Make no mistake about it: This is a great time to be a Yakuza fan — or, to become a Yakuza fan. Not only did Western devotees receive the Yakuza 6: The Song of Life earlier this year, but they now have Yakuza Kiwami 2 to keep them busy. The latest remake, which completely rebuilds the original PlayStation 2 game using the same engine that brought Yakuza 6 to life, proves that remakes can truly shine when they’re handled with care. Everything about this game is a major improvement over the original, from its graphics, presentation, cutscenes, and intensity to the gameplay and dazzling sense of atmosphere.
Wandering the streets of Kamurocho feels nothing short of amazing; the city teems with people from all walks of life going out their business, which creates a level of immersion that’s honestly better than any of the previous Yakuza titles. It’s an amazing game from top to bottom, and it proves that SEGA has dedicated a lot of time and effort to make this franchise shine on the PlayStation 4. And while I seriously enjoyed how the series wrapped up in The Song of Life, I missed the wackiness and off-the-wall missions found in earlier entries of this series. Yakuza Kiwami 2 doesn’t skimp on the crazy sub stories, which are often better than the main story. In short: it’s a fantastic, engrossing experience and a worthy addition to the franchise. Wow, that’s a lot of hyperbole.
But, of course, I’m getting way ahead of myself. Yakuza Kiwami 2 picks up one year after the events of the first game, which ended with beloved anti-hero Kiryu Kazuma and his unofficially adopted daughter, Haruka, heading off to begin their new lives together. Of course, since this is a Yakuza game, it doesn’t take very long for poor Kiryu to find himself embroiled in yet another tug of war between feuding groups of criminals. When some well-armed men gun down Tojo Chairman Yukio Terada while Kiryu and Haruka are paying their respects in a cemetery, our hero decides the situation is way too serious to ignore. His mission: Rebuild to crumbling Tojo Clan with the help of Daigo Dojima, the son of Tojo Family patriarch Sohei Dojima, whose murder at the beginning of the first Yakuza game changed Kiryu’s life forever.
However, before he agrees to help rebuild the clan, Daigo has one request: He has a score to settle in Osaka. Before long, Kiryu and his hot-tempered sidekick find themselves in a deadly war between the Tojo Clan and the Omi Alliance, a feud that will result in a lot of bloodshed — and, of course, a fair amount of unchecked tomfoolery. Because, Yakuza. You obviously can’t have one without the other.
During his quest to help rebuild the Tojo Clan, Kiryu will partner up with Osaka Detective Kaoru Sayama, a fellow orphan who doesn’t think much of the yakuza or their way of life. For sections of the game, she’ll follow Kiryu as he goes about his business, often helping out whenever a random street fight breaks out (though she won’t join you for any of the sub stories). Over the course of the adventure, she and Kiryu will become closer, especially as she delves into the murder of her parents — who she believes met their fate at the hands of the Tojo Clan. The dynamic between Kazuma and Sayama adds some romantic flair, but it ultimately contributes very little to the story as a whole.
As far as love stories go, this one isn’t particularly well-developed, nor does it dig deep enough for the player to plant a genuine emotional hook. Plus, Sayama is often so high and mighty that you can’t help but feel Kiryu could do much better. If the relationship between Kiryu and his adversaries is more your speed, then Ryuji Goda, the so-called “Dragon of Kansai,” should scratch that itch. After all, he’s easily the best villain in the entire series, simply because he’s so imposing — and his desire to completely erase Kiryu from existence helps a lot, too.
Although I enjoy its intricate plotting and unexpected twists, Yakuza Kiwami 2’s story can get a little convoluted and a bit complicated at times, but that’s just how Yakuza games tend to play out. As someone who’s spent a fair (okay, excessive) amount of time watching old yakuza flicks from the late 60s and early 70s, I’m used to keeping track of all these characters and how they fit into the grand scheme of things. It isn’t easy — especially when there are tons of people to keep track of — but once you’ve spent a few hours with the game, you’ll start to see how these thugs, goons, and miscreants factor into the world.
It’s not impossible to follow, mind you, but when the game begins throwing several characters at you over the course of a single cutscene, keeping track of them all can become a little problematic. Thankfully, some of these minor characters are just that — very minor. And since this is a remake of an older title, you can easily head to the internet to hit up one of the several handy Wikis that can give you some additional info to keep your head above water if you find things are getting a little too deep.
If you find the main storyline doesn’t hold your interest for long periods of time, Yakuza Kiwami 2 gives you more than enough distractions to keep you busy, from running your own hostess club to undertaking bouncer jobs, among many others. And if you just enjoy roaming the streets and beating down any punk (or ill-mannered man) who crosses your path, you can square off against a handful of bosses after you’ve busted your fair share of skulls. And that doesn’t include mainstays like karaoke, SEGA arcade games, and claw machines.
