Sega's Yakuza Kiwami 2 is about history, how it shapes our lives and how its cruel absence can leave an all-consuming void that pulls us to our fates. This remake of 2006's Yakuza 2 acknowledges the potential that history has for pain and heartbreak, but it argues that we live fuller lives when we turn to face the things we've put behind us. It doesn't, then, cheapen the intended swan song for longtime protagonist Kazuma Kiryu in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. By revisiting Kiryu and friends at an earlier point in their story, it fills in the historical blanks for new fans that were brought in by the franchise's resurgence, enriching our understanding of what drives these characters.
In keeping with such themes, it seems apt that looking backward by way of Yakuza Kiwami 2 has strengthened the overall act of playing a Yakuza game. The series, after all, doesn't change much from one entry to the next: Between story beats for a winding gangster melodrama, each game finds Kiryu running around a Japanese city, getting into street fights, playing minigames, and helping bystanders solve problems. But Yakuza 6 was something of a rocky transition for the series, making a lot of concessions in its upgrade to a new game engine. While Kiwami 2 is built on the same engine, there are fewer compromises here. This is a more complete game than its predecessor, bumping up the number of minigames as well as hilarious side stories that contrast Kiryu's stoicism with things like a modeling photoshoot, voice acting, porn tapes, and a fetish for wearing a diaper and being treated like a baby.
Combat, too, is an improvement over that of Yakuza 6. Punches fly faster this time around, and Yakuza Kiwami 2 re-introduces features from earlier games, like a wider moveset and the ability to store weapons. Fights in the Yakuza series are always an over-the-top pleasure, an impossibly dramatic flurry of vicious strikes and thunderous counters from characters who spurt entirely unacknowledged red and blue flames. But to a certain degree, the progression still feels overly slow in an attempt to paper over the repetition of these otherwise satisfying conflicts. Even the most basic moves and the most necessary upgrades are locked behind plot points and level caps.
As much as this is a better, more confident game than Yakuza 6, the series still has plenty of room to grow.
One of this game's improvements, though, was part of the original Yakuza 2. Despite its humanistic outlook, the series all too often treats women as little more than props to be threatened or beaten, a problem exacerbated by Yakuza 6's failure to let women speak much on the game's ostensible themes of parenthood. Kiwami 2 pairs Kiryu for much of the story with Kaoru Sayama, an Osaka cop infamous for her dogged opposition to organized crime. She's one of the game's most fleshed-out characters, not only backing Kiryu up in fights but embodying the main story's themes as she probes her own history, grappling with whether she might sleep easier knowing nothing at all.
The quality of Sayama's portrayal doesn't, unfortunately, preclude other issues. A well-intentioned side story about a trans woman includes pervasive—and seemingly oblivious—deadnaming in the game's text windows. The gears of the main plot turn on a general suspicion of outsiders that, with its portrayal of the antagonistic Korean Jingweon mafia, edges uncomfortably close to xenophobia. The story simply doesn't afford foreigners the same depths of humanity as the locals, characterizing the Jingweon as single-minded fodder so dedicated to savage violence that they can't be dealt with in the same way as more rational, homegrown yakuza.
The Jingweon's lack of development points to a more widespread issue in the game: Apart from Sayama, few characters or factions here get enough of a spotlight to leave an impression. Only villain Ryuji Goda, a blond yakuza who's also from Osaka, is particularly memorable, and even then, it's more for his charisma and wicked sideburns than anything he's actually given to do. There's an obsession here with plot twists that mostly dumps betrayals and revelations on the shoulders of characters who feel half-formed or outright inconsequential. For as much as Yakuza Kiwami 2 is a better, more confident game than Yakuza 6, the series still has plenty of room to grow.