakuza 2. Sure, another (one-time) area has been cut, but it’s a fair trade-off for what’s ultimately just a side-release between the transition the franchise is currently taking into a new stage.
Echoing the expansion of Kamurocho and its minigames is the additional work to Yakuza 6’s combat. Players still launch a flurry of light attacks that lead into a heavy finisher, and ultimately pay off sustained effort in battle by expending the Heat Gauge to initiate aggressively gratifying heat actions on foes. On the surface, there hasn’t been a significant change to the combat, but there’s been some clear balancing tweaks and physic adjustments. Yakuza’s combat was famed for Kiryu’s savage flexibility with local weaponry, but the selection in 6 was lacklustre. Kiwami 2 addresses this by reintroducing a weapon inventory system—players can now keep the weapons they like and repair them as necessary.
An additional breadth of new weapons has been reintroduced to the series, including the wackier options like lamps and baseballs, or sadistic options like bowling balls and crowbars. Weapons may now even inflict one of four status ailments for Kiryu to exploit to crowd control. It doesn’t entirely remedy the increasingly repetitive combat that 6 introduced—especially in the shadow of yet another Yakuza 0 release weighing the loss of combat styles once again—but it does help freshen it a little. Perhaps, as a remake, a comparison to contemporary Yakuza titles can be considered a little unfair. While lacking the depth that styles introduced, the new combat offers more fluidity over the original 2006 release. Both Kiwami 2 and Yakuza 2 focus more on the actual raw combat over heat actions, but Kiwami 2’s physics brings an extra layer of impact to Kiryu’s attacks.
Often underappreciated, Kiwami 2 continues the series’ trend of great soundtracks—even if it’s sometimes borrowed from the original game. It’s a positive eclectic blend of jazz, metal, and electronica that permeates throughout. Of course, Yakuza’s wailing guitars are present as well. A personal highlight comes in towards the end of the game. The melancholic piano plays out its final moments, joined by a contemplative Spanish acoustic guitar providing the title’s leitmotif. As they crescendo in conflict with one another, an ensemble of strings sweep in to bring extra depth to this last confrontation, elegantly switching between tense and understanding. In the world of Yakuza, throwing punches can serve as a substitute for conversation. The two prideful rivals of Kazuma Kiryu and Ryuji Goda—both represented by the similar dragon tattoos on their back—have their inevitable conversation backed by an entourage of instruments that have come to an understanding with one another, resulting in a brief, harmonized melody that offers no better way to say farewell to Kiryu as our protagonist before its dramatic conclusion.
Yakuza Kiwami 2 is the chorus in Kiryu’s veritable swansong. While not the true ending to his story, returning to Yakuza 2 answers Yakuza 6’s loss and closure with a resounding celebration of Kiryu’s greatest achievements. The pair of titles enhance each other, much in the same way Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami did for each other previously. Together with 6, Kiwami 2 is the final piece that encapsulates Kiryu’s era not with the sad sense of departure, but with the promise of hope for the future. Hopefully, whatever the Ryu ga Gotoku studio has planned can answer this promise faithfully.