However, if you’re really in the mood for something different, you can play minigames at urinals called “Toylets,” where Kiryu uses the unbridled power of his urine stream to achieve a high school in one of three activities. It’s wonderfully warped and bizarre, especially when our hero powers up right before unleashing his Dragon of Dojima and getting down to business. Unfortunately, you’ll need to keep Kazuma adequately hydrated if you want to come back for more, though the Toylet representative who introduces Kiryu to the game gives him a handy tool that lets him know when his bladder is ready for battle. Reviewing a Yakuza title means you get to write all sorts of silly things.
Even as fun and outrageous as some of those sub stories and distractions may seem, nothing really compares to walking the streets of Kamurocho and Osaka and simply taking in the sights. Yakuza Kiwami 2 is the best-looking installment in the franchise thus far, and it’s worthwhile to simply slow things down and soak in the neon glow. There are tons of advertisements, posters, electric signage, and businesses to gawk at during your journey; it’s almost too much to take in at times. Even if you can’t enter Kamurocho’s premier hot dog eatery, for example, you can still peer through the windows and see others partaking in the iconic American food.
You’ll also find tons of people going about their business as you jump from one quest to another, to the point that you can’t take more than five steps without brushing shoulders with someone — or outright bumping into them. The immersion factor is unreal, and if I didn’t have other games I wanted to play over the next few weeks, I could have easily sunk another dozen or so hours into this world just wasting time. I never wanted to leave.
Naturally, when you wander the streets of Kamurocho and Osaka, you run into people who want to smash your face in. And because you’re Kiryu Kazuma, professional badass, you have more than a few moves in your arsenal to lay waste to each and every adversary that dares step up to the plate. As you progress through the game, your collection of moves becomes even more powerful and diverse. Yakuza Kiwami 2 uses the same leveling system (for better or worse) utilized in Yakuza 6, which allows you to learn moves, upgrade your Heat gauge, unlock social skills, and boost your stats by eating, fighting, and completing sub stories and minigames.
It’s not a perfect system, mind you, and I frequently found myself without a lot to unlock once I’d reached a certain point, but at least it’s not the same one used in Yakuza 0. I don’t have anything wrong against that one on principle, but I’d rather feel like I’m growing Kazuma organically as opposed to throwing a bunch of money at stats and calling it a day. Both systems aren’t ideal, but this one seems to work so much better.
The only sticking point I have with Yakuza Kiwami 2 is the Dragon Engine. While the updated engine makes Kiryu, his cohorts, and their world look nothing short of stunning, it occasionally causes our hero to resemble a stumbling, bumbling buffoon by sheer accident. Watching him bump into elevator doors, slam into windows because I misaligned him with the entrance of an eatery, or shoulder-bump a pedestrian before that person comes into contact with him deflated his heroic status somewhat. Knocking down a half-dozen bad guys and then stumbling stupidly over a traffic cone will make even the hardest of heroes appear clumsy and a little tipsy.
In fact, he frequently looks less intoxicated when he’s several sheets to the wind, which is pretty impressive. These might seem like nitpicks to most people, but when you’re as immersed into the experience as I am, these moments tend to shatter that illusion. Repeatedly slamming into the window of a burger joint because the game doesn’t recognize the door is good for a laugh or two, but think about Kiryu. Think about that poor guy’s ego at that moment.
Needless to say, I thoroughly and wholeheartedly support SEGA’s decision to remake the Yakuza games for the current generation. Seeing Yakuza 2 become Yakuza Kiwami 2, with its improved graphics, additional content (especially the ability to play at Goro Majima during a handful of optional chapters), and attention to plot holes, makes me excited to see what else the developers have in store for fans with Yakuza Kiwami 3, 4, and 5. Right now, this one’s my absolute favorite in the series, outshining Yakuza 6 in terms of story, content, and sheer audacity. I’ve never had so much fun urinating in public bathroom in, well, forever. Even if you strip away the goofiness and sub stories, the story even trumps the other entries — even with the slightly bungled relationship between Kiryu and Kaoru.
That said, I still highly recommend starting with Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami if you’re a newcomer to the franchise. Nothing beats learning about Kazuma and his relationship with this universe than from the beginning, even with the absence of the Dragon Engine. Still, if you want to see the best of what the Yakuza series has to offer thus far, feel free to start here. Just don’t be surprised if you spend a lot of time staring at the Toylets.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by SEGA.
Yakuza Kiwami 2 offers the best Yakuza experience money can currently buy, not to mention a story that wouldn't seem out of place in an old Kinji Fukasaku flick.