Kiwami means EXTREME!
I love the Yakuza series. I started with Yakuza 0 when it came out and since then it’s been one of my all time favourite videogames. Everything about the game was and still is just outstanding and I easily ended up putting over 100 hours into the game. Soon after I found out that in Japan they released a remake of the 2005 PS2 original Yakuza using the style system and other assets from 0. The game in question is Yakuza Kiwami, released January last year in Japan but is going to be released overseas in little over a week. Obviously I was hyped that we were gonna get this and pre-ordered it on the spot, however the folks at Deep Silver happily intercepted my plans by giving myself and my cohorts a review code for the game. I was absolutely ecstatic and I couldn’t be more thankful to be able to share my surprisingly early thoughts on the most recent (overseas) release of the series. So just how extreme is this game? Let’s find out.
Like a Dragon
For the sake of not spoiling the plot of a game from 2005 I’ll give the basic setup and my thoughts on the story overall.
You are Kazuma Kiryu, a yakuza lieutenant working under the Dojima Family alongside his loyal oath brother and childhood friend Akira Nishikiyama or Nishiki for short. Kiryu’s a nice enough guy and life’s been going pretty well, he’s close to making his own yakuza family and he’s got a sweetheart in the form of Yumi, another childhood friend. Then one day Kiryu’s boss Dojima decides to kidnap and attempt to violate Yumi, apparently he is known to do this to random women on occasion. Kiryu and Nishiki both make their way to the Dojima family offices but Nishiki gets there first, leaving Kiryu to discover a horrifying scene. Dojima has been shot by Nishiki who saw him trying to force himself on Yumi. Knowing full well what will happen to his oath brother because of his actions Kiryu sacrifices everything to protect him, forcing him and a traumatised Yumi out of the building and taking the blame for the murder.
Kiryu is arrested and expelled from the clan, but as he begins his prison sentence he learns from a subordinate of his that the trauma of the incident has caused Yumi to lose her memory and flee from the hospital that she was taken to. 10 years pass and Kiryu is approved for parole thanks to his good behaviour. However, it isn’t long after he begins his journey that he finds that things have taken a turn for the worse in the 10 years he’s been away. The Tojo Clan, the syndicate behind all the yakuza families in Tokyo, has lost 10 billion yen from their vault. That isn’t the only surprise in store for him though, as Yumi is still missing and Nishiki is now a cold, ruthless and distrustful patriarch of his own family who seeks to become the head of the Tojo Clan by any means necessary. It’s up to the newly released Dragon of Dojima to find out where Yumi has vanished to, what has happened to his old friend, who stole the 10 billion yen and why a young girl is wrapped up in the whole mess.
If you think that setup seems simple enough there’s a reason for it. As the game that started the series the story doesn’t get very complicated but that’s not a problem at all, after all this was the first time a game ever tried to really explore the Japanese underworld in this sort of way. A good story with a few simple, effective twists and emotional moments tossed in here and there is all I can really ask for which is something game does deliver on and more. It’s certainly not as crazy as a few of the later games tend to get in terms of a complex storyline so some people may see that as a plus. As for me personally I enjoyed it but there was definitely a good deal of filler on occasion, with one or two chapters not really serving a purpose in the main story but have their own message and small plot almost as if it was a sidequest. Not that those moments were ever bad mind you, just jarring, and it makes the overall plot feel a bit unfocused as a result. Characters were good, especially Kiryu. As someone who is more used to the aged Kiryu in the later games seeing the younger battle-ready Kiryu is always a plus, especially with the amount of cool pre-ass kicking lines he tosses in this game.
Presentation wise the game looks great, unfortunately I can’t remember too much of the OST that I haven’t already heard from other games in the series. I think they were a bit too faithful to the original music set up, especially since a remix of the song Funk Goes On plays for at least half the time you’re in a fight. The cutscenes they add to justify certain plot elements that were a bit forced in the original are all great, especially the ones concerning Nishikiyama that play between chapters. They also added lines and other things to fit better with the prequel Yakuza 0, and I think it really helps both games to complement each other well. The story overall is not bad, not particularly outstanding, just rather good.
