The streets of Tokyo are a sight to behold, and in Yakuza Kiwami, the neon lights shine brightly. Kiwami will be available to the public in late August, and offers a complete overhaul of the 2005 PS2 original, bringing the story that started a franchise to gamers both new and old.
Truth be told, there’s nothing better than a remake done well. In Kiwami, re-drawn faces express a tale of crime and corruption with renewed vigor, while modern weather effects paint the sopping wet streets of the fictional Kamurocho district in vivid detail. The PS2 could only muster a world of muddy grays and browns, grinding to a halt to load new data. Kiwami, by comparison, has detail in spades and runs at a slick 60 FPS, with new mini-games, cutscenes and the original story laid out in stunning detail. It may not be as pretty as other modern releases, but Kiwami is one of the best remasters I’ve ever played.
You’re in the shoes of Kazuma Kiryu, a steely gangster sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Re-entering society after ten years, Kiryu rubs shoulders with a population in thrall to the rise of technological advances such as the cell phone, and the modern conveniences these innovations bring. The streets of Kamurocho teem with life, comprised of busy streets and alleyways where diversions lie in wait. After a slow opening, Kamurocho is yours to explore, though Kiwami is best taken at a slower pace.
You’ll want to try your hand at the batting range, timing and whacking a baseball to perfection. You’ll no doubt want to chat up hostesses, play darts, cards, or even indulge a new wacky wrestling game featuring scantily clad girls. Some of these diversions are new while many are old, but they bring into focus what Yakuza is all about: immersing you in a world where the smallest detail matters.
The story, a hard-boiled crime drama featuring a dizzying number of characters, can be pursued at your leisure. New names come quick and fast, but the story is told with so much energy that you’ll want to stick around. Take Shimano, a dollop of Japanese brawn who’ll slice your throat if you mess up his hair cut. Or the stately Kazama, who brings a measure of calm to this oddball world. Then there’s Nishikiyama, the deceptive double-crosser and former friend, who gets additional cut scenes twelve years on to flesh out why he’s so dastardly. Yakuza’s depiction of women is as stuck in the past as its themes of valor and violence, but its male characters are always believable, and wonderfully voiced.
Elsewhere, Kiwami is about the art of the brawl. The streets of Kamurocho are a war zone, and Kiryu can’t go ten yards without some scumbag looking to put his head in a paper bag. Sega has updated the fighting system by using the mechanics laid out in Yakuza Zero – its recent prequel. As in Zero, you can switch between four fighting styles and eviscerate enemies using objects in the world, hurling, pounding and thrashing goons to smithereens. Newcomers expecting Batman: Arkham levels of variety will be disappointed. Combat in Yakuza is functional at best, a distraction at worst, and Kiwami begins to lag when it drags you into extended brawls.
Still, there’s a better feedback loop at play, because you can now improve Kiryu’s abilities using experience points instead of forking out Yen for the privilege. This rewards exploration, but you best stay on your toes: the crafty Majima lies in wait. The “Majima Everywhere” system sees the playable character from Yakuza Zero taunt you at random, with fisticuffs ensuing shortly after. The idea is to remind you to stock up on supplies and upgrade your skills, but when you’re heading off to play a round of cards, it can be annoying to get interrupted by the wide-eyed madman.
Were it only about combat, Kiwami would be less interesting, but the real Yakuza experience involves soaking up this living, breathing world – and taking home a piece of Japan while you’re at it. The small touches are fantastic. The convenience stores, nightclubs and back alleys are detailed, intricate and a joy to behold. For fans of the Far East, Kiwami is a no-brainer, but gaming historians who might have missed this series should jump on board, too. There’s something weighty about feeding the Kiwami disc into your PS4 tray. You boot up the game knowing it’s a slice of history meticulously brought back to life; a treasure-trove of ideas new and old that hold up to scrutiny today.
True, its disparate parts are never best in class (and that’s especially true of combat), but the Yakuza experience is about savouring the broad-brush strokes. Exploring the dense, tight confines of Kamurocho, it’s hard not to get lost in its atmosphere. No one makes games like the Japanese, and the oddball characters that you meet are a constant reminder of this.
Ironically, for a series that was always bigger in Japan, Yakuza is making a big push in the West. Kiwami arrives at a time when the series is saturating the market. Its newly-released prequel is only eight months old, and the next-gen evolution (Yakuza 6) will be out in March of next year. Despite this, Yakuza Kiwami is worth the investment for fans new and old. A huge amount of effort has gone into restoring it, and at a reduced price point of $29.99, it’s an absolute steal.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, which we were provided with.