The Yakuza series has had a rough time finding a foothold with audiences outside of Japan—until, that is, the success of Yakuza 0. This has placed the latest entry in the series, Yakuza Kiwami, in the rough situation of being more than just a remake to the original Yakuza from 2005 but also, for those players who are new to this universe, an ostensible sequel to Yakuza 0. To its credit, Yakuza Kiwami performs both functions admirably, if not perfectly. One doesn’t have to peel back the 1080p/60fps wallpaper too far to see “Made in 2005” printed garishly on almost every aspect of the game.
Yakuza Kiwami starts out in 1995, eight years after the events of Yakuza 0, with taciturn protagonist Kiryu Kazuma having risen far enough in the yakuza ranks to be on the verge of starting his own family operating out of Tokyo’s red-light district. Those plans get chucked out the windows when childhood friend and fellow yakuza member Akira Nishikiyama kills a yakuza boss who tries to force himself on a dear friend. To protect Akira, Kiryu takes the blame for the murder, goes to prison, and is expelled from his family. When Kiryu gets paroled 10 years later, he finds that Akira has taken control of a family of his own, and has made a major shift from the overeager brown-noser of the previous game to an ice-cold schemer who may be more involved than Kiryu thinks with a series of murders up and down the yakuza chain of command.
What follows is a complex story of deception, betrayal, unrequited love, and, of course, no small amount of that old ultra-violence—a hot-blooded tale of the criminal underworld’s intrigues that’s at war with what’s essentially a nonstop series of surreal carnival games, strangely comedic sidequests from random citizens, and out-of-the-blue street fights. Within a single hour-long stretch of this game, it’s possible to hear a tale of post-traumatic woe from a long-lost friend, beat multiple hoodlums to death with a street sign, get blissfully wasted at a bar, then run off to an arcade to play a version of rock-paper-scissors involving scantily clad women wearing insect costumes. It’s a gameplay loop with absolutely no parallels in gaming, even in Rockstar Games’s lurid CV, and as whiplash-inducing as these tonal convolutions may be, it’s what makes the series stand out from other open-world crime games.
Yakuza Kiwami is a stripped-down, basic version of a winning formula, but there’s no denying it still wins.
But here’s the rub: Yakuza 0 primarily builds off of the gameplay standards of the far less restrained Yakuza 4 and Yakuza 5, while Yakuza Kiwami is inspired by a game of more menial tasks—one that, way back in 2005, wasn’t sure of what the series’s legacy would or could be. As such, it’s understandable that it takes a while for this game to go off the rails, to get away from its self-serious story and let the player cut loose. But Yakuza Kiwami isn’t some 30-hour open-world non-series game with a playable area the size of Los Angeles, as it can be blown through in half that time, and mostly takes place in an area smaller than Times Square. As a result, the shift toward unhinged freedom is far more jarring than one might expect—restrictive and frustrating coming off of Yakuza 0, inconsistent and weird for someone going in brand new, and a strong, sure sign of the original game’s age for anyone else.
Yakuza Kiwami does try to sand down the original Yakuza’s roughness as best as it can. Besides a graphical overhaul and strong localization effort to bring the game into audio/visual parity with Yakuza 0, the game also brings over the prequel’s freewheeling combat system, where players can switch between four different hard-hitting fighting styles on the fly. That 2017 gameplay element, however, is at odds with the innate clunkiness of the original game’s 2005 combat, exacerbated by the fact that many of the bosses absorb enormous amounts of damage no matter what style of fighting Kiryu uses, and can regenerate health, leading to fights that drag on for eye-rolling amounts of time. By and large, though, with so much of the actual story-focused gameplay focusing on Kiryu having to take down random criminals by hand, that the combat system is so versatile is a huge improvement.
The pure uncut crazy that runs through Yakuza Kiwami’s combat and sidequests all culminates with the reintroduction of series favorite Goro Majima, here implemented as a recurring random boss battle. The psychotic one-eyed mob boss still has a strange love/hate relationship with Kiryu: After his stint in prison, Goro decides to help Kiryu get his fighting skills back to top form by playing the part of a homicidal Gene Parmesan, hiding in wait for him at random locations in the city, and all while wearing ridiculous costumes. Goro’s every appearance may be flow-breaking, but there’s no doubt that he injects a shot of hilarity into the often unsmiling proceedings.
It’s hard to not see Yakuza Kiwami like an also-ran in a year where its own polished, forward-thinking prequel has happened, and yet the fact that so much of what makes it unique was there in 2005 shouldn’t be overlooked, nor should the fact that it still feels unique in 2017. This is a stripped-down, basic version of that winning formula, but there’s no denying it still wins.