Feel the force
Now it’s time for the longest portion of the review, the gameplay. The best way to begin with this segment is to dispel a surprisingly common stereotype that the series has somehow picked up. Yakuza is not Grand Theft Auto Japan. It does not play even slightly close to GTA. Kiwami’s gameplay revolves around Kiryu exploring Kamurocho, a beautiful looking town based off one of Japan’s red light districts (if the real life brands and stores being used weren’t an indication of that). You’ll be spending your time getting into fights, checking out shops, completing different challenges or missions and playing a substantial number of side games. These side games can range from a batting cage, bowling, going to a hostess club, a coliseum, lots of gambling minigames, karaoke, an intricate Hot Wheels spoof, a weird cat-fighting arcade game etc. A good way to describe it would be an adventure game that has beat-em-up type fights mixed with different RPG elements. Kamurocho is not enormous as Kiryu is able to go from one side of the town to another in no time at all. Don’t take that the wrong way though, there is loads to do in this game and the town is the perfect size for an adventure game of this calibre. It’s a big district, not too small but also not too large. Money gained from fights and sidequests can be used to buy various things from stores, whether it be a meal or two to refill your health, items that can be used to do the same in a pinch, equipment or other accessories. The town is full to max capacity with different well made side games to play either to get items, cash or CP. Completion Points or CP is used to buy various boosts like a longer sprint or special equipment and you get CP from doing basically a bit of everything. Beat a enemy using this, get the high score for this, dine here, fight there and bing bang boom you’ll have loads of CP in no time. It’s something I’m happy they kept from Yakuza 0, since it gives minigames like karaoke or bowling more of a purpose than trophy fodder.
As you progress through plot or get into encounters in the city you’ll be treated to this game’s fantastic fighting mechanics that are simple to learn and not much harder to master. When exploring the town you’ll come across punks who’ll try to run up to you for a fight. You can avoid them by scoping them out on the map and taking a different path or run from them before they get close enough for a fight to initiate. You’ll be able to spot people who want a fight when you start seeing angry red speech bubbles appear on the screen. In a fight Kiryu’s main method of attack is his normal punches thrown with a press of the square button. By pressing the triangle button in the middle of a punch combo will make Kiryu perform a finishing attack that changes depending on how many square presses you’ve done. Finishing blows generally tend to knock most enemies off their feet and deals good damage to boot. You can quickstep in any direction with the cross button and grab enemies with the circle button to either toss them or whack them across the face, though bosses are mostly immune to this tactic. Objects can also be picked up and used when you’re in the right fighting style. All enemies, and Kiryu himself, can’t really defend themselves from back attacks so quickstepping around an attack and hitting the enemy from behind is a good way to guarantee damage without the goon straight up blocking your attack. Kiryu can also block with L1 though this will not stop everything. Weapons in particular are unblockable without the right equipment. This is very apparent with knives and guns, if someone gets hit with one of those then they’re basically on the floor in a couple of hits.
The best and most fun way of bringing the hurt are Heat moves, which do massive damage and knock the enemy onto the ground. As Kiryu deals damage he builds up the gauge below his health bar. When the first bar is full, basic Heat attacks become available. If the right scenario is in play, say you’re holding a kettle that you picked up off the ground, then when the heat meter is full and you’re near an enemy you can perform a Heat attack with the kettle by pressing triangle with the Heat icon on the screen. Every object in the game has a Heat move to go along with it with loads more available when you grab a enemy near specific parts of the environment like poles or walls. You’ll eventually come across even more powerful Heat moves only available in the red Climax Heat mode, which is represented by the chunkier part of the Heat Meter unlocked through upgrades.
