Yakuza Kiwami (PlayStation 4 Review)
As the koi struggles against the stream, it may eventually pass through the Dragon Gate and become a dragon. Yakuza Kiwami is the follow-up of the recently localized Yakuza 0, but its place within the franchise is interesting. The title is a remake of first entry in the Yakuza series—known as the “Like a Dragon” series in Japan. Despite its origin as a strong, standalone title, Kiwami feels like a necessary response to the prequel.
Following the events that transpired in the prequel, Kazuma Kiryu is now known as the Dragon of Dojima—a living legend now prepared to start his own yakuza family as its patriarch. Those aspirations are lost in a flash of gunfire as his sworn brother, Akira Nishikiyama, murders the Dojima family’s patriarch in cold blood and the protagonist decides to take the fall. Kiryu is sentenced to ten years in prison, returning to the fictional Kamurocho (inspired by the real life Kabukicho in Tokyo) to find little remains of what he left behind. The love of his life, Yumi Sawamura, has gone missing. Nishikiyama is now no longer recognisable; a ruthless, ambitious patriarch, Nishikiyama is seeking to become the head of a clan that oversees all of eastern Japan and is willing to sink anyone in Tokyo bay for it. While attempting to reassemble the pieces of his shattered life, Kiryu becomes tangled in a massive yakuza conspiracy surrounding a missing fortune and the nine-year-old Haruka Sawamura that he must play guardian to.
Until Yakuza 0, fans of the franchise would mostly recall Nishikiyama as a rival and antagonist to Kiryu. The prequel explored the relationship of the pair, as well as Kiryu’s less than humble beginnings. Kiryu—represented by a dragoon tattoo on his back—may already be a legend in Kiwami, but what of Nishikiyama? Baring the tattoo of a koi swimming upstream, Nishikiyama wants nothing more than to become like his sworn brother. Unfortunately, Yakuza games have a tendency towards tragedy and Nishikiyama has a more arduous path to forge his own legacy. Kiwami punctuates each chapter with brand new scenes that examine his transition into the corrupted antagonist he’s been fated to become since the original release in 2005. It’s a sorrowful story, but these new scenes, while short, reframe the original’s story into a tale of his moral downfall—a contrasting, and yet fitting companion to Yakuza 0’s tale of Kiryu’s rise into legend.
With this reframing of the original, Yakuza Kiwami also gets to live up to its name. The kanji in Kiwami means “extreme” and this title more than embraces the lunacy that became a part of the franchise’s identity, much despite its somewhat more grounded origins. The other Yakuza 0 protagonist, Goro Majima, returns as a side character with an entirely new feature dedicated to him. Majima will often attack players who wander freely through Kamurocho, whether dressed up as a policeman, hiding in the boot of a car, or pretending to be a hostess in a cabaret club. The Majima Everywhere feature is where players will develop Kiryu’s trademark style, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. These random encounters can become frustrating and annoying, but the special events are comical while offering glimpses at the man behind the insanity. He’s not quite shaken off the “Lord of the Night” that he was in 0.
Kamurocho isn’t exactly a large setting, but it feels more than large enough. In a series that visits the setting almost every year; Kamurocho is a character in its own right. Kiwami reintroduces the Millennium Tower, a constant landmark in all but the prequel title’s Kamurochos. There are lots of more subtle differences compared to the city in the 80s, and it’s a joy to re-discover in Kiwami’s 1080p. Though, neon lights of Tokyo’s fictional red-light district don’t distract away from the versatile populace found within it. There is a vast amount of substory quests to be found, each often comical in nature. Typically, these will highlight the sillier side of Kamurocho’s underbelly. Kiryu is a silly and outdated character, but Kiwami plays him straight whether for comedy or for drama, and it does it incredibly well.
This juxtaposition actually benefits the title significantly. The main story can be dramatic, tense, and somber, but the gameplay is brutal and ridiculous. The Yakuza series is an action game under the guise of a Japanese role-playing game, or perhaps it’s the other way? There are dungeons, side quests, and random encounters in the middle of the street. In any case, combat is reactive and fast. The focus is often on pummeling a mass of dangerous people into submission, with or without whatever weaponry that can be found at Kiryu’s disposal. These can range from the standard baseball bat and wooden katana, to the more ridiculous mystery drugs and motorcycles. Players will also be able to swap between different forms—each with its own strengths—which may be recognised from the prequel. Mastering these forms is incredibly satisfying. This reviewer recounts an incredibly fast-paced battle with one boss in particular, perfectly weaving in and out between attacks and unleashing a rapid chain of punches before swapping to a more powerful form to exploit the new opening.
Successful actions will result in the Heat gauge building up, allowing Kiryu to unleash a particularly brutal finisher depending on a context. Equipping a pair of pliers will let him pull out someone’s tooth, while standing with his back against the wall will let him use the opponent’s momentum to destroy one of their limbs. These injuries aren’t permanent, much like cartoon violence, and opponents will continue to fight until their health is depleted. Kiryu may also expand on his moveset by leveling up. Some boss fights still suffer from their dated, over a decade-old design, but the increased number of options available to the player will mitigate many of the issues these confrontations had. Ultimately, fights can be challenging but thrilling, and Heat actions manage to feel incredibly rewarding rather than obtrusive.
Outside of battle, players will be able to enjoy what Kamurocho has on offer. The most notable is probably the karaoke—a rhythm game which will find the players witnessing an absurd, dreamlike scene randomly in the middle of the small, private room when performing well. Cabaret clubs are open, and Kiryu can pick up some dates here—even taking them to karaoke should the player wish. The pocket racing minigame from Yakuza 0 makes a return, and players can also go bowling, playing darts, or hit a few homeruns whenever they feel like. Of course, gambling is available too. Kamurocho is an incredibly versatile playground.
Kiwami doesn’t replace the original. The original Yakuza is an interesting retrospective, featuring a somewhat more down-to-Earth depiction of Kamurocho. However, Kiwami serves as a brilliant follow-up to Yakuza 0 in its own right. It was honestly really hard to put down in order to even write this review. Yakuza Kiwami is just an absolute blast.