One thing I brought up at the very beginning of the review is the Style system, something that was introduced in 0 and brought back here. Kiryu has 4 different styles that he can use the d-pad to swap between on the fly. Think of it as if you’re using 4 different characters in one. There’s Brawler, Rush, Beast and Dragon. Brawler is the basic style and my personal favourite for its strong counterattacks. It can evade decently, has good attack strength and many heat moves up its sleeve. Rush is built for speed and evasion with not much power or many heat attacks. While it can’t grab mooks or pick up objects its weaving ability and consecutive quickstepping will make it hard for foes to hit you. Beast is good for its destructive power and charge attacks but lacks good defensive capabilities or evasion. It can pick up larger objects than the Brawler style and will automatically grab and swing any available object when you attack near one, forgoing the pickup animation. It’s also rather slow, but if you’re in a scenario with lots of mooks and have a bunch of objects available then it is a very good choice. Dragon is the most powerful style in the game with high speed and power but starts off very weak due to reasons I’ll get into later. All in all, you have a plethora of options for every encounter making the style system a great addition to a game over a decade old. It was great in Yakuza 0 and its just as great here. Weapons can also be equipped to make your average set of encounters easier but maintaining said weapons can be a chore, not to mention bosses tend to shrug off swords and guns….somehow. Increasing your strength is a simple matter of using the XP you get from fights and sidequests to increase your move pool, stats and add other special effects to the different fighting styles.
One particular thing you’ll probably run inas you explore are substories, something I’m sure have become infamous in this series after Yakuza 0. Generally known for being extremely silly, these sidequests will have Kiryu go through different scenarios for various rewards though most if not all substories will always give Kiryu a good amount of XP. The only unfortunate thing is that since most of the substories were based off the first game we won’t have anything close to the madness that were the substories in Yakuza 0, since the early mindset for substories were “not to make them too silly”. The new ones they add both to tie into 0 and to have more silliness in there are great additions though
Now let’s talk bad additions. Now you may have noticed this already but this game takes a good chunk of its overall gameplay from the prequel game released before it, mainly because the PS2 original plays radically different from the later games. Even a few boss fights use the movesets of previous bosses in the series and the few minigames that are new to Kiwami are actually minigames from 0 that have been repurposed. Now this isn’t bad whatsoever, I still found myself sinking more hours in than I had planned thanks to the fun gamplay. To, I guess, compensate for the reused assets a couple of new mechanics were added to spruce things up or at least that’s what I presume the intention was. One major one that most people are already familiar with is the Majima Eveywhere system.
Is Majima really Everywhere?
Why, yes he is. As his way of “training the sleeping dragon within you”, Kiryu’s good old eye patch wearing “friend” Goro Majima has begun stalking the poor ex-yakuza 24/7. This information applies to the player as well in one of the most clumsily handled parts of the game. They REALLY wanted to include the popular madman more in the story, since his debut in the original game only consisted of 3 whole appearances. However, instead of forcing him into more cutscenes they decided to create a whole gameplay mechanic based around the character. As I mentioned good bit earlier Kiryu’s Dragon style its utterly useless when he gets out of prison. Most of his moves for said style can only be recovered through fighting Majima. And then fighting him again. And then again. And again. And again. Here’s how it works. There are 3 major ways that Majima will attack Kiryu:
- You can sometimes spot him walking around Kamurocho just like any other encounter so you can avoid him just as well. He has way more peripheral vision than your average set of thugs though but he also gives up rather quickly if you simply run in a different direction.
- He can, and will, simply force you to fight him on the spot. This cannot be stopped and, as far as I’m aware, can happen at any time. Whether its popping out of a manhole, a trash can or simply just appearing behind you in a cutscene, the nutcase will make you fight him multiple times at one point or another. When you’re marathoning the game or just straight up going for optional stuff, this can naturally be a utter nightmare.
- When you’re playing a side activity there’s the odd chance he’ll appear and challenge you in said activity. Generally which one he’ll show up at is hinted at by emails you get from his subordinate.
After a fight with Majima you’ll end up filling the bit of the Majima Everywhere gauge. When its full then Majima’s subordinate will contact you to tell you that he’s vanished to go cosplaying at someplace or other and at this point his location will generally get marked on the map. Now at this point I don’t think Majima will forcibly fight you at all at this point so if you want to leave him there to stew then this is your best chance. If you do go fight him in his new fancy cosplay scenario then you’ll rank up in the sidequest (which goes all the way up to rank SSS) and the gauge will be replaced with a new one. Now you’d think that ranking up would be the only thing you have to do to get more Dragon moves back, but that isn’t the case. There are specific requirments you need to fill at each rank to get more moves, like beating Majima while he’s using this costume at this rank or beating Majima while he’s using this fighting style a certain amount of times or beating Majima at a specific minigame that subordinate directs you to. Losing a fight to him doesn’t have any major consequence, but since you cannot exit a fight once you enter one then that means this fucker will have you trapped with no easy way of escape.
I have, at this time, beaten Majima over 50 times mostly against my will. I am at Rank SSS. I STILL do not have all the Dragon moves I can get from him because what fighting style he uses (out of 4) is random and what costume he wears is also random. Compounding the issue is that if he forcibly makes you fight him then he doesn’t wear a costume at all. If you want to fight him in a specific outfit then you have to fight him when he’s walking around the overworld and that’s if he’s even on the overworld at all OR if he’s even wearing the costume you want to fight him in. If that sounds repetitive and annoying to you, that’s because it VERY MUCH IS. Like I mentioned earlier, Majima has only 4 fighting styles he can use on you. Considering you’ll end up fighting him way more than 4 times that means strategy rarely changes and as far as I’m aware his move pool only slightly increases with each rank up. His health will sure as hell increase though so if you don’t want to deal with Majima as you go through the plot and want to keep him at a weak state then just don’t rank up the Majima Everywhere gauge. That is basically the only way to keep what should’ve been an optional sidequest actually be optional, because again even when you want to ignore him from the start of the game you have no choice half the time.
While I like Majima as a character and find the crazy scenarios he comes up with in the rank up fights hilarious, he should never have been someone that can fight you whenever he pleases. His fights aren’t short by any means, especially at the endgame of the sidequest. I wouldn’t mind if they kept the whole idea of being able to fight him on the overworld and the minigame battles against him aren’t bad at all. His justification for doing all this stuff isn’t as forced as I thought it would be and I like the dialogue you get from him on occasion, generally serving as more references to his role as a protagonist in Yakuza 0. Unfortunately even a date with the “beautiful” hostess Goromi is not enough to justify the utter repetition that his sidequest brings.
However, for boss fights in general we’re sadly not done with the ranting. Every single boss in this game can do one thing exclusive to Kiwami: regenerate their HP. Once or twice in a fight the boss will make a very constipated looking pose and start healing themselves, with the only way to stop them being either to use a Heat move or a special Heat move called the Essence of Kiwami. This sounds simple but it’ll get on your nerves by the endgame. Each fighting style has a Essence of Kiwami move that you have to unlock by using XP. When a boss starts to heal they glow a particular colour that matches the colour of one of the fighting styles. When you’re in the right fighting style, that has a Kiwami move unlocked and you have one Heat gauge full, THEN you can use a special attack to stop the boss as he heals. Thing is, if you don’t have these 3 requirements fulfilled or just simply can’t use a Heat move at that point in time then you’ll have to waste time making sure you can. This means the boss will have ample time to make it so that you either deal only just enough damage to stop the regen from having any effect or you simply will not deal enough to do even that and the boss heals some HP anyway despite your efforts. And even when you are by chance all set to counter the boss’ healing move then its only on the rare occasion you’ll even do that much more damage than if you’d just done a basic Heat move anyway, plus having to waste a Heat gauge on something the game essentially forces you to do isn’t great. This is especially egregious with Majima himself because can regenerate his HP as well, dragging his fights out even longer. All in all, a mechanic that just serves to waste time and not much else.
Feel the power
Yakuza Kiwami definitely lives up to my expectations despite some disappointments here and there. It’s a really good game no doubt, but if you were to ask me “Should I start with this?” then I’d still say start with Yakuza 0 if possible. That’s not just because it’s a favourite of mine but also because this game references 0 a lot and you’ll probably miss out on a good bit if you haven’t played that game first. What I mentioned earlier definitely applies again here, the game has a lot going for it as an expansion of Yakuza 0 and both games complement each other really well. 0 made me really anxious to play this and Kiwami made me really happy I played 0. That’s not saying the game is bad on its own merits, it’s definitely worth every bit of money you spent to get it, especially as it’s not a full price game. If you find a cheaper copy of Yakuza 0 out there definitely play that first and then go play this game but there’s no major reason you can’t play this game first. Of course if you’ve already started the series then definitely get this game. Look out for it on August 